Echoes of Education Debates Past

It is no surprise, of course, that so many debates we hear in education today are themselves echoes from past arguments. Two books, one from the end of the 19th century and the other from the start of the 20th century, have given me food for thought recently.  The older book, Essays on Educational Reformers, by RH Quick, dates from 1880 (although the edition I have is from 1910) and the other, Problems of National Education, ed. John Clarke, was published just a year after the end of the Great War, in 1919.

The former is a history of educational ‘reformers or innovators’ and is a 500-page romp through the theories and (sometimes) the practices of the likes of Sturmius, the Jesuits, Rabelais, Montaigne, Ascham, Mulcaster, Ratke, Comenius, the ‘Port-Royals’, Locke, Rousseau, Basedow, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Jacotot and Spencer, with many others mentioned between the principal names. If some of these names are unfamiliar to you, then you are in the same position as I was before I picked up Quick’s book. Five of the names I simply did not recognize (Sturmius, Ascham, Mulcaster, Ratke and Basedow), and two of them I knew but never associated with innovative thinking in education (Rabelais and Montaigne).

Essays on Educational Reformers is a treat of a book, with something to catch the eye of teachers and educationists on every page. Robert Herbert Quick was obviously a man of liberal bent and his treatment of this long list of thinkers and writers and movements derives largely from his own enlightened thought processes. For instance, he quotes the Port-Roylists, a 17th century group that feuded with the Jesuits, to the effect that:

.…we should never lose sight of this grand principle that study depends on the will, and the will does not endure constraint.

In other words, the learner must want to learn if teaching is to be effective; forcing ‘learning’ on an unwilling mind is ineffective.

As for the Jesuits, Quick writes:

They did not aim at developing all the faculties of their pupils, but mainly the receptive and reproductive faculties.….Originality and independence of mind, love of truth for its own sake, the power of reflecting, and or forming correct judgments were not merely neglected — they were suppressed in the Jesuits’ system.

The second book — Problems of National Education — is an impressive set of twelve essays written by Scottish educators immediately after the Great War, its intention being to add an educational dimension to the mood of reconstruction that permeated Scottish (and British) society in that period. While the essays are most certainly of their time — they could not be otherwise — I have been fascinated by the many issues and ideas raised in them that resonate strongly to this day. The first essay in particular, by Duncan MacGillivray, Headmaster of Hillhead High School in Glasgow at the time (as well as EIS President) offers a history of Scottish education over the previous five decades, from the Education Act of 1872 up to the War, an account that is surprisingly open and progressive in its treatment of events, policies and practices. He writes, for example that:

.…there is general agreement that the only examinations which should be tolerated are those which form an integaral part of the education of the child. Such examinations are those which are constantly being held by teachers to determine whether the instruction has been assimilated and whether the pupil is ready for a new forward step.…

He goes even further when he talks about the Qualifying examination (which determined which mode of secondary education the child would progress to at the end of primary schooling):

No one can claim for it a place in the education of the child. It is an efficiency bar set up by the Treasury, and admittedly has no educational raison d’être.

Just think how little has really changed in the thinking, in some quarters at least, about the proper role of assessment in education today!

MacGillivray also pulled me up short with a powerful reminder that any talk of ‘smokestack schooling’ can only ever be a partial description, at best, of the system of schooling that has existed in Scotland (and far beyond) over the past century-and-a-half — he wrote:

.…the rise of democracy made it necessary for the State to intervene in order to ensure that the mass of the people were educated to an extent sufficient to enable them to exercise the franchise with some degree of knowledge and intelligence.…

In other words, while the economic imperative of mass schooling is unquestionable, we should not forget that many of those who helped build and maintain the system were much more idealistic in their intent.

The idealism and the hope, along with the typical Scottish sense of realism, that permeates these twelve essays is remarkable, and all of them offer lessons and thinking and experience that are still meaningful today. And not one mention of digital technology in either book!