Eduction for Industry

Unlike other old folk who reach such an advanced age, compulsory universal education in England has not celebrated its centenary with a telegram of congratulations from the Queen. On the contrary, the Prime Minister, to say nothing of a range of lesser luminaries from the Secretary for Education down, has suggested that the quality of our education leaves a lot to be desired. Having examined and found wanting so many of its pupils in the past, the education system is now getting a dose of its own nasty medicine: it is widely said to be failing too many in a different sense, and itself needs to be taught a lesson. Who will educate the educators? Chiefly, it seems, industry. By the standards set by industry, the quality of our education is inadequate, and only by aspiring to them will it reach the required heights.

These doubts about the quality of education have been of two general kinds, both springing from the conviction that between education and industry there is a ‘gap’ where there should be ‘links’. On the one hand, it’s said that students are not reaching high enough levels in the subjects they study, and in particular that they are falling short in both literacy and numeracy. On the other hand, the subjects they study, especially at the more advanced stages, are in many cases of the wrong sort: too much of the arts and humanities, too little science, mathematics, and technology. I shall be concerned chiefly with the former.

One fairly predictable response to this opening of ‘the great debate’ has been horror at the conception of education involved in the criticism, though the reaction has for some been tempered by acknowledgement of our dire economic crisis and of society’s right, as paying the piper, at least to some extent to call the tune. We should not, it seems to have been felt, dig in our heels too stubbornly against the proposed changes, provided they are recognised as a temporary and partial adjustment to meet an emergency, neither permanently nor wholly diverting education from its real ideal: knowledge and learning for their own sake, or cultivation for leisure, or the initiation of the young into our cultural heritage, or the conversion of barbarians into rational autonomous beings fit for our liberal democratic civilisation. On this view, quality in education is defined in terms of standards set not by industry, nor by any other part of the vulgar economic business of producing material goods, but by high culture, that is by pure science and mathematics, philosophy and history, literature and the arts. The standard curriculum signifies the continuing influence of the Aristotelian ideal of liberal education, the education of a gentleman, its vocational content both incidental and restricted to ‘the professions’, law, medicine, civil service, church, and teaching itself.


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