"The truth of the matter is that about 99 percent of teaching is making the students feel interested in the material. Then the other 1 percent has to do with your methods." – Chomsky 2001
Educators are often asked to "reflect" on their "practice"; in other words, think about what you’ve done and what you could do to improve things. As a working principle this can be an effective, common-sense approach. However, no principle functions in a vacuum. The Soviets created a constitution under Stalin that was considered the most democratic of its time; in practice the Soviet system sanctioned purges, executions and forced labour.
Furthermore, we need to think about what constraints we are working under.
Since the fall of the USSR in the 90s, the dominant political/economic system on the planet is "neo-liberalism", which Edward Herman defines as "advanced class warfare".
The "liberal" in neo-liberalism refers to the economic theories of the Industrial Revolution, particularly those of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith. As opposed to aristocratic privilege, Smith favoured "free trade" between individuals. Barriers which had been erected to protect the privileges of the ruling class would be dismantled and individuals would deal with each other in conditions of equality.
Smith’s ideas were used retrospectively to justify capitalism, however, "his driving motives were the assumption that people were guided by sympathy and feelings of solidarity and the need for control of their own work…The version of him that’s given today is just ridiculous." (Chomsky).
Economic liberalism became the dominant theory of the developed world after the Industrial Revolution until the Great Depression challenged the wisdom of "free trade".
Following World War II in the "developed world", liberalism shared the stage with "social democracy", which aimed to ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism. The Scandinavian countries developed social democratic systems, while the USA and the UK developed an "Anglo-American" model which encouraged corporate control of much of the economy. Most European states veered between these two models.
The "stagflation" of the 1970s, along with the elite backlash against the democratising movements of the 1960s encouraged the development of the neo-liberal model.
In 1973 the CIA sponsored a coup in Chile to depose the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende. With the help of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, General Pinochet instituted a program of privatisation in line with the 5 principles of neoliberalism:
Where Chile led, Reagan and Thatcher followed.
When we’re thinking about what we’re going to do, we need to ask what it is we’re trying to achieve, why we’re doing it, and what obstacles are in our way.
We can make plans, take things as they come, panic, operate under the principle of "ignore it and it will go away", or a combination of all of these.
Whatever we do, it is useful to make an assessment of the world we are living in. Some research may be necessary, but keeping your eyes open is important as well. We can filter everything through the beliefs we gained from our parents, or we can take the world as it is.
We now live in a world battered by warfare and economic collapse. Over a million people are dead in Iraq due to a war waged on false pretences; the Royal Bank of Scotland has posted the greatest losses in UK corporate history, and this after paying a former chief executive a massive payout; meanwhile the "business secretary" Lord Mandelson argues that privatising the postal service will "reform" and "modernise" it.
We can not offer young people a vision of a future in which they are employed, let alone employed in industries that are fulfilling. In other words they will be lucky to get a job.
"Traditional rules such as banning children with shaven heads and those wearing designer trainers or gang colours have proved effective in maintaining order at the best comprehensives, according to a report by Ofsted.
"Formal assemblies, regular patrols of corridors, frequent school trips, strong values and appointing good teachers are also successful methods of raising standards." (Daily Telegraph, 23/02/09)
So while we can only offer a bleak future for young people, a future that we have gifted them through social irresponsibility, we must continue to apply the jackboot in order for them to "behave". Art, music and sports have been cut from curriculums, but students will at least have "regular patrols of corridors". That this sounds more like prison than school should surprise no one in a world that praises "private sector efficiency" (presumably not that of RBS) while insisting on public sector "reform", such as privatising the postal service.
In light of our current situation, we need to consider what we are doing and why we are doing it. As Carlyle said, "Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight" and both teachers and students need to know what they are doing and why.
All the technology in the world will not make a boring lesson taught by a burnt-out teacher interesting. People, young and old, know when they are being patronised. Simply telling someone to "behave" is meaningless if there is not mutual respect.
If we are to have an education fit for a tomorrow that we want to live in, we have to do more than "reflect" on our "practice". We need to decide what sort of world we want to live in and endeavour to create it. One way to do that is to deliver an education that emphasises critical thinking, questioning authority and developing skills for independence. This requires teachers to question not only their own practice, but the very system that they are part of. This may mean not doing what is asked of them, whether explicitly (such as refusing to carry out certain tasks) or implicitly (by "subverting" established processes). This means a commitment to education as opposed to being dutiful. We need to critically reflect on what the educational system is achieving, and whether it is failing or succeeding in its aims.
The question then becomes: What are its aims? Is it to enlighten – to prepare young people for the real world, to inspire them and allow them to develop their skills and creativity – or is it to indoctrinate – to create pliable, subservient wage-slaves?
If the aim is education, the system has failed. If it is indoctrination, then the system can be seen to be a success. While many students fail, graduating to prison, drug addiction, etc, even this is a success for a system of indoctrination as these individuals become object lessons of what happens when you do not conform to the requirements of the system.
However, while this may suit the needs of elites, it can hardly be said to suit the needs of the majority. There is widespread dissatisfaction among citizens in the UK, and while perceptions of crime and social breakdown may outstrip the day-to-day reality, there is no doubt that too many young people are abusing alcohol and other drugs, and engaging in acts of violence, predominately against each other. This, coupled with the legacy of waste in terms of the economy and the environment, does not bode well for the future. We have serious problems to contend with, and the solutions will need to be creative and bold. This will require that young people are educated in a manner fit for the purpose of solving these vital concerns.
The author is a lecturer on the Transitions course, which is for young people with Asperger syndrome.