Oakeshott v. Gove on Education and Society

Oakeshott, M (1972) ‘Education: the Engagement and its Frustration’ in Fuller, T (ed) (1989) The Voice of Liberal Learning, New Haven and London: Yale University Press

I read this on the terrace on a warm Maltese evening accompanied with half a bottle of wine and the buzz of cicadas, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds.

Oakeshott views education as an initiation into human understandings that is not to be corrupted by extrinsic purpose. I felt that he sees education from the perspective of its value to us as a species, rather than to society. I was also reminded of the first episode of Brian Cox’s new series, where Coxy attributes man’s incredible achievements to our capacity to initiate future generations into what is already known; Newton’s standing on the shoulders of giants.

I would agree with all of this in principle. What I’m not sure about is whether it is even theoretically possible for the educational endeavour to be completely pure in this way. Like the relativist argument, it has the potential to slip into paradox. Who decides which human understandings we are to be initiated in? And how? Surely any such decision requires a value judgement that presupposes a purpose beyond learning for learning’s sake?

Oakeshott points out that the ‘alternative to education’ he describes – ‘socialisation’ – was invented in the 1700s ‘for the poor’. Why? Because the poor couldn’t handle ‘difficult’ understandings, or because they didn’t see their relevance in the fight for economic survival? This is important. The poor still exist. Is differentiation still a valid approach? Is a genuinely inclusive approach desirable – or even possible?

I shall return to both the above points in a bit; after a little detour:

Personally I feel that assessment is – at least as much as the socialisation agenda – a corruptive agent in education. It drives what is taught and learned in schools and universities; it becomes a purpose over learning for its own sake. Yes, there is probably a strong correlation between loving a subject and being good at examinations in it, but when a ‘subject’ is primarily about practising for its examinations, the correlation is a done deal.

Here’s an example: As a child I was always reading. Nothing deep… Enid Blyton (euwww, I know), Jan Mark, Stephen King. Then along came GCSE English Literature, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see the message – metaphor, allegory – that lurked beneath. Everyone else seemed to get it. I felt like I had rejoined my class after a year away.

If we had all been made to read ‘great’ (unfamiliar, meaningful?) books and discuss them together, I think I might have had a fighting chance at learning to read literature. But the GCSE exam required us to write handwritten essays, so that was what we practised for two years. My essays were well written and structured, and doggedly literal. My marks would vary wildly depending on whether my teacher perceived I was not-really-trying (me?!), or playing a witty, mischievous advocatus diaboli (more likely, but no). Isolated, my classmates and I evolved separately like the finches of the Galapagos. The sorry episode culminated not only in a GCSE grade that I never include on my CV, but also a resentment of George Orwell that lasted 17 years.*

Reflecting on my own struggle to engage with ‘great’ works of literature, I feel that Oakeshott’s vision – however beautiful and pure it may be – will take a good deal of thought to be made accessible to the majority, particularly given assessment’s tendency to ruin the party.

And now, over to the rather uncomfortable realisation that I am employed not as an educator, but as a socialiser of educators. I design and run a teaching qualification programme, an instrument designed to meet the demands of a multi-layered social system that includes government initiatives and information systems (e.g. NSS, KIS), professional bodies (HEA, SEDA), professional ‘standards’ (the PSF), institutional targets and strategic priorities (UAL’s medium-term strategy), etc etc..

Assuming that education is the nobler pursuit, is it possible that I can ‘purify’ my purpose in my current situation – to become more of an educator and less of a socialiser? I have made a lot of changes to our PG Cert over the last three years to try to instill in my students a lasting, positive attitude towards pedagogic theory. Not towards any particular theories/perspectives, but the practice of sourcing, reading and finding relevance in the literature. Our curriculum has become increasingly more policy-neutral; privileging general principles of scholarship, reflection and collegiality over specific teaching approaches or techniques. We ask our student teachers to think about their educational aims, rather than telling them what these aims should be. Without the socialisation agenda, the course I run might not exist, but I do think that it has potential to achieve a little bit of what Oakeshott desired from education.

Michael Gove, on the other hand, appears to have bastardised Oakeshott’s words in support of a vision of government-driven socialisation. I am reminded of Irvine Welsh – on George Osborne – saying “I would rather have Fred and Rosemary West quote my characters on childcare”. I have tried to give the man a fair listen – and I don’t disagree with all of what he says – but there are so many holes in his arguments, I don’t quite know where to begin. On one hand his educational position is about jobs – i.e. everyone being able to get a ‘good’ one. On the other it is all about transcendent Victorian novels (making sure no-one ever, ever reads George Eliot for pleasure?). I don’t see the connection. One thing he is consistent on is consistency – of curriculum, of opportunity. No differentiation. Everyone will get it all – the great works of yesteryear AND the vocational skills of tomorrow.

By the way… this stuff about everyone having a ‘good job’. More value judgements… Gove clearly has a certain kind of job in mind. What about the jobs that he thinks aren’t ‘good’? Who will do those? According to his speech on the future of vocational ‘education’ (training?) they will be done by machines. Yes, in 60 years’ time when I’m rotting in a residential home I will have a furry robot for company (courtesy of a shiny new generation of coders) and a robotic arm to wipe my bum (contract ‘coincidentally’ won by Gove’s friends at McLaren). Welcome to Gove’s vision of the future. I have a couple of really good friends who are part-time care workers. Their care work enables them to spend more time and energy on their creative careers – which, while rewarding, will probably never pay all the bills. It works for them, and it certainly works for the people they care for.

I know… Luddite alert.

This is emotive stuff. It highlights how education is increasingly being used as a political tool. Personally I think politics should get the hell out of education, and I think Oakeshott would agree.

*I have finally forgiven Mr Orwell, having enjoyed Down and Out in Paris and New York and Coming Up For Air – both for the words on the page, not whatever lay beneath.
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