In 1994, Sir Tim Berners-Lee selflessly donated the World Wide Web to mankind. He refused to obtain a patent for and profit from a revolutionary invention that was arguably, among the practical and day to day alterations shaped by its influence, about to change the very nature of human existence. He sacrificed individual, material gain for the collective benefit of the entire human race.
I think that, given this fact, it is safe to assume that his alma mater, Emanuel School in south-west London, successfully inculcated a sense of responsibility beyond the narrow parameters of the self. It taught him to be aware of and contribute to something larger and ultimately more durable and long-lasting than one’s own perceived needs. In short, it instilled selflessness.
The aims of education are manifold. I contend that they can be categorised under two main headings.
First, the Individual. The purpose of education is to extend opportunity to each and every person, regardless of socioeconomic circumstance: it is to drive social mobility and, ultimately, enable the individual to climb the ladder of opportunity. Moreover, it strives – or at least should strive – to equip each person with the knowledge to understand and enjoy the world around them.
Through such knowledge and the material gain which hopefully accompanies academic success, the individual is liberated from the stultifying shackles of ignorance and penury, and is enabled and free to live a fulfilling life, bask in the wonders of the universe and reach the ultimate objective of self-actualisation. This is indeed a noble aim.
The second category is the Collective. Education is not just about the individual, but the good of society as a whole. By infusing pupils with morality and knowledge, they are being trained as custodians of their socioeconomic and cultural heritage – a heritage to be enhanced and passed on to their progeny – and instilled with the qualities and skills to be productive and useful to the collective advancement of not just themselves, but their fellow citizens. It is an enormous responsibility: one which is rarely explained in schools for reasons that will become apparent.
These aims are of course mutually reinforcing. What’s good for the collective is good for the individual and vice-versa. But a pertinent question is whether our schools successfully fulfil their obligations to deliver an education which meets these objectives. The answer, regrettably, is no. Our children are not satisfactorily inculcated with the morality, knowledge and skills to reach their potential, nor to be productive guardians of and contributors to humanity’s cultural inheritance. Why?
Alas, the collective aims of education are being subordinated to raw, untrammelled individualism – an individualism which ultimately, and paradoxically, stifles each pupil’s progress and stops him or her from fulfilling their potential.
In our desperation to live up to the mantra ‘Every Child Matters’, for example, and to ensure that each child has the same opportunities through ‘inclusion’ in mainstream schools – even if they’re eminently unsuited – we’ve colluded in a kind of reverse-utilitarianism. The individual has been elevated, almost sanctified, and his or her needs, in practice, now take precedence over the needs of the majority.
A child may be unable to cope in a mainstream school, for instance. He may be monopolizing a teacher’s time and resources as a consequence, and to the detriment of the 20-odd other pupils in the class. But in the name of equality, his needs, being an individual, are deemed to be of paramount importance. He must be allowed to realise his potential no matter what the cost. No consideration is given to the collective purpose of education, the continued sustenance and health of society, or to the utilitarian principles that should guide our actions. All that matters is the individual deemed disadvantaged.
Morality, moreover, is viewed as a construct of one’s own socioeconomic and cultural background. As a result, schools often refuse to sanction unruly pupils from dysfunctional households in the same way as their more advantaged peers. In a misguided effort to re-balance the inequalities bequeathed at birth, teachers individualise the school’s rules and treat their underprivileged charges with more compassion. Again, it matters not that the majority become frustrated and despondent and confused about the arbitrary nature of the school’s approach to rewards and sanctions; it matters not that behaviour deteriorates throughout the school in response, either: it’s all about the individual, nothing more.
In the same vein, the system refuses to allow pupils to fail. Grammar schools were abolished because they hurt the feelings of the individuals who failed the Eleven Plus, even though they provided an excellent education for thousands of ordinary children. In mainstream comprehensives, many remain wedded to mixed ability teaching lest the less able feel stigmatized and teachers – demoralised and exhausted – run themselves ragged to ensure the success of every child, even the ones who don’t deserve to pass.
Perhaps the most indicative aspect of this phenomenon is our existing hostility to the explicit teaching of facts. We no longer pass on a specific body of knowledge with the aim of entrusting our children with society’s cultural inheritance. That would have the distinct whiff of indoctrination. In particular, the historical knowledge taught in schools is viewed as a way of perpetuating the hegemonic status of the West and with it, the cultural dominance of white middle-class men. Instead, we are now encouraged to free our charges from this groupthink and collective straight-jacket, urge self-discovery and facilitate non-judgemental, individual enquiry. The phrase ‘child-centred learning’ pretty much encapsulates the current zeitgeist which elevates the individual above the collective.
In each instance, society as a whole unquestionably becomes less educated and, as a consequence, weaker. The nation’s moral certainties and cultural traditions are not being passed on, nor is a sense of collective responsibility and duty to one’s fellow citizens. It’s all about me!
And as the collective aims of education are subordinated to those of the individual, the individual’s aims, paradoxically, become unattainable, too. We can only thrive within the collective, after all. In the name of individualism, pupils are placed in unsuitable schools, taught that rules don’t apply to them, shielded from failure and prevented from acquiring a uniform body of knowledge. How can this possibly be beneficial?
Furthermore, whenever teachers are asked about the purpose of learning they invariably reply: ‘To get a decent job.’ This is an extremely individualistic, narrow way of looking at it. We rarely think about and explain the collective aims of the endeavour; the responsibility that children have to learn for the preservation, sustenance and progress of society.
The result is entrenched selfishness and, unless we reverse this damaging trend, I don’t think it’s too alarmist to predict, the sad, gradual demise of our civilisation. Will Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s selfless, far-sighted gift to humanity ever be repeated?First published on www.conservativehome.com on 12th July 2015