We forget education is an ideological battleground

One reason why politicians get and stay involved


John Dewey the American educationalist said in 1897: ‘I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform. I believe it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment properly to perform his task….’

He also said: “As a society becomes more enlightened, it realizes that it is responsible not to transmit and conserve the whole of its existing achievements, but only such as make for a better future society. The school is the chief agency for the accomplishment of this end”

These are statements of political intent. Schools and education, the argument runs, can never be neutral.  Dewey is saying that educators have to be at the heart of and the drivers   of societal change. Dewey, and his apologists, were intent, through education, in building a better, fairer, more equitable, plural society through reforms in school organization, curriculum, instruction, and, indeed latterly technology. Dewey’s Pedagogical Creed was heavily influenced by the effects of  the Great Depression of the 1930s. Capitalism had failed, to his mind. A new post capitalist order was in the wings. George S Counts’ “Dare the School Build a New Social Order“ was another thinker with a   Deweyan  vision.  He talked about the ‘progressive’ movement in education promoting welfare and social change, through education in schools. Counts talked of the need to develop a compelling vision of ‘Americas destiny’ and teachers had a role in ‘ imposing’ this vision on students. Teachers are agents of change.

Critics say this amounts to indoctrination and brainwashing of pupils-which they say is absolutely not the role of teachers.

But there are some in the educational establishment who share Deweys vision . ED Hirsch the traditionalist, (who actually opposed Deweys approach,)  was  also criticised on ideological grounds . His Core Curriculum is popular in some American schools and is  informed by the proposition that young Americans must be in possession of certain core facts  and ideas (which he lists) in order to be culturally literate .  (former schools Minister Nick Gibb is a fan of Hirsch) .But  in prescribing what young americans need to know-he has been attacked as an Orwellian Minister of Truth, drilling Americanisms into tender young brains.

One is reminded, when reading the views of many of these reformers, of WB Yeats observation’: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’. Indeed, its true that the very brightest among us are wracked by self-doubt, the rest know the truth with absolute certainty.

Other reformers, just as determined and well-intentioned as Dewey, Counts and Hirsch , view schools as places where pressing national economic challenges, skills  gaps  and global competitiveness have to be addressed and solved.

Professor Larry Cuban believes that some policymakers see schools as serving the economy and protecting the nation, not as Deweyan agents of “social progress” ie in reducing social injustices.  Instead he claims, they seek to insure that poor and minority students trapped in failing schools will have access to  equal educational opportunity through expanded parental choice in schools and  with everyone going to college. They  aim to rescue individuals from poverty and prepare them for better jobs. But what they are not about is arming students   to fight for a more equitable society.(Dewey/ Counts). They want America to rise up the international league tables to ensure its global competitiveness. And that is pretty much it.

These ideological battles continue under the surface. But it is important to understand this ideological dimension because it goes some way to explaining why debates on education reform get so heated.  Listen to the speeches at the NUTs annual conference, if you doubt this.

In 2012, reformers remain split over the direction that schools should take just as they were over a century ago when John Dewey wrote his Pedagogical Creed. Much of the boiling rhetoric among school reformers in the US , Cuban  believes, is due to this conflict over the answer to the question of whether schools can (or ever do) reform society. Which is why in schooling, like religion, “aspirations [are] rarely met” and it generates “far more failure than fulfilment,” according to Cuban

Even if you set aside the ideological dimension, the debate over the purpose of education   rumbles on. Barely a week passes without someone asking for a debate to start on what we want from our education system and our schools, as nobody is entirely happy with the status quo. Some see education as being primarily about maximising exam results (ie  schools are exam factories).  Others that it is all about producing young men and young women able to benefit from higher education, to contribute positively in employment, and to lead meaningful and productive lives in society .Heads such as Anthony Seldon say schools should be about developing the whole human being, of realising individual’s potential, of building character and supporting distinct individual aptitudes.  In short, education is an end in itself, and we have lost our way.

Added to this is the confusion over training and education .Some Politicians manage to confuse education with training and simply want pupils to be taught skills that are relevant to the work place. Education is all about equipping you for the employment market. Everything else is a waste of time and resource. Small wonder, then, that education has become such a political battleground, and football, subject to constant change, interventions and churn.

Meanwhile most parents simply want their children to have a good rounded education that prepares them for adult life.  Heads and governors for their part pray for a period of calm and consolidation and for the goalposts to stop moving. Teachers want to be treated like professionals rather than to be micro-managed from the centre.

Its worth reflecting, in conclusion ,on  how  Alasdair McIntyre, the philosopher,  summarises the views of Cardinal Newman, who had  so much to say about education and the role, in particular, of universities:

‘ the aim of … education is not to fit students for this or that particular profession or career, nor to equip them with theory that will later on find useful applications to this or that form of practice…It is to transform their minds, so that the student becomes a different kind of individual, one able to engage fruitfully in conversation and debate, one who has a capacity for exercising judgement, for bringing insights and arguments from a variety of disciplines to bear on particular complex issues. Independence of mind, rather than compliance with socio-economic expectations, is the goal of education.’





  1. As I’ve written elsewhere (apologies, but I think it’s worth repeating) what great schools (and great teachers) do is acknowledge their limitations from the word go, and seek to change nothing more than the individual child…one at a time.

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