18 January, 2010Issue 11.1Politics & Society

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An Argument From Authority

Alexander Barker

foerFrank Furedi
Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating
Continuum, 2009
256 Pages
ISBN 978-01847064165


Frank Furedi, author of Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is convinced that we have been lulled into a state of collective delusion by the tailors of contemporary educational policy. Like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale who shouts “the emperor has nothing on”, Furedi sees it as his mission to wake the rest of us from our conformity.

Wasted brings an overwhelming barrage of quotations to support the thesis that we are spoiling the current generation of students by using education to push social objectives and by focus excessively on students’ motivation and happiness. Furedi’s argument, as such, amounts to a full-scale denunciation of what has come to be known as “child-centred pedagogy”. Yet, on closer analysis, his diagnosis appears tenuous, and his suggested alternative of a return to academic subjects fails to convince.

The need to keep pace with technological change, the theory of multiple intelligences, the advent of new curricula for “happiness” and “citizenship”; all are indicted as the sources of educational malaise. In each case, education’s purview is extended beyond academic subjects, and in each case, Furedi argues, this extension is ultimately self-defeating. “When education becomes everything, it ceases to be education.”

Furedi’s argument is implicitly based on two premises. Firstly, education is only effective when the teacher possesses authority, when she is understood to be superior to the child. Secondly, only an academic subject endows the teacher with authority, for without this grounding in the wisdom of generations, the teacher becomes a mere “facilitator” with nothing substantial to contribute to students. Each pedagogical innovation, Furedi shows, robs the teacher of authority, and in doing so, undermines its own effectiveness.

As an example of this erosion of teacherly authority, Furedi cites the use of class time to teach subjects like environmentalism, sexual health, and citizenship, a practice that attempts to solve societal problems by inculcating children with new values their parents might not share. As Furedi observes, “Frequently education is used as the site where the unresolved issues of public life can be pursued.” Yet this involves telling children, as environmentalist Jonathan Porrit has, that “your parents and grandparents have made a mess of looking after the earth.” For Furedi, adult authority is indivisible; undermining the authority of parents in the eyes of children can only result in diminishment of teachers’ authority. Children will grow cynical, and even the values the system teaches them will not take root.

Rather than advocate the use of education as a means to a social end, other theories seek to redefine its merit. The theory of multiple intelligences, for example, proposes that schools should not concentrate exclusively on competence in academic subjects. Similarly, the recent phenomenon of “happiness classes” expands schools’ responsibility beyond the cultivation of students’ intellects to the fostering of their psychological well-being. Furedi fears that this promotion of non-academic curricula will translate into a demotion of academic subjects. Since academic subjects embody the knowledge of past generations, putting them on par with non-academic subjects effectively rejects the authority of existing society. Yet for Furedi this authority is a necessary condition of education in the first place.

Other theorists place great importance on the fact that society is changing rapidly and that we must keep pace. For these theorists, “educational policies can only be justified if they can keep up with or adapt to change”. But Furedi argues that if we ask education to prepare us for a particular technological situation, technology will quickly move on, and the contents of our education will grow outdated. Academic subjects, on the contrary, face no such problem, for they are timeless.

In each of these three cases—the instrumentalisation of education, the attention to non-academic aptitudes, and the emphasis on adaptability—the activity of education is redefined as broader than the transmission of academic knowledge for its own sake. And in each case, Furedi argues that the extra aims loaded onto education destroy not only the possibility of their own fulfilment but also that of the original academic curriculum.

Given the seriousness of Furedi’s indictment of current educational theory, it is surprising that the great majority of his evidence is composed of anecdotes and newspaper stories—if not mere headlines. Though his subject of investigation is one of the most measured sectors of contemporary society, Furedi includes virtually no statistical evidence to support his statements. It is therefore rather difficult to evaluate his narrative. His two implicit premises, to begin with, do not seem self-evident. Yet in basing his arguments upon them, Furedi avoids true confrontation with his opponents, for it is the truth or falsehood of these very premises which is at stake between traditional humanism and child-centred pedagogy.

His assertion that authority is indispensable to teaching, for example, is the subject of deep disagreement. An extended engagement on this issue would have been fascinating and instructive; however, it would also have been based on empirical research. The premise that only academic subjects endow the teacher with authority, too, is asserted without supporting evidence. Furedi leans heavily on the thought that adult authority is indivisible—yet the debate as to whether children can differentiate between parental and pedagogical authority remains open. Given that Furedi portrays himself as the small child who spots the emperor’s nudity, there is an irony in his inability to stomach the thought of letting children realise that adults do not have all the answers.

More disappointing than Furedi’s lack of evidence is his careless conceptual work. He suggests that teaching a child something their parents do not know dangerously undermines the parents’ and, in the long run, the teachers’ authority. Yet taking this charge seriously would reduce schools to repeating the homespun wisdom parents have already taught their offspring—teaching them nothing they do not already know.

At another point, in attacking advocates of teaching the skill of adaptability, Furedi fails to settle the ambiguity between two sorts of “change”. Change can either mean a one-off shift, from the dominance of one technology to the dominance of another, or it can refer to a state of continuous flux, a situation essentially characterised by uncertainty. When advocates of adaptability invoke rapidly changing society as an impetus to revise the curriculum, they refer to the latter sense of change. They do not mean that a specific new technology is arriving, and that schoolchildren must be trained to use it, but that the world constantly sees the arrival of new technologies, and that schoolchildren should be taught to deal with novelty as such. Furedi’s objection to teaching adaptability—that any particular technology will soon fall out of date—rests on a misunderstanding of what sort of change is thought to necessitate adaptability.

The final frustration is Furedi’s “liberal-humanist” solution. He insists that education should be valued for its own sake, but without an account of what education is it is unclear what this entails. He often repeats that it is a “transaction between generations”, but the ramifications of this view are obscure, and its connection with his emphasis on academic subjects underdeveloped. Having held his opponents accountable to the practical implications of their policies, he offers little more than a vague and elusive sketch of his ideals.

Robust and persuasive defences of the academic curriculum do exist. In devoting so much space to showing why current education isn’t educating, however, Furedi suggests merely that non-academic curricula are ultimately unteachable, and fails to persuade that academic subjects are worth teaching. “The experience of the past indicates that the goals assigned to education work best when they correspond to prevailing sentiment and experience”, he writes. But while we may grant that it is easiest to teach according to prevailing sentiment and experience, we are still entitled to ask whether it is worthwhile.

Furedi’s vision recalls the joke where a drunk is looking for his keys late at night under a streetlight—not because he lost them there, but because where he lost them it is too dark to see.

Alexander Barker is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Lincoln College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.