Sean Connery, in his thoughtful memoir Being A Scot, tells the story of finding himself on a plane seated next to a compatriot, a young woman. Talking to her, he found that she was a literature student at the University of Edinburgh, and that she was currently studying Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
“Do you see any parallels between Roskolnikov, in the Dostoevsky novel, and the character of Robert Wingham, in James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner?” he asked her.
“Oh, I haven’t read that,” said she, “I’m in the English Literature Department, not the Scottish.” Connery was bemused, but presumably did not bother to ask why, given her odd perspective, she was studying a novel originally written in Russian.
Connery had left school at 13 with little to show for his eight years in Scottish education other than an ability to read. But early in his acting career, a fellow-thespian had suggested a list of books that the young Connery ought to read, and he had subsequently embarked on his own education in fine literature. His young travelling companion, on the other hand, had successfully completed seven years of primary schooling, five or six years of secondary schooling, and by the time Connery met her at least a year or two at university. So what was the difference between the famous actor with his paucity of formal schooling and the literature student with a decade and a half of institutional education behind her?
In the literature student, I believe that we can see something of the schooled mind at work, in this case someone for whom the books she read were prescribed by others and for whom reading was largely a means to an end. In Connery, a lover of literature, we can see the independent mind of someone who has taken control of his own learning, someone for whom reading was a pleasure in itself, and nothing to do with passing examinations or gaining qualifications.
It is interesting to ponder the differences between the truly autonomous learner and the schooled mind, to explore the nature of learning in an age where, although the opportunities for self-directed learning are expanding immensely as the tendrils of the Internet extend into every facet of our lives, the enduring institutions of the school and the college and the university (all of which I am happy to refer to collectively and conceptually as ‘the school’) remain stubbornly tenacious. This durable social construct, one that has been shaped and adapted continuously throughout history to suit the needs of time and place and wealth and power, has allowed the myriad social, political and religious entities that have sustained it, and that continue to sustain it, to retain an often insidious and reductive grip on the minds of those who pass through their hands. And, despite that constant refrain of ‘the school is dead’ that we have heard in different times and in different places, the school is arguably stronger in some ways today than it has ever been.
Of course, the tale of Sean Connery and the young literature student raises more questions than answers: the gulf between the autonomous learner and the schooled mind is rarely identifiable as a simple dichotomy between the free spirit and the captive will. The reality for most of us is that we find ourselves, throughout our lives, shifting back and forth along a continuum somewhere between the two extremes, although we night hope that, as we grow older, we become more aware of the dangers of the schooled mind, and therefore develop a greater capacity to break free of the constraints placed on us by the school in our early years. Connery’s self-taught love of literature was perhaps not entirely free of instrumental intentions: as an actor, he recognized that an appreciation of literature would be useful to him in his career, but it was his own recognition, not one suggested by others or imposed from without. Equally, the young woman, we hope, would have taken up her course in English Literature because of a love of reading. But between those two routes into books, and most certainly in the student’s response to Connery’s question, there lies a discernible difference between the approach that each had previously taken to their mutual love of literature. Connery, consciously or otherwise, had discovered that there is a higher and deeper and wider significance to learning than can be gleaned from submitting to the strictures of the classroom. The young woman had allowed herself to be persuaded that, like the overwhelming majority of ‘educated’ people, she had little choice but to accept those strictures as seemingly the only available path to an education in the discipline that she enjoyed.
The road taken by Connery was one that led not only to a knowledge of fine literature but also, I would contend, to a greater chance for attaining a degree of self-knowledge that, if not actually denied by school, has rarely if ever been an explicit aim of schooling. The school, historically, has not actively encouraged independence of thought, nor has it cultivated the truly spontaneous or creative mind. We develop such traits despite school not because of it. School is fundamentally about training the mind, developing the intellect (as opposed to intelligence), passing on the knowledge deemed important by a society to those whose role it will be to perpetuate and preserve that society at all levels. As such, the school continues what already is and what has been; its function, whatever the rhetoric, is essentially backwards looking, seeking to maintain the structures and relationships from the past and present on into the future with minimal change.
But given the ubiquity of the school, we cannot simply equate the schooled mind with attendance at school. To do so would be ludicrous. If the schooled mind were to be identified merely by dint of someone having attended school there would no chance of escape from the condition for most of us. But schooling does imbue the student, the scholar, with certain characteristics that the learner has to find the means to overcome either while at school, or more likely once schooling is complete.
I will come back to what that schooled mind is all about, why we must not be content with the intellectual framework that school bestows on us, and how critical it is that we are able to overcome at least the most deleterious and pernicious aspects of the school’s legacy on our own development as rational, free-thinking human beings.
A university is not a scientific hothouse with some frills around the edges – such as the humanities – generating off-the-peg ideas for business to patent and commercialise. It is an independent, autonomous institution housing multiple academic disciplines whose cross-fertilisations and serendipities lie at the heart of the capacity to enlarge the knowledge base. It is consecrated to delivering knowledge as intellectually held in common – why the freedom to research, to publish and to disseminate is the sine qua non of academic life. It is a public, open institution, so a private university is a contradiction in terms. Knowledge, and the qualifications that go with it, is necessarily public currency.
Will Hutton, in today’s Observer.
The knowledge economy is massively dependent on the intellectual powerhouse of higher education, and a critical ingredient of that is its capacity to sustain high levels of postgraduate training and development. That capacity is under threat at the present time from the concomitant effects of the huge rise in undergraduate fees and the decisions by the research councils in the UK to withdraw support from taught masters courses.
Just another example of the current UK Government’s willingness to allow ideology and self-interest to trump what is good for the country in the long run. As in schools, so in higher education too.
That, however, is where agreement ends and debate begins. Beyond that point, we cross a turbulent landscape where competing definitions of leadership abound, where the very nature of leadership is the stuff of argument, where conflicting philosophies of education each generate their own understanding of what makes for an effective leader and how a good leader should behave, and where notions of how we must go about educating and training the next generation of education leaders scatter in every direction at once.
But such observations are not a counsel of despair. Far from it! Just as education itself can never be a science in any accepted sense – it is a sphere in which battles will always be fought between philosophies, beliefs, ideologies, cultures, prejudices and histories – so these same battles are reflected in the ever-restless and exciting debates and discussions around leadership in education.
Whatever our own standpoint might be, we should accept that one voice is often missing from this unruly discourse: that of young people, the very group most often affected by the decisions of education leaders. Just as they are absent from educational debates generally, so youthful voices are too often muted when the topic is the leadership of the social good that is utterly central to their futures: their education.
Education Fast Forward (EFF), an organization, sponsored jointly by Promethean and Cisco, that brings together leading global experts and change agents from the world of education to discuss ‘the topics that matter most’, wants to begin to change that by bringing together some articulate and intelligent voices from the world’s youth to discuss issues that are relevant to young people themselves and to their education.
In July 2012, in the most recent of the five debates organized by EFF to date, a group of eloquent and youthful voices debated the topic ‘From Learner Voice to Global Peace’. The young people were located all across the globe and came together primarily through the wonder of Telepresence (TP), a high-definition video conferencing technology. The discussion that day was not only intelligent and thoughtful: it was truly inspiring for everyone involved.
The full debate can be watched and listened to on Promethean Planet.
And now, in January 2013, during the annual Education World Forum, to be held in London, another group of exceptional young people (including some of the voiced from EFF5) will come together through the magic of TP to talk about ‘From Learner Voice to Emerging Leaders’. Those of us involved in EFF have some hopes and expectations of what might come out of the event, but we are also highly aware that there must be a genuine space in amongst our presumptions for the hopes and expectations of the young people themselves to come to the fore during and beyond the discussion.
The primary aim is twofold:
Issues such as the structure of the curriculum, how education is delivered (including differences in this across the world), the relevance of education to their lives, how we might encourage real change in the relationships between people in education systems, seeking to realise the extraordinary value that can be sought by tackling education’s challenges with people rather than doing it to them. We need all policy makers to take on board the knowledge that they are making decisions now that will affect the generation ahead, and perhaps more than one generation ahead.
And all of this will be happening across a truly international matrix of connections, crossing countries, cultures, and communities. I will be blogging again in the New Year with details of the date and time, and with information about the key speakers, young and not-so-young, who will be leading the discussion.
Watch out for that!
All it takes is one person to stand up in the crowd and call bullshit. All it takes is one person to be brave enough to say, “I don’t understand.” All it takes is one person to pose a question. All it takes is one person to throw down the challenge and then TALK and chatter becomes a DISCUSSION. Note that I say a discussion and not a debate. This is important. Debates get us nowhere. Lines get drawn. Sides are taken and nothing moves forward.
I’m not sure I agree with the point about debating getting us nowhere, but the central point made by Tracy Parish is absolutely correct. If you think you’re listening to bullshit, say so; if you don’t understand what is being said, say so; if you need to ask a question, ask it. Too many people get away with too much in education. Always be willing to doubt.
Thanks to Jane Hart for the original link.
There’s an interesting clash of views taking place in a debate at Educa Online tomorrow (Thursday 29 November, 2012).
In the red corner, Jef Staes, author of My Organisation is a Jungle, and Donald Clark, of the UK’s University for Industry, will lead an assault on diplomas and degrees, arguing they are becoming redundant. As Staes argues, the educational structure was:
….created in an era of information scarcity. Knowledge was the privilege of insiders, the rich, the smart, the powerful. This knowledge reinforced their status within society and within this structure.
Nowadays, thanks to the Internet and advances in technology, information is becoming democratised and,
….these foundations are slowly crumbling.
….the importance of sound and reliable competency benchmarks for industry cannot be emphasised enough. A ban on diplomas and degrees would eliminate an important and tangible deliverable of our education system.
I have to say I like a quote from Staes:
….for people without passion, information has no value….everyone is born with different passions and talents, but the way our education system is organised results in our current generation of sheep.
This is a debate I would like to hear and see. Pity there seems to be no plans to stream it to a wider audience. Educa online?
A perfect illustration of the I Am Learner philosophy!
This has been cross-posted from my main blog at John Connell: the blog.
In the light of my recent post, about the I Am Malala campaign, it was interesting to come across the intelligent and thoughtful article in this month’s Prospect Magazine by Clare Lockhart of the Institute for State Effectiveness. Clare believes that the UN’s obsession with primary education in its Millennium Development Goals has backfired.
The UN’s MDGs were set more than a decade ago, and the one that is closest to being met is the one on universal primary education, with around 88% of school-age children across the developing world in primary school (in 2010, up from 81% in 1999). Clare’s article argues that the focus on primary education has had the unintended consequence of skewing investment away from secondary education and vocational training, both vital instruments in achieving the continuing and growing needs of countries for:
….their next generation of doctors, nurses, engineers, accountants, and project managers….without secondary and tertiary education, a country cannot run its health, agriculture and financial systems….
And ironically, given the MDG’s rightful focus on the critical importance of education, this skewing effect has also led to:
….a shortfall of teachers to train the generation beyond them. Even maintaining primary education services, especially in the countries with growing populations, requires large numbers to be educated at secondary and vocational levels.
Clare is, of course, very careful to state that she does not want to see investment in secondary and tertiarty education at the expense of the primary sector. She is advocating a more balanced approach that recognises the need for continued and strategic investment in all key sectors. This balanced approach requires certain key questions to be asked, and answered:
- What are the skills a society needs to develop and strengthen its public, private and civic sectors?
- How can a country equip its next generation with the skills to meet those needs?
- How can education and training policy balance the imperatives of stability, economics and civil inclusion?
There’s a lot to think about in this piece, but I think I am persuaded that the original set of MDGs failed to set a firm and sustainable foundation for the balanced approach that Clare favours – given that the successor goals are being debated right now, I would hope that these are issues that will be given due consideration.