Learning to love liberal education

Talk given at the The Future of Liberal Arts conference at King’s College London on 14th October 2014.

A video of this talk is available here: http://www.newvic.ac.uk/futureliberalarts/ (select ‘Liberal Arts in Schools’ starting at 3:33)

I want to start by saying that I take a utilitarian view of education and don’t like the phrase ‘learning for its own sake’. This may seem a dangerous thing to say at a conference promoting liberal education so I’d better explain my reasoning. Our learning always has some purpose or utility, even if it is highly individual such as ‘to make me happy’ or ‘to satisfy my curiosity’. To detach learning from purpose is to detach it from life. So, as long as we take a broad view of utility, both personal and social, then our utilitarianism can help us ask the right questions about education. It’s narrow instrumentalism which is anti-educational if it is allowed to become dominant.

So, what is the purpose of education? A big question and clearly the answer is both personal and social and these are interrelated. Education should aim to help everyone flourish and live a good life and it should also help us address the many challenges we face as a human beings and to help us create the kind of society we want. It is a continuous personal life project and a social project. Education requires us to give some structure and meaning to the otherwise rather random and bitty learning experiences we have throughout life. So, education gives purpose to learning.

Education is about acquiring power, both personal and social, or perhaps ‘mastery’. Like the Chartists we should be hungry for ‘really useful knowledge’, the powerful knowledge that will give us greater control of our lives as well as greater power to shape our world.

However, in this country we have an unhealthy obsession with class and hierarchies and this extends to our education system. We are too eager to sort young people into categories and provide them with different kinds of education to suit their ‘potential’, their ‘aptitudes’ or their ‘aspiration’ before they have even been exposed to the full range of what education can offer them.

The enemies of liberal education for all include fixed ability thinking and our tendency to label, select, segregate, sort and stream or to create the institutions which box people into our invented categories: secondary modern schools, university technical colleges, technical schools etc.

Martin Robinson has done liberal education a great service by dusting down the trivium, polishing it up and giving it a new lease of life for the 21st century. Like Martin, I am in favour of a progressive traditionalism as long as it’s for all. We want a liberal education for all and the trivium is a good starting point because it transcends the traditional v. progressive, academic v. vocational, knowledge v. skill debates and draws together a necessary emphasis on a core, canonic knowledge (or ‘grammar’), the reflection, communication and application which makes that knowledge your own (rhetoric) and the questioning and challenge which lead to new insights and the creation of new knowledge (the dialectic).

So what might a realistic post-16 liberal arts curriculum for all look like?

  • There should be opportunities both to broaden and deepen: A-levels can be broadening but some combinations are narrowing, vocational courses are motivating and deepening but their educational value is misunderstood and they shouldn’t be seen to be about job training or economic performance. Mixed programmes can work well, but are ignored by government and performance tables actively discourage them.
  • We need to find time for broadening studies, cultural studies, reading and discussion without necessarily adding the dead hand of a new qualification with all the prescription and assessment that implies.
  • We need to encourage students to undertake research projects, alone and with others. The Higher and Extended Project should become the norm giving all young people the opportunity to produce original work of the highest standard in their chosen field, like an apprentice’s masterpiece.
  • Learning skills, character, resilience and grit. Whatever they are, if we can describe them, these should not be isolated but embedded.

The proposed National Bac (incorporating the Tech Bac and the A-Bac) could be a real springboard for the development of a broad, challenging, liberal curriculum for all.

I also have some broader questions about how we might implement a ‘trivium’ view of the curriculum:

  1. How do we decide when students know enough ‘grammar’ to usefully engage in rhetoric and dialectic? Are there stages of development which recapitulate human development and learning, for example speaking and listening before writing and reading or interacting socially? Are these different levels of skill best developed in sequentially or simultaneously?
  2. How do we help young people discover their ‘genius’, pursue personal interests, apply themselves to in-depth research and produce at least one ‘masterpiece’?
  3. How do we find the balance between ‘horizontal’ learning; access to information, discussion, sharing, debating as equals where our judgement is valued and the ‘vertical’; authoritative, canonical, ‘best that the culture has to offer’ where the weight of historical judgement is valued. Given the sheer quantity of information which is available to young people using digital technologies, learning to select, interpret and evaluate is more difficult than ever and the teacher’s role in this is more important than ever.

Today’s conference is a timely contribution to the debate about the purpose of education and I support the aim of promoting a broader and richer education for everyone. We have a long way to go before that can be a reality for all young people in England and I am keen to help develop and trial practical ways forward.

See my review of Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c here.

I have written about the proposed National Bac here.

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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