THIS POST HAS BEEN WRITTEN BY JOHN AHSTON (@j_asht)
I was interested by John Rendel’s recent post, in which he shared an insight into his ideological background, and his impressions of Tories:
“When you meet a senior Tory (and I encourage you to do so if it’s not too painful), you realise that they often believe what they believe simply because they have so little understanding of what is going on in the real world. Ironically, for that reason, I’m a big advocate for getting as many Tories into teaching in comprehensive schools as possible. Over time, Tory policy should adjust so that the progressive ideals we are fighting for today might just be realised in this decade rather than the next.”
Perhaps this comment about senior Conservatives is true—I haven’t really spent enough time talking to them about serious issues to be able to say with confidence. I do however know a few conservatives in education. I thought I might reply to John’s post with another point of view.
John mentioned the liberal aims of education:
“Teachers are mostly liberals. Teaching exists to empower children through their growing capability and ultimately to set them free. While valuing education might be consistent with many political ideologies, it is only Social Liberalism for which universal, quality education is such foundational bedrock.”
I often think about the way in which education might set people free. To me, it seems not to be merely a question of opening up career paths, but also of enriching personal lives with the practical wisdom that comes from literature (for example) and the positive liberty that comes from a deep understanding of human societies and the world we live in. I’m sure I am not saying anything controversial: we all want people to have a good choice of occupation, a rich empathy with other humans and a deep understanding of humanity with its social and political structures.
I’m sure everyone will also agree with Marcus Aurelius, Lao Tzu, Leonardo da Vinci, etc. etc. when they say, in different words but with the same sentiment, “one can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of of oneself”. We all want people to be able to for example, be more successful mothers and fathers by controlling their anger, be richer and more content by knowing when their desires are being manipulated by advertising, and be able to resist crippling addictions. These things make us freer.
So far, so trite. Here’s where it gets controversial. Although my experience of teaching is limited to just two years, I am convinced that although we all would agree with these aims, many of us unwittingly undermine them.
I won’t go into detail on which policies and practices I think are self-defeating. If you’re already reading education blogs then you probably know exactly what I’m talking about, but some of what I have in mind is explained in Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools.
The problem is that the very reason that these bad ideas persist is because they seem Toryish. Teaching books by dead white men, insisting on the memorisation of information, strictness over empathy—these all sound like the enthusiasms of the quintessential mean-spirited Tory. Why do some cognitive scientists, school leaders and teachers believe in their effectiveness? Isn’t it obvious? Because they’re Tories.
I’m not a Tory; I’m a card-carrying Lib Dem. Some of those who share my beliefs about education are Corbyn-supporters.
Doing what feels liberal in the classroom often undermines liberal aims. It is not enough to have for us to have our hearts in the right place; we need to have our heads in the right place too—and the heart often sends the head down the wrong path.
Perhaps John had something else in mind (like grammar schools, which would not further liberal aims) and would agree with me on a lot of pedagogical points. So apologies, John, if this reply has missed the mark.
But this seems like a good opportunity to make a plea that we avoid unwarranted partisanship and stay clear-eyed about which methods and schools are genuinely advancing our socially liberal aims. We can learn from conservative teachers (and labour teachers) and the last thing we should do is ignore their voices because we assume they come from a place of callousness or ignorance. Teaching is not the right place to coalesce around political ideologies. Even Conservative teachers are mostly liberals in their educational aims. Defining ourselves against them might prove to be a disservice to those we want to help.