Archive for January, 2011


More about those Bad Ideas

January 31, 2011

In my last few posts I discussed the idea that education should be for the following purposes:

All are desirable outcomes of the process of being educated, but as I explained, if any of them is made into an explicit aim for education then it can distract from, replace, or distort the actual purpose of education, which is to make children smarter. For this reason I have been describing the problems with each of these aims individually, and looking at some recent instances of each aim in contemporary discussion of education. However, I do not wish to suggest that any of them are new ideas rather than features of educational debates going back many decades, perhaps even centuries. Nor do I wish to suggest that each aim appears only individually as a distinct call on the education system.

In practice, the above three ideas often appear together, wherever there is an intention to move education away from the academic. Often little distinction is made between them, so, for instance, attempts to improve children’s self-esteem or teach them social skills, are simultaneously about making children virtuous, happy and suited to their future place in society. A porridge of non-academic aims for education are often a feature of education debate, and contemporary initiatives in education.

Such a morass of aims was the basis of the Every Child Matters (ECM) framework that was forced on schools from 2003 onwards. This listed five vague aims for schools, demanding students:

Stay Safe
Be Healthy
Enjoy & Achieve
Make a Positive Contribution
Achieve Economic Well-Being

The details indicated just how absurdly non-academic these aims were. Under ECM schools were told that their responsibilities included outcomes such as ensuring children were “enjoying good physical and mental health”, “getting the most out of life” and “being involved with the community and society and not engaging in anti-social or offending behaviour”. Now, none of these are bad. None of these are things that schools should be indifferent to in their culture and ethos. However, none of these are what schools are there for and so any attempt to build these into the curriculum or inspect these as if they were the aim of schooling can only distract from the actual purpose of schools: educating children. The net result of such initiatives was not that these aims were better met, but that schools had to produce paperwork showing how they were deliberately trying to meet aims which cannot be seen simply by looking at the curriculum and academic performance.

This multiplication of aims then fed into the various new national curriculums that followed. The new secondary school curriculum declared:

“The National Curriculum has three statutory aims. It should enable all young people to become:

  • successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve
  • confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives
  • responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society.

These statutory aims should inform all aspects of teaching and learning and be the starting point for curriculum design.”

Further guidance can be found here.  We see that the second aim means that it is intended that students:

have a sense of self-worth and personal identity

relate well to others and form good relationships

are self-aware and deal well with their emotions

have secure values and beliefs and have principles to distinguish right from wrong

become increasingly independent, are able to take the initiative and organise themselves

make healthy lifestyle choices

are physically competent and confident

take managed risks and stay safe

recognise their talents and have ambitions

are willing to try new things and make the most of opportunities

are open to the excitement and inspiration offered by the natural world and human achievements.

Which could not be more clear about the extent to which moral and emotional matters have become part of the curriculum.

The third aim is quite explicitly about fitting students for their role in society, and the guidance indicates the intention that students:

are well prepared for life and work are enterprising

are able to work cooperatively with others

respect others and act with integrity

understand their own and others’ cultures and traditions, within the context of British heritage, and have a strong sense of their own place in the world

appreciate the benefits of diversity

challenge injustice, are committed to human rights and strive to live peaceably with others

sustain and improve the environment, locally and globally

take account of the needs of present and future generations in

the choices they make

can change things for the better

With aims such as these in the curriculum, almost any classroom activity beyond the explicitly harmful could be justified by claiming that it has an effect on the emotions and upon attitudes. Within the last few years the purpose of the education system has been obscured to the point where schools, particularly schools facing inspection, simply didn’t know what they were meant to be doing.

Fortunately, this has now been recognised and the education secretary recent white paper aimed to prune the miscellaneous aims of ECM. He told the Education Select Committee the following about ECM and its five aims:

…As a statement of five things that we’d like for children [t]hey are unimpeachable-gospel, even. But the point I would make is that in a way, they are what every teacher will want to do. I haven’t met many teachers who say, “I want my children to be unhealthy,” “I’m going to put my children at risk,” “I’d like them to have a horrendous time and fail at school,” or “I’d like them to be negative and unemployed.” Teachers naturally reflect those priorities. As a list, as Ian says, amen to that, but I don’t think you need a massive bureaucratic superstructure to police it. What I do think you need to do is give teachers a bit more freedom to make it live in their own environment.

Now having discussed at length what the aim of education shouldn’t be, and shown how badly lost we have got, we still need to discuss what the aim should be, and what kind of teaching would best achieve it. I will return to this in a few weeks time.


Bad Ideas About the Aim of Education #3: Fitting Children to their Future Role in Society

January 24, 2011

In this post I identified a number of aims of education which can distract from the academic aim. Here I discuss one of them.

The philosopher Michael Oakeshott identified the following as the main assault on education:

…the belief that “relevance” demands that every learner should be recognised as nothing but a rote-performer in a so called social system and the consequent surrender of learning (which is the concern of individual persons) to “socialisation”; the doctrine that because the current here and now is very much more uniform that it used to be, education should recognise and promote this uniformity. …And although this may seem to be very much a matter of doctrine, of merely how education is thought about and spoken of, and to have very little to do with what may actually go on in a place of learning, it is the most insidious of all corruptions. It not only strikes at the heart of liberal learning, it portends the abolition of man.

Oakeshott (1975)

He distinguished this (in Oakeshott 1972) from the idea that society depends on its members being, in some way, educated or the idea that the qualities of educated people may be useful in achieving social purposes.

The view that schools are there to enable students to fulfil their allotted function in later life has led to a number of unfortunate trends. Firstly, it has led to schemes to mould students to fit a particular model of civic engagement. I described here how teachers who know nothing about politics, elections or democracy were left to teach about politics, to run (and usually fix) elections and administer ridiculous parodies of democratic institutions such as student councils. It doesn’t create civic engagement, it may even deter it, but worst of all it takes academic time out of the curriculum, and students out of classes, in order for the worthless experience to take place. I am not denying that there is a place for students to learn about democracy, but why not teach them the history of their own political system in history lessons as opposed to teaching them about Nazi Germany six or seven times in their school career?

The second trend, and this one has a long history behind it, is vocational education. On the face of it, it doesn’t immediately seem an inappropriate aim of education. It is perfectly sensible for people to train for careers. Nobody can really doubt that careers require some training. Some careers, such as medicine or law, are so demanding that it is only reasonable that people who intend to go into them begin studies directly relevant for this career while they are at university, even if this may pollute the academic purity of a university education. Equally hard to doubt, is that some of the skills which quite legitimately form part of one’s education, like literacy, numeracy and the use of ICT, are as useful in the workplace as in the place of learning and failures to educate students in these respects can legitimately be seen as economic issues as well as educational ones.

The problem, as ever, is in the extent where the vocational aim intrudes upon the academic one. The best place for most vocational learning is the workplace. Where training is likely to involve a certain amount of theory, or where training is practical but there is insufficient capacity in the workplace for it, then highly specialised institutions of higher and further education are also appropriate. It is not clear, and it has never been clear, what role if any schools need to play in the endeavour. Wolf (2002) describes a succession of policy disasters in vocational education. Huge bureaucratic attempts to regulate what cannot be regulated, to formalise the most informal types of training, and to create qualifications that nobody actually wants. Doubt is thrown on the ability of the government to create desirable vocational qualifications and an argument against vocational education in schools can be made on those grounds alone: that no vocational qualification put into schools is likely to be worth doing. Since this analysis was written, the general trend has continued, vocational qualifications have remained undemanding, undesirable, second class qualifications. The only change has been that more and more students are being forced to do them as a result of them being given an overinflated value in school league tables.

Even if there wasn’t a demonstrable record of failures in vocational education policy, there are grounds for wondering if our current school system could ever hope to provide decent vocational education.

“For many jobs (and most office ones) the best vocational education is an academic one; but this is not universally true. The old crafts in particular have not vanished from the occupational scene. Plumbers, hairdressers, electricians, thatchers, upholsterers and bricklayers remain as important as ever. Moreover while openings for skilled manual workers in industry have fallen dramatically, this is not the same as vanishing.”

Wolf (2002)

This describes a situation where most vocational education that a school could provide is inferior (even for gaining work) to an academic education, and the types of vocational education that are most desirable are those practical skills which are least convenient to teach in schools.

The final problem with socialisation as an aim of education is the effect that it has on existing academic subjects. Academic subjects lose some of their ability to expand the mind if they are not allowed to transcend the concerns of life as students either currently live it, or are expected to live it when they leave school. Language teaching ceases to be about understanding the structure of grammar, experiencing a whole new literature or culture and becomes about practical examples of verbal communication like booking a hotel room. Maths ceases to be an exercise in applied reasoning or mental discipline and becomes a series of algorithms carried out on a calculator. History ceases to be a way to transcend the world as you know it by entering the past and becomes just a litany of illustrations of contemporary issues. The aim of making a subject more suited to socialising students into society or the workplace is often the easiest excuse for dumbing-down the curriculum so as to consist only of the mundane, the accessible and the familiar, instead of actually broadening horizons. Worse still, appeals to the unpredictability of what skills will be needed in the workplace of the future can be used as an excuse for ignoring any substantive content at all and downgrading the very concept of knowledge. This is excuse for dumbing down is the basis of the popular Shift Happens video and the (less popular) film “We are the People We’ve been Waiting For“.

The final problem is that attempts to adjust children to fit a particular social role are likely to encourage politically motivated projects. It is an excuse for children to be taught particular political views, or (and this can be even worse) an excuse for scrutinising teachers to prevent them teaching their political views. In current debate the former seems to be the vice of the political left and the latter the vice of the political right (although I accept that this is less clear if you see racism as “a political view” like any other and an objection to openly racist teachers to be a political, rather than a moral, stance). Worse, education as socialisation also encourages policy makers to try and reshape society directly though education, not simply by making society more educated, but by educating people according to views about what role people of their class, race, ethnicity or background should play in society. Whether it is an attempt to limit the aspirations of the better off for reasons of equality, or to limit the opportunities of the worst off for reasons of prejudice, it is harmful to education. Nobody should be told that a good education is unsuitable for people with their particular background. Education should not be destroyed from the left for being an unfair privilege for the advantaged, or from the right as a way of keeping the disadvantaged in their place. Education should be seen as a public good not a means to a political end.


Oakeshott, Michael, Education: The Engagement and its Frustration, 1972

Oakeshott, Michael, A Place of Learning, 1975

Wolf,  Alison, Does Education Matter?, 2002


Bad Ideas About the Aim of Education #2: Improving Emotional Well-Being

January 17, 2011

In this post I identified a number of aims of education which can distract from the academic aim. Here I discuss one of them.

A less traditional aim for schools is what Furedi (2009) described as “the unhappy turn to happiness”. This covers those objectives related to the happiness and emotional well-being of students. Again, nobody can object to the idea that schools should enhance rather than decrease the happiness of students.  However, if explicitly adopted as an aim in education then it creates a situation where anything can potentially get into the curriculum with no more justification than the belief (often on little evidence) that it will make students happier, or at least less unhappy. So, for example, one Scottish school is reported to have introduced yoga to the curriculum.

In 2007 it was reported that Lord Richard Layard, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, had argued that schools need to give lessons in happiness, following a pilot scheme in PSHE lessons at Wellington College (whose headteacher Anthony Seldon can often be seen in the media pushing progressive education in one form or another). This has also been identified as part of the SEAL program. However, teachers do not dictate the emotions of other people and attempts to do so are likely to distract from education and distort the relationship between teachers and students (or just be a ridiculous waste of time like this lesson here).

Efforts to promote emotional well-being do not end with direct efforts to make people more happy, they can also attempt to “treat” psychological difficulties. Ecclestone and Hayes (2009) identify the concept of “therapeutic education”  as “any activity that focuses on personal emotional problems”.  SEAL, circle time, Philosophy For Children and nurture groups are identified as attempts to provide amateur therapy in schools. It is suggested that, as well as being a distraction from academic aims, this is harmful in a number of ways as “therapy culture” where every human being is seen as diminished and suffering, is based on false assumptions about human beings. It labels children and families as problematic. Combined with the “emotional orthodoxy” of correct feelings, therapeutic education can identify certain groups such as boys, and particularly working class boys, as inherently disordered. Victimhood and emotional weakness are celebrated and teachers are encouraged to infantilise themselves by talking about their own feelings. Worst of all the myth (discussed here and here) that “low self esteem” is at the root of most personal problems is promoted and used as an excuse to spoil children.

A number of objections can be raised to attempts to explicitly promote happiness in schools. Furedi (2009) complains that some of these approaches are “not teaching but the programming of children” and are an “intrusive and coercive project”. If the traditional role of teachers as an authority to be obeyed was dictatorial, then the new role of a teacher as a controller and manipulator of emotions is downright totalitarian. Under a system of rules children may have to outwardly conform, but their private thoughts, feelings and opinions are their own. With therapeutic education this territory is now under the supervision of the authorities. The teacher who seeks to manipulate children through control of their emotional life (see Spark (1950) for an inspired novel exploring this idea) is a worse threat to freedom than the teacher who is merely authoritarian.

A further issue is the extent to which the concern with happiness may be used to directly undermine learning. According to Furedi (2009) “supporters of the therapeutic turn often communicate an anti-academic sensibility” and gives a number of historical and contemporary examples of objections made to academic challenge or formal learning based on the idea that it will harm, stress or depress students.  There is no reason to assume that learning will always be a pleasurable experience. As Oakeshott (1975) pointed out, “nobody [goes] to school in order to enjoy the sort of happiness he might get from lying in the sun” and there are a number of good reasons for this.

Firstly, it is not always the case that what students are best advised to learn is interesting to them. Attempts to change the curriculum to make it more interesting are always doomed to undermine learning because what children find interesting is not necessarily worth learning:

“And who in his senses would say that children should go to school to engage in interesting activities (however effortfully undertaken and however well executed eventually) such as hair-pulling, paper-flicking, ink-slinging, bullying, chair-banging teacher baiting … and so on? Again, what about all the trivial sorts of things which children show occasional interest in, such as wiggling their ears, standing on one leg, making themselves go cross-eyed, poking blotting paper into ink bottles or sticks into cracks in floors …? And what about the stereo-typed and boringly derivative occupations which seem to make up the whole impoverished gamut of some children’s interests? ; the apparently endless stream of battle pictures criss-crossed with never-fading tracer bullets and explosions labelled ‘Boom!’ and ‘Pow!’; the continual chatter about football, television, pop records; the comic-reading and gum- chewing; the pushing and shoving and all the pointless, tedious, repetitive, and often blindly stupid or unkind things which children do, apparently, with great interest? Is this what they should go to school for, just for going on to do these ‘with interest’? I remember vividly a boy who, on his first visit to the swimming baths with a class, ran straight up to the deep end, jump in and sank solidly to the bottom. He was chock-full of interest and as a result of ‘following’ it he very nearly drowned.” (Wilson, 1971)

Not only are less interesting subjects often the ones most worth knowing about, but also, as I have argued before, learning is hard work.  Effort is obviously required. As Willingham (2009) explained, with reference to cognitive psychology, thinking is difficult: “unless the cognitive conditions are right we will avoid thinking”.  Not only is there effort involved in learning, but it is not always a boost to self-esteem. The ignorant often have an over inflated opinion of their own expertise. According to Kruger et al (1999) the mere act of increasing one’s competence at an activity can cause one to recognise one’s limitations. Teachers often have to bring home to students how weak they are and how little they know. This is not always pleasant, but it is often necessary. Protecting the self-image of the ignorant and the contentedness of the lazy may well be incompatible with academic progress. The claim that lessons should always be pleasurable is one that implies that entertainment, rather than learning, has been accepted as the expected result of teaching.

There is evidence that goes even further towards suggesting a disconnection between effective learning and happiness. I say this more to be provocative than as a serious suggestion, but there are grounds to think that strong negative emotions can aid memory. Willingham (2007) describes a number of experiments carried out that demonstrate that emotion aids memory, many of which involve negative emotions. In one experiment subjects better remembered the details of a story involving graphic pictures of surgery if they are told the images are real rather than staged. In another experiment, more details were remembered from a slide show when the narration accompanying it told a depressing story rather than a happy one. Most remarkably of all, subjects who were asked to memorise a list of thirty-five words remembered them better if they were immediately followed by a distressing video of oral surgery rather than a tedious video about brushing teeth. While I’m not suggesting that any of this provides the basis of a teaching method in which we terrify and depress our students in order to get them to remember what they have been taught (although frankly I’d still rather do that than groupwork), it certainly suggests that we most certainly do not need to be content to learn effectively and we should be sceptical of anyone who suggests that we do.

Finally, there is a wider ideological issue. Attempts to promote happiness are often based on the ideas of “positive thinking” and “positive psychology”. Ehrenreich (2009) surveyed many examples of “positive thinking” and identified many examples of mysticism, pseudo-science and attempts to blame unfortunate people for their own unhappiness (an animated version of her ideas can be found below). There are concerns in life that are more important than one’s happiness. We shouldn’t learn to live happily with injustice, we are entitled to, and have a duty to, be angry at it. In the long term we may even be happier for having been dissatisfied with the world as it was, rather than cheerfully accepting it as it is. The hedonistic belief that it is better to seek happiness than justice is selfish and should not be encouraged in the next generation.


Ecclestone, K. and Hayes, D, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, 2009

Ehrenreich, B. Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, 2009

Furedi, F. Wasted – Why Education isn’t Educating , 2009

Kruger, J. and Dunning D, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol. 77, No. 6, 1999

Oakeshott, Michael, A Place of Learning, 1975

Spark, M. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1950

Willingham, Daniel T., Cognition,  2007

Willingham, Daniel T., Why Don’t Students Like School,  Jossey-Bass, 2009

Wilson, P.S. Interest and Discipline In Education, Routledge And Kegan Paul, 1971


Bad Ideas About the Aim of Education #1: Developing Character

January 10, 2011

In this post I identified a number of aims of education which can distract from the academic aim. Here I discuss one of them.

The least harmful, and the most traditional, extension of education beyond the purely intellectual is that of educating children in the moral virtues. A virtue is “a trait of character that is to be admired; one rendering its possessor better, either morally, or intellectually, or in the conduct of specific affairs” (Blackburn, 1994).  From this definition it is clear that education, as I described it earlier, has a role in instilling the intellectual virtues into children. Other virtues, particularly the moral virtues, have also traditionally been regarded as part of the province of education. Schools help form attitudes and so it makes sense to consciously seek to ensure that those attitudes are appropriate and this is what it means to talk of a school having an ethos. My complaint is not that schools shouldn’t seek to build character in its students. My complaint is about what happens when it is believed that developing virtues can become a formal part of the curriculum; that we can have lessons in “goodness” or at least in “not being bad” or that we can distort academic disciplines in order to fit a moral agenda. I object to the idea that education should be a process of deliberate moralisation rather than simply an activity which is to be carried out morally.

A constant pressure to burden education with new moral purposes occurs due to those situations where a politician, or other opinion former, becomes concerned about an issue in society but can’t think of anything to do about it. In the absence of a clear and effective policy that deals with it directly they will jump on the idea that it should be a responsibility of the education system to preach against it. So for instance when Harriet Harman became concerned about domestic violence, she declared that:  “We have to work to change attitudes in order to eliminate violence against women and girls and to make it clear beyond doubt that any form of violence against women is unacceptable” and proposed teaching this in schools. When ex-Eastenders star Brooke Kinsella was appointed as a government adviser on knife crime she was soon to be seen doing the media circuit declaring: “You know, in schools we have drug awareness and sexual health awareness and I don’t see why we can’t have some kind of knife and gun crime project that’s part of the curriculum.”

The belief is that any social problem that comes down to human behaviour is amenable to intervention by schools. No doubt there is truth in the claim that it is better for issues to be discussed in school than ignored. Contemporary concerns might well be appropriate subjects for an assembly or for discussion if they are touched on in by the content of, say, an English or history lesson. The problem is that it is believed that the academic curriculum itself is a suitable medium for changing attitudes. This is often the underlying mistake of some of the content of nonsense subjects such as PSHE and citizenship. The idea is that schools are the churches of the secular age, that they are a place where teachers get an unobstructed chance to preach to a willing congregation looking for moral guidance. However, even priests and ministers are likely to find that their congregations don’t obey their every word of guidance, and church congregations, by their very nature, consist of people who have chosen to come and listen to sermons.

Schools do shape attitudes, but they shape them by living them. If a school enforces rules against racist behaviour then they pass on the attitude that racism is unacceptable. If schools organise church services and prayer then they pass the idea on that religious adherence is to be encouraged. If schools punish violent behaviour with some severity and urgency then they pass on the message that violence is wrong. But this is a matter of schools behaving in accordance with their own values, not evangelising for the values of politicians and opinion formers. Without a strong belief in the value of education, a strong professional ethos among teachers, and schools with a clear mission and ethos, then any attempt to pass on values will simply pass on platitudes and fashionable ideas while simultaneously passing on all the wrong values through the culture of the school. (This was described here.) Additionally, even though I have argued before that teachers need to uphold ethical standards, I would also emphasise how acutely embarrassing it is for teachers to be expected to act as moral arbiters who dictate the correct attitudes for their students.  I am happy to preach about the intellectual virtues of my subject. If I worked in a church school of the appropriate denomination, I could probably just about stretch to expressing approval of piety, but the idea of passing on a list of approved attitudes and moral beliefs would make me cringe with embarrassment, particularly if it was about some sensitive issue, like, for instance, sexual harassment:

Vodpod videos no longer available.


Blackburn, Simon, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1994


Why it is Annoying to Discuss Teaching Methods

January 3, 2011

For some time now I have been planning to discuss teaching methods. In particular I hope to identify which of the many ideas pushed to teachers are worth avoiding. However, any discussion of a worthless teaching method tends to suffer from a constant moving of the goalposts. So for instance, if an education expert were to recommend that students learn best by spending the first fifteen minutes of every lesson picking their noses (only marginally sillier than APP and actually more plausible than Brain Gym) then the discussion would go something like this:

Expert: The latest scientific evidence from the new science of mind and brain shows us the effectiveness of nose-picking as a method of cognitive enhancement. The finger creates pressure on the brain strengthening the connections between neurons.

Sceptic: I have reviewed the evidence from neuroscience and cognitive psychology and it is firmly established that there is no known benefit to learning or thinking from nose-picking.

Expert: Well,educational experts have conducted a number of pilot programmes showing the effectiveness of the Nose-Picking 4 Kids (NP4K ™) programme in promoting learning.

Sceptic: If we limit our analysis to published, peer-reviewed research based on statistically significant samples, then we see quite clearly that nose-pickers do no better in tests of learning than non-nose pickers.

Expert: Okay,but tests and exams only really test how well they remembered something on a particular day. The NP4K™ programme helps students with more important academic goals like understanding, creativity, thinking skills and a love for learning.

Sceptic: If this was true then we would expect them to show greater academic achievements in the long term. None of the research evidence shows any academic benefit whatsoever to nose-picking.

Expert: You shouldn’t judge things by a narrow academic focus. Education isn’t just about the so called “academic” skills. The NP4K™ programme increases self-esteem, motivation, positive thinking, emotional intelligence, empathy, tolerance, anger-management and social skills. These won’t show up in tests but these are the marks of a well-rounded individual.

Sceptic: Psychologists have invented ways to measure these things. It is highly debateable that they are all always good qualities to have or generic abilities that can be used in any situation. More importantly, there is no evidence that any of them are actually aided by nose-picking.

Expert: Well employers and universitieswant employees and students who are well-practised in the 21st century skill of nose-picking.

Sceptic: No, they don’t. Really.

Expert: Well,your educational ideas are obviously out of date and overly traditional. I suppose you’d rather their fingers were gripping pens, writing down “facts”. This is a Victorian model of education. The whole point of a good education is to experience quality nose-picking time.

Sceptic: I don’t think it is.

Expert: We’ll just have to agree to disagree about that. Excuse me while I go off and roll around in my money.

The problem is that in any discussion of teaching methods then the aims of teaching can be changed. They become broader, vaguer, less academic, and finally the teaching method becomes an aim in itself. We should teach students in groups because the point of lessons is to work in groups. We should give them projects to complete because the purpose of schooling is to complete projects. We should entertain students in lessons because schools are there so children can have fun. We should let the students do whatever they like because the point of education is to do whatever you like.

In order to discuss teaching methods we are going to have to identify what the point of teaching, and education more generally, is.

I have attempted to discuss this issue a number of times before.

Back in 2006, I listed some of the main aims of education and observed that they would all be much better met than they currently are if students were to leave school literate, numerate and capable of self-control. With hindsight, I think I was guilty of an appalling lack of aspiration. I later added to this entry a quotation from Cardinal Newman:

… If a healthy body is a good in itself, why is not a healthy intellect? and if a College of Physicians is a useful institution, because it contemplates bodily health, why is not an Academical Body, though it were simply and solely engaged in imparting vigour and beauty and grasp to the intellectual portion of our nature?

Newman (1873)

I explored this idea in more detail in this post. It provides I think the clearest idea of the point of education. Educational insitutions exist to improve the intellect in the same way that a hospital exists to improve health or a gym exists to improve fitness. That still leaves quite a lot of debate to be had about what it means to improve the intellect, but it at least helps us to distinguish between essential and non-essential aims of education. Roughly speaking, the essential aims are those which can be considered academic, while non-essential aims, which do not explicitly improve the intellect, tend to be those relating to:

All of these are desirable ends. All of these should result from a successful education. All of these are among the virtues of good schools. The problem is with the idea that these ends can be taught directly in lessons as an explicit part of the curriculum and directly monitored and managed, instead of resulting as a by-product from the process of education; that is from intellectual improvement, and the experience of being part of a community devoted to intellectual improvement. A curriculum which loses sight of academic aims is inevitably a dumbed-down curriculum. Worse still is the idea that these aims, rather than the aim of intellectual improvement, can be used to justify our choice of teaching method. Reforming the curriculum with non-academic aims in minds can dumb down education; reforming teaching so that it will not achieve academic goals can destroy it.

In the next few posts I intend to discuss each of these aims of education and explain how they have influenced recent debate and developments. In the longer term (i.e. in coming months), I also intend to flesh out what the aim of education actually is and to discuss teaching methods in detail.

Updated 2/5/2012: Now here’s the perfect example.


Newman, John Henry, The Idea of a University, 1873

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