Should education socialize?

man_reading_and_childCurrent models of ed-tech are based on theories of progressive education which are in turn based on a false understanding of what learning involves.

I wrote the following piece as an assignment during my PGCE, which I completed in 1990 at the Institute of Education in London. It was to some degree an exercise in letting off steam, a cry of exasperation at the complete nonsense that I felt we were being prescribed on our reading lists. I publish it now, partly in response to Harry Web’s review of Gert Biesta’s the Beautiful Risk of Education. It is also relevant to a Twitter conversation yesterday in which my interlocutor suggested that it was up to teachers to ensure that the curriculum was “developmentally appropriate”. 

Ed-tech (the subject of this blog) rests on education theory—and there is a chasm opening up in the current debate in this area between those who think that education is essentially an exercise in development, driven from within; and those who think that education is an exercise in socialization, driven by the transmission of knowledge and values from the society in which the learner is placed. I take the latter side—see my recent article for Terry Freedman’s Digital Education—and to anyone who cries foul (or at least “false dichotomy”) I would say, you take the latter side too. Because while those who believe in transmission (or socialization, as I call it in this essay) also recognise development as a necessary prerequisite for achieving certain sorts of understanding, those who believe in education driven by internal development generally appear to view external influence and transmission as illegitimate. That is why the question is not “should children develop?” (of course they should) but “should education socialize?”.

And to those to whom I have promised some use-cases, to illustrate how the sort of education technology that I am advocating will work in practice, let me say, in passing, that I am working on it.

‘(Education) consists in initiating others into activities, modes of conduct and thought which have standards written into them by reference to which it is possible to act, think and feel with varying degrees of skill, relevance and taste. If teachers are not convinced of this they should be otherwise employed.’ Amongst those who should be ‘otherwise employed’, Peters (1964)[1] would undoubtedly rank many contemporary educationalists. Goldstein and Nuttall (1988)[2], far from accepting that the concept of standards is central to education, find the word so distasteful that they cannot use it without encasing it in inverted commas. They appear to believe that any standard defined by society is arbitrary and so to transmit it to the pupil would be to compromise his individuality. Socialisation has become a dirty word: the tenets of child-centred education are that the pupil should be allowed to grow as an individual from within, and not to be constrained or conditioned from without. This essay will argue that this view rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of individuality, that this process of growth from within is illusory, and that it is only through a process of initiation into the traditions of our society that individuality can grow.

A good starting point would be to consider Kelly’s (1990 pp24-28)[3] summary of four commonly stated alms of education:

  1. The vocational training for jobs and skills that will be needed in adult life. Kelly states that this is designed primarily to benefit ‘the economic health and welfare of society’, and is still the predominant concern in the Third World, and in this country of ‘pupils and parents, as well as politicians and industrialists.’
  2. ‘Socialising children into the norms and customs, the value systems of society’. Kelly states (fairly depreciatingly) that this is the main aim of education in totalitarian countries: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the Communist bloc, where children have been systematically Indoctrinated into attitudes of patriotism and devotion to the ruling party.
  3. Initiation into ‘high culture’, which is characterised as being ‘timeless, eternal, objective and apolitical’.
  4. ‘The development of individual capacities and capabilities in a way that is not tied to the transmission of any particular view of culture or of values’.

The first two of these objectives are ‘instrumental’: that is, they have a well-defined purpose which in both cases is to do with preparing the individual for his role in society; developing in the first the practical skills that he will need, and in the second, the moral attitudes.

The third and fourth aims are ‘intrinsic’: they do not suppose that education should be for anything, but that it is of itself, intrinsically good, and does not need to be justified in terms of any quantifiable result. Kelly recognises that both of these intrinsic aims are problematic. Indeed his third aim can be quickly disposed of, as the definition of any perfectly objective, transcendental ‘high culture’, is clearly beyond the capacity of any individual, value-laden man. A liberal intellectual might want to teach about human rights: a neo-Nazi would opt for social Darwinism. Presumptions to perfect objectivity should be treated with extreme distrust.

It is to the fourth point, education as the development of the individual, that Kelly pins his colours. In doing so he re-states the commonly-held values of the philosophy of child-centred education: pluralism, individualism, self-determination. The instrumental aims, numbers 1 and 2, are seen to be primarily in the interests of society and ergo inimical to the interests of the individual, who is to be moulded and exploited at the expense of his full personal development. It is on the basis of this view that Kelly launches a passionate attack on the 1988 Education Act, which he sees as based on the instrumental, social aims of education at the expense of the individualistic aims in which he believes.

The glib opposition of individual and society is obviously not new, as Durkheim (1925)[4] protests wearily of ‘some hoary habits of thinking, which oppose society and the individual as two contrary and antagonistic categories, neither of which can expand or develop except at the expense of the other’. Not only, as Margatet Thatcher pointed out, is society a problematic concept, but, and more interestingly for this essay, so is the individual. Durkheim continues, ‘Society enters into every part of us. It is outside us and envelops us…it is also in us and is everywhere an aspect of our nature. We are fused with it’. The individual inherits from the society in which he lives everything that he considers most personal: his habits, values, ideas. His most basic intellectual concepts, as Wittgenstein has argued, are defined by the language in which he frames them: the language which he inherits from society. Not only is the individual defined by society in terms of his inheritance, but also in terms of his aspirations: men group together in bars, towns and cities: it is an individualist indeed who is a hermit.

At a time when the evidence for social conditioning is so strong, it might seem strange that the cult of the individual should be so self-assured amongst the Western liberal intelligentsia; but it is easily explained, if only by another seeming paradox: Individualism is a dominant strand in our social culture. Everett Wilson, in his introduction to the 1961 American translation of Durkheim’s Moral Education, notes the difference between the French sense of social solidarity and American individualism. He attributes this to the individualistic traditions of the American frontier, the influence of Protestantism and of the supposedly individualistic discipline of psychology. This third point may be questioned, as, though psychology may be predisposed to value individual autonomy as a desirable goal for the fully mature adult, it also stresses the vital contribution of social context to that development. For Jung (1954)[5] those who argue for individualism assert the power of the conscious ego in opposition to the vastly more potent collective unconscious: ‘That is why the cry of “individualism” is a cheap insult when flung at the natural development of personality’. Lang (1961)[6] notes the growing dissatisfaction with any theory or study of the individual which isolates him from his context’. He stresses that an individual’s whole concept of self is defined in his social interaction with the outside world: ‘All “identities” require an other: some other in and through a relationship with whom self-identity is actualised’. So it is doubtful whether the discipline of psychology is inevitably pre-disposed towards an individualistic culture: but Wilson’s first and second points, regarding the importance of the American frontier and Protestantism, are widely accepted. Macfarlane (1978)[7] argues that the origins of individualism in our culture go back further, to the early development of strong legal institutions in Anglo-Saxon England. The importance of this argument is to demonstrate that the whole concept of individualism, far from being opposed to society, is the product of it. Confusingly for those who wish to defend the individual against the supposed economic exploitation of capitalism, capitalism is inextricably linked with individualism, depending on the free-choice of individuals for the working of the free market and spurring them, with its materialistic value system, to individual achievement. One major difficulty with the introduction of capitalism into the old Soviet bloc is precisely their lack of a tradition of individualism.

Once this close, dependent, inter-twined relationship between the individual and society is accepted (and between our society and the concept of individualism), it can be seen that Kelly is quite wrong when he asserts that ‘we cannot, for example, set out to socialise pupils into certain values, attitudes, beliefs and ways of thinking, while at the same time endeavouring to promote their development as autonomous, free-thinking, self-determined individuals’. The words he uses, ‘autonomous’, `free-thinking’, `self-determined’, are oozing with liberal humanist values: they are the ‘values, attitudes, beliefs and ways of thinking’ into which the children in our society are, quite rightly, socialised.

If this is thought to be semantic pedantry, it is worth looking at the way in which Kelly describes his non-socialising process of education: the educator is to ‘promote the development’ of the child. In other words he is to assist, or in the language of child-centred educators, facilitate, a development which is already mapped out within the child, the flowering of which will represent the fulfilment of his individuality. In practice the ideas of individuality, which, as argued above, have social origins, are adopted by the child with extreme reluctance, if at all. In my own experience in teaching practice, I attempted to get pupils to develop their note-taking abilities, and found that, in the six weeks available, it was quite impossible to make any headway against the universal habit of copying out chunks of text, rather than taking independently phrased notes. Independent-mindedness has to be taught, and it is one of the most difficult things that there is to be taught. I remember at Physics ‘0’ level, a subject which I enjoyed and was good at, doing an experiment concerned with mass and acceleration, the data from which was meant to demonstrate a straight-line relationship between the two. But I was convinced that the relationship should be exponential, probably because we had recently covered some such formula. I was very worried when I found that the dots on my graph appeared to lie on a straight line and so, to the exasperation of the Physics teacher, I drew a rough curve through them to try and disguise this fact. I naturally relied more on what I believed was expected of me than on the evidence of my own senses.

This happens because children learn predominantly, not as child-centred educators assert, through discovery, but through imitation. There is some irony in the fact that the work of Jean Piaget, possibly the – greatest authority for the importance gleaming by discovery, was not itself directly concerned with education. Piaget divided the development of children into a sequence of stages, running from the early sensori-motor stage when the child’s perception of the world was dominated by his own bodily functions, through the concrete operations phase when the child was beginning to appreciate the separate existence of concrete objects around him, to the formal operations phase when the child started to conceive of abstract generalisations. Piaget believed that the child advanced from one stage to the next when its own observations provoked a state of disequilibrium, meaning that its previous model of the world was no longer consistent with the evidence available to it. This forced the child to modify its view of the world by a process of accommodation with the new evidence. Piaget therefore views the child’s development as essentially self-driven and his rigid classification gives it the appearance almost of inevitability: at certain ages, given the right environment, children will become aware of certain inconsistencies in their world view, and by a relentless internal dialectic, they will move into a higher stage of development. This Piagetian view, which has been the cornerstone of much child-centred education, is no longer generally regarded as tenable. While much criticism of Piaget has focused on his experimental methods, the conclusions of much of the re-examination of Piaget’s work have pointed to his under-estimation of the importance of social influences on child development. Russel (1983)[8] reports that in his own experiments the vast majority of children made important cognitive leaps not by the process that Piaget posited of covariance leading to cognitive disequilibrium (an internal process) but by one child imitating another, more advanced, child. Similarly, Lloyd (1983)[9] stresses the very great importance of language (a social phenomenon par excellence) to the development of cognitive patterns, playing an important role as ‘an organising factor in cognition’, and this is backed up by importance of language in the encoding of long-term memory, discussed by Borger & Seabourne (1966)19. This contradicts Piaget’s view of children’s language as a mere symptom of their unsophisticated egocentricity. Society provides the role models which are the most important means of our cognitive development and, in language, the very fabric of cognition itself. We are truly social animals.

The importance of imitation is easily observed. During PSE, I was asked by the teacher in charge of the Reception class to try and get the children interested in a new activity which she had laid out, with small blackboards and chalk. In vain I approached various children with variations on ‘Look! do you want to have a go at this?’, until I simply sat down at the table and started scribbling on the boards myself. Within a few seconds the whole class was around me, desperate to use the blackboards. I found the same tactics to be just as productive in Secondary School when I wanted to do an exercise in Arab Calligraphy with a difficult 8th year as part of a unit on The Islamic World. They were meant to produce a calligraphic design in Arab letters of their own name. I produced beforehand such a design of my own name, which I showed to them at the beginning of the exercise in class. The example engendered. more enthusiasm for the task than I had seen in the class at any other time. It demonstrated to them both the value that this was a task that was worth doing, and the standard of work that was attainable and expected.

Child-centred educators might say that my actions in showing the children work that I had done would blunt their sense of originality; and it is true that the great majority of their efforts bore a striking resemblance to my own, in spite of the many times that I stressed the many alternative possible approaches to the task. But originality is often over-valued in the modern world: Shakespeare invented very few of his own plots; the statement that ‘apples fall upwards’ is an original assertion, but valueless; a pile of bricks in the Tate Gallery is, as a piece of art, also original, but to those not hypnotized by the value of originality per se, a waste of money. The principle of originality should not be encouraged in children to the exclusion of instilling a respect for the concept of value, otherwise the child will become satisfied that there is nothing more valuable than his own necessarily mediocre output or more exciting than his own narrow environment. His individuality will not be enhanced by such apparent deference to it, but stunted in proportion to its isolation from the society around him. The dwarf will never bother to climb onto the shoulders of the giant because he is wrongly persuaded that the view from the ground is just as good.

The way to educate pupils into being able to exercise a coherent independent-mindedness, is not to isolate them from influences that might supposedly enslave them, and see what develops in the vacuum; but to bombard them with such influences. If asked to cite a truly original mind, most people would name a famous artist or scientist; but a quick reading of that person’s biography would almost certainly reveal a catalogue of influences which lay behind their supposedly spontaneous originality. Modelling behaviour, so long as there is a multiplicity of models available, is the source of originality, not an obstacle to it: individuality is constructed from bricks baked in the kiln of society.

This essay has, in answering a question about the desirability of socialisation, dwelt mostly on the issue of individuality because it is on this issue that a fundamental confusion appears to exist. But there are also other values in our society into which pupils need to be socialised: ‘respect for others and for self and for property, consideration of people’s interests, fairness and honesty; and…general virtues such as conscientiousness, sense of responsibility, integrity, respect for law, self-control, sincerity, self-reliance, loyalty, a sane attitude to authority; and with those virtues such as determination, courage, patience and perseverance which are necessary to put the others into practice’ (Joint Statement of Objectives for Comprehensive Schools) [10]. Kelly cites the Salmon Rushdie case to assert that in a pluralist society, ‘it becomes a highly questionable practice to impose the cultural heritage and the values of one of these (cultural) groups, even of the majority group, on all children regardless of their cultural origins.’ But whereas different religions and ethnic cultures can happily co-exist in a pluralist society, tolerance cannot co-exist with intolerance. It is essential that immigrant communities, which may have originated in non-individualistic, intolerant, hierarchical societies, be imbued with the basic moral precepts of the society which they have joined. And if there is a need for sensitivity because of the cultural complexity of our society, this merely reinforces the importance of providing a multiplicity of role models and of the transmission of our society’s value of tolerance. It is no argument for education in a cultural vacuum.

It is not only in the interests of society that individuals acquire these values, but in the interests of the individuals themselves. Kelly fails to mention that the preparation of pupils for jobs, which he depicts as being purely in the interests of the economic health and welfare of society’, is also enormously to the advantage of the pupils themselves. Similarly, as Durkheim (1925) powerfully argues, the acquisition of a moral code is also greatly to the advantage of the individual in providing him with a sense of purpose, of regularity and of social involvement which, far from being inimical to individuality, are essential pre-requisites to the development of a strong individual will. Modern psychologists might look with some suspicion on the motivation of great Victorians like William Gladstone, but it is difficult not to admire their enormous sense of purpose. A sense of independence is of little comfort to the individual if it is not accompanied by some strength of will, as the latest power steering is of little use in a car which has no engine.

The argument developed by Kelly is based on the assumption of the need to protect the child from a ravaging society. It is on this basis that he pursues the quest for a justification of education as an intrinsic good, which would excuse educationalists from the burden of providing grubby, practical justifications for their trade. But neither of his two intrinsic models of education convince: the idea of individual growth in a culturally sterile area no more than that of individual growth in a culture transcendently pure. The whole debate about education being intrinsically good is, as Warnock (1980)[11] simply points out, an enormous waste of academic ink, as the definition of ‘good’ is something that brings a quantifiable benefit. God may get free entrance to the halls of goodness, but everyone else has to show their ticket. Justifying education in terms of other benefits both for society and individuals makes teachers and educationalists accountable to all those ‘pupils and parents, as well as politicians and industrialists’ whose opinions Kelly seems to value so little: ‘teacher autonomy’ is a phrase with which he is much more comfortable than ‘teacher accountability’.

Links between teachers and society are not just about society judging teachers, they are also about teachers drawing on the resources of society to provide the vitality and variety of experience which is so easily lost in the institutional atmosphere of school. Education as an initiation into society is not the same as pitching pupils out into the word to learn the hard way, or akin to the arguments of the de-schoolers. Society is a complex animal offering on one hand an enormous range and diversity of opinion and experience but on the other some dark and sometimes unpleasant corners where the uninitiated may come to rest. As Gilchrist[12] points out, the arguments of the de-schoolers, if put into practice, would not have liberated the individual from a process of repressive moulding, but exposed him at an earlier stage in his life to the more limited and therefore more repressive influence of the workplace. The initiation, the socialisation, which is the responsibility of school, is not a restriction of individuality, but a building of individuality and empowering of the individual to navigate the society that as Durkheim says, is within us and all around us. If schools fail to influence, then the television, advertising and the experience of the workplace certainly will. There is not a question of whether to influence or not, whether to socialise or not: the question is who will influence, and how the child will be socialised. If the school abandons its role of socialisation then the process will occur haphazardly and within a narrow horizon.

Many educationalists with well-developed political agendas appear to regard our society as a prison. It is not: it is the sum total of all the traditions, knowledge and values to which we as individuals have access. Educators who cannot undertake their role in the initiation of young people into that society with enthusiasm and excitement should indeed be, as Peters asserted, otherwise employed.

[1] Peters, R.S. (1964), Education as Initiation. Great Britain: University of
London Institue of Education.
[2] Goldstein, H. & Nuttall, D. (1988), ‘Can graded assessments, records of achievements & modular assessment co-exist?’, in GCSE: an uncommon examination.
[3] Kelly, A V, 1990, The National Curriculum a critical review. Great
Britain: Paul Chapman.
[4] Durkeim, E. (1925), L’éducation morale. France: Librairie Felix Alcan.
[5] Yung, C.G. (1954), The Development of Personality. England: Routledge
& Kegan Paul.
[6] Lang, R.D. (1961), Self and Others. England: Tavistock Publications.
[7] Macfarlane, A. (1978), The Origins a English Individualism. England:
Basil Blackwell.
[8] Russel, J. (1983), ‘Cognitive structures & verbalised beliefs’ in Jean Piaget: An Interdisciplinary Critique ed. Modigil, S. GB: Kegan Paul.
[9] Lloyd, P. (1983) ‘Language and Communication: Piaget’s Influence.’ ibid.
[10] Briault, E.W.H., et al. (1966), ‘Joint Statement by Groups land II’, in A Critical Appraisal of Comprehensive Education, ed. Ross, J.M. et al. (1972). Great Britain: National Foundation for Educational Research.
[11] Warnock (1980) Education – The Way Ahead.
[12] Gilchrist, (196?) What school is for.

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