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The Devil’s Own Education System

October 13, 2007

I’m far too busy marking 120 tests to write a blog entry this weekend. So instead I thought I’d borrow something from somebody else. “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” was written by C.S. Lewis in 1959. In it a senior demon outlines plans for luring more souls into Hell. These plans include some changes to England’s education system outlined in the extract below. I leave it to you to judge how far we teachers are now doing the work of the Devil.

“…In that promising land [England] the spirit of I’m as good as you has already become something more than a generally social influence. It begins to work itself into their educational system. How far its operations there have gone at the moment, I would not like to say with certainty. Nor does it matter. Once you have grasped the tendency, you can easily predict its future developments; especially as we ourselves ill play our part in the developing. The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be ‘undemocratic’. These differences between the pupils-for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences–must be disguised. This can be done on various levels. At universities, examination must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power to profit by higher education or not. At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to do things that children used to do in their spare time. Let them, for example, make mud-pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have–I believe the English already use the phrase ‘parity of esteem’. An even more drastic scheme is not impossible. Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma- Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind. The bright pupil remains democratically fettered to his own age-group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coaevals’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON THE MAT.

In a word we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish. The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers – or should I say, nurses? – will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us…”

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9 comments

  1. How did I miss that one? It’s depressingly priceless.


  2. I give you, in reply, the wonderful Ted Wragg

    http://www.ncsl.org.uk/onlinecommunities/extractedlearning/comms-extracted-wragg.cfm

    Buy his book education education education: it helps shine a light even now …


  3. I used to read Ted Wragg in the TES. He was always the first to argue that the education establishment was basically sound and the only problem was politicians and inspectors who had silly ideas about making sure the kids were actually learning.

    Like most teachers I have very little respect for how this is done. 99% of political initiatives and OFSTED inspections are a waste of time. However, they are a waste of time because they change nothing, not because change isn’t needed.


  4. To me, the main reason for bright students to learn nothing is that the assessment regime demands that students know only-this-and-not-anything-more in order that they may answer questions at the required level of detail (e.g. as close to precisely none as possible).

    I think that teachers are perfectly capable of teaching important and noble things, behaviour permitting, it is simply that to do so is to disregard the exam and to disregard the exam is to not teach. It’s not about knowledge, it’s about being prepared for the exam.

    This comes from the perspective of an A-Level teacher.


  5. http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/mortarboard/2007/10/same_difference.html

    “I turned to the party leaders’ conference speeches for some clues on where the big differences might lie. David Cameron pretty much said there weren’t any. He referred to a speech from the schools secretary, Ed Balls, which – as he put it – “I could have given myself about standards, about rigour, about discipline”. Cameron likes: setting, stretch for the most able, city academies and phonics. That sounds just like Gordon Brown’s wish list.”

    Is ‘stretch’ the answer?


  6. If Saatchi buys messy beds then surely mud pies are an equally valid medium of artistic expression. You’re so modernist!!! And what did this old 1950s duffer “C.S. Lewis” ever contribute to the education of children??? Right I’m off to prepare a lesson on spitting for some year 10s.


  7. Despite state education being officially rubbish and all over the news Andrew has been too slack to write an article. I have, in his absence, written a list of rehashed theories in an attempt to explain why our schools are so pony. My report can be found at the above blog. I am an unqualified cover teacher so my opinions are, of course, totally worthless.


  8. This is staggering. It’s years since I read “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” and I had no idea Lewis had written so effectively on this topic 50 years ago.

    One of my jobs is to advise students returning to education and preparing to go to university. For some, it’s a wonderful opportunity and for others a shameful waste of their time and resources which they mostly undertake to avoid work and to please their parents.

    Why should 50% of the population study for a degree? Who decided such a high figure? It’s not the result of research or careful tuning, but the whim of a politician. Trying to attain this goal is damaging to universities and to the students who don’t belong there.


  9. Why should 50% of the population study for a degree?
    Because the more numbers (of people) show up in HE, the higher the GDP goes. It makes the gummint look good. What other reasonable reason could there be? The same applies to the lunacy of raising school-leaving age to 18. After that, it’ll simply become illegal to be NEET: monitored and tagged by Big Brother from cradle to grave.



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