Eric Robinson, who died in 2011, was an outstanding and progressive college principal and polytechnic director. He was appointed deputy director of North East London Polytechnic (now the University of East London) in 1970, led Bradford College from 1973 to 1982, and then Preston Poly, later Lancashire Poly which subsequently went on to become the University of Central Lancashire. Eric worked to create a comprehensive form of higher education; a “people’s university” which could contribute to the education of all and which saw people both as workers and as citizens of a democratic society with a right to share the best of human values and culture.
Eric gave an excellent Caroline Benn memorial lecture in 2009. His critique of economic instrumentalism, the commodification of education and the promotion of institutional choice and diversity was spot on. He eloquently reminded us that markets and privatisation cannot deliver high quality education for all. Five years on, this message is more urgent than ever.
But it was also refreshing to hear him say so much about the role of education in the transmission of culture, the system’s loss of respect for certain traditions and its lack of grounding in social and moral values. These are themes which I think are worthy of greater discussion on both left and the right.
The cultural transmission role is often neglected by educational progressives and even seen as rather a suspect area; territory better left to conservatives as the natural traditionalists. But it was Antonio Gramsci from the left who affirmed the role of school in instituting cultural norms, values and hierarchies. He argued for an egalitarian education system which could give all young people the opportunity to engage critically with the best that was on offer from the cultural traditions available.
We cannot allow the right to be the only champions of a broad liberal education for all. Rather than giving up on the universal liberal education project because it’s “not relevant” or “too challenging” for some young people we need to find ways to democratise it and make it accessible without dumbing down. We need to draw on more diverse traditions and offer access to both “popular” and “high” culture to all without elitism, snobbery or exclusivity.
Equally, we cannot allow the right to get away with the claim that progressive and secular educators have no moral compass or that cultural diversity or multiculturalism inevitably lead to a weakening of universal values or social solidarity. The real threat to these comes from an excessively narcissistic, individualistic and consumerist culture promoted by commercial interests. One of the key functions of education in a good society should be to put into practice agreed universal values. We should be arguing for schools and colleges to model the good society, to promote solidarity and egalitarian, democratic practices even if the society around them seems deficient in these. As Eric said at the end of his lecture: “In evading the cultural, social and moral dimensions of education we are betraying our children and cheapening ourselves”.
Some strands of modern educational thought seem to lack any respect for tradition; jettisoning the values and lessons of the past and obsessing over novelty and superficial change. A-historical assumptions such as: “globalisation is a completely new phenomenon”, “young people are digital natives and learn in a totally different way”, “the skills needed for tomorrow’s jobs are radically new” cannot be accepted uncritically and need to be placed in a broad context and challenged. In some cases, they may turn out to be transient or surface rather than fundamental changes. We need to respect our painstakingly learnt traditions of rational thinking and critical evaluation and rely on robust evidence before rejecting “old” ideas.
New ideas and new ways of working will clearly be needed to address the global challenges we face and education must prepare people for this. But all new ideas come from somewhere. They arise from people’s critical understanding and engagement with the old ideas; after all they’re all we’ve got! We need to find ways to describe a democratic, egalitarian and critical traditionalism.
In arguing against narrow instrumentalism I think it is wrong to talk of education for its own sake. We engage in learning for our own sake; there’s always a reason for our learning even if only to satisfy our curiosity or to get pleasure from following an apparently useless line of thought to its conclusion. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a utilitarian view of education as long as our view of usefulness is broad, social and humanistic and not narrow, purely economic or individualistic.
In the first half of the 19th century, the chartists called for “really useful knowledge” which would help working class people understand their situation and do something about it. Perhaps we need to describe a 21st century version of “really useful” knowledge and skills which help people fully realise themselves as individuals, nurturing family and community members, citizens and workers.
Adapted from an article written in April 2010