How did it come to this?
Like something seen through bad glass, the liquid form of an idea can be tricky to discern. And, like flowing water, it’s course can be both corrosive and beautiful.
Strangely enough, in education the source of many a bad idea resides in a positive change that occurred during later stages of Victoria’s reign. The initial drip, in 1870, was the introduction of universal education. Then, as suffrage expanded during the early part of the 20th century, power began to diffuse through society. Soon, the ruling class would not be saturated solely with aristocratic men.
Fast-forward to WWII. It had become impossible for the ruling class to load-up ships with working class men and dispatch them off to remote corners of the earth, in order to fight for a nation in which many still felt downtrodden. Understanding this, Churchill and Attlee promised that, following the conflict, Britain would become a land better, fairer. If the people fought for the nation, the nation would fight for the people, so they said. And with improved schooling, healthcare, universities, and welfare, Britain did become a fairer place. So far, so good.
But with so much change occurring, it is perhaps unsurprising that the proponents of competing economic and political ideologies took up arms. While, broadly speaking, capitalists won the economic battle and democrats the political one, many of the cultural fights were won by the Marxists, communists, and socialists. Traditionally, within these three related ideologies, there have been two distinct roads of reasoning about how best to approach ‘remaking’ society: 1) spread privilege (i.e., raise those at the bottom up to the top), and 2) rip it all up and begin again. Culturally, one of the ideologies, ‘rip it all up’, remains prevalent today, while the other, ‘spread privilege’, remains less so.
It is the ubiquity of the ‘rip it all up’ ideology that has led to the problems within education. Rather than spreading privilege, those who advocate progressive teaching and radical alterations to the curriculum see our system of education (in both its method and content) as much like some invisible scaffolding around Buckingham Palace: a sneaky instrument designed by the ruling elite to support and maintain the structures that keep them in power, and to covertly foreground ‘their’ culture at the expense of alternatives.
This idea, coalescing with many other post WWII events (the miners strikes; the decline, and subsequent unease about, empire; the recent banking crisis), has helped to create a narrative in which the poor and marginalised continue to be exploited by the powerful. And there is truth in that narrative. A lot of truth. But let’s not get distracted by large-scale sociological narratives. Let our eyes stay firmly fixed on the topic at hand: education. Because if the ‘rip it all up’ solution is to work, it must be implemented at a societal level, not an educational one; society must be dismantled and fundamentally redesigned, from the bottom up, and divested of its centuries-old power structures (which will get replaced with new ones).
If we assume that this is not going to occur imminently, then, just as removing only a staircase won’t bring down a house, ripping up the education system alone won’t change society. In fact, progressive education is actually exacerbating the problems its proponents want to eradicate, because, like a house without any stairs, access to the top is denied. Many of the ideas promoted by progressives actually work to prevent the poorest and most marginalised from achieving academically (and thus economically and politically), by denying them access to the knowledge of the powerful. Thus the knowledge gap between the poor and the powerful increases.
This leaves us with the ‘spread privilege’ solution. Unless remaking society in its totality, this is bound to be more successful, because it takes account of society as it is, rather than as a multitude of possibilities that some might wish it to be. It aims to provide the poorest pupils with the same knowledge and skills as their richer counterparts, so that they might also gain access to the firmaments of power.
But what about the accusation that spreading privilege simply maintains power structures? Well, as we have just seen, it actually disseminates power amongst the populace. And, in the final analysis, is it the structures of power themselves that are the problem, or the marshals at the bottom saying only certain pupils may climb them?
“Ah yes,” I hear you retort, “but the ‘spread privilege’ solution values the culture of the ‘dead white male’ above all others.”
The term notwithstanding, there is surely some truth in this. But first, let’s interrogate the term. The word ‘dead’ is redundant here. Realistically, education can only study things that have already happened, and thus, since it is mostly concerned with the past, most of its protagonists are likely to be dead. A more useful term would be ‘privileged, white males’. This is important to note, not only for accuracy, but also because it also brings into the spotlight an underlying assumption held by some of those who use the term; they believe the past is unimportant. In a sense, this is the nadir of progressivism: Forget the past! It’s all about progress! Forward, march!
But this raises a question: if we don’t teach the past, what do we teach? The future? How can we? We can’t. Of course we can’t, at least not in any meaningful way. So, what are we left with? Nothing perhaps. Or perhaps we are left teaching something more sinister: how the future should be. Immediately, this suggests ideas of Orwellian thought crime. Teaching how the world ‘should’ be, rather than how it is, or has been, is the very aim of many a book burning, totalitarian despot who is ushering in Year Zero.
Tell me I’m out-of-date, but it seems to me that that this is not a particularly progressive state of affairs. Now obviously, I’m not claiming that there are legions and hordes out there who actually want to use our education system to enact an Orwellian future. But if we refuse to teach what has happened in the past, and in a truthful way, then the education we provide will become a values-based one, and teaching a vehicle for people who wish to promote a vision of how they would like society to be. And what is that if not naked political indoctrination?
(It may be argued that I myself am putting forward a political argument here, which, of course, I am. But I contain my argument within the realm of the education system; I am arguing that the education system should provide all pupils with what I believe is a good education. To my mind, this is an argument qualitatively different from one that posits using the education system as a proxy for wider political goals.)
I should also recognise that the phrase ‘dead white male’ is a play on a secondary meaning of ‘dead’, as in ‘very’. To spread privilege means to teach a curriculum that is very white and very male, so the argument goes. The argument is broadly correct. And the reason for this is that Western history has been both very white and very male. So we have a problem because, as we have just discovered, essentially, we are always teaching history. But let’s be clear: this does not mean we must rush off to read Mein Kampf or endorse a world in which white males hold the vast majority of power. Nor does it preclude us from critiquing societies that are based on any such or similar principles, first and foremost our own. But it does mean that if we are to attempt to teach the best that has been said, thought, and done, in order to build a fairer society, a society in which the poor can compete with the privileged, then the curriculum will inevitably be skewed towards that which has been said, thought, and done by privileged, white males. Again, this is regrettable, but we teach it not because we want to endorse that world-view, but because, like parrots perched atop pens of parakeets, privileged, white males were, for a long time, the only ones able to talk and act freely.
Crucially, while a high-quality curriculum will be skewed in its content, its protagonists will not be privileged, white males exclusively, nor will it promote white-only/male-only privilege as an ideal. A unit on the slave trade, for example, must include the voices of the slaves and should value them above both the voices of slaveholders (obviously), and, in my view, the voices of white abolitionists; ultimately, any unit on the slave trade that omits to study Toussaint L’Ouverture is not a unit of study at all. Similarly, a chronological study of English literature should see a plethora female writers emerge during the 18th and 19th centuries, and, appearing after WWII, there should be working class novelists and post-colonial writers, such as Alan Sillitoe and Chinua Achebe. These are but three examples; their are, of course, many others. But organised like this, the curriculum demonstrates to pupils the influence that power structures have had over time and that is a fact that we should not hide. Truly, it is important that this fact is taught in a meaningful way, and it is the job of the teacher to mediate the fact with contemporary attitudes towards it.
While ideas and attitudes have changed significantly over the past 100 years or so, and will no doubt continue to do so, we must remember that we can’t change the past to suit our aims for the present. Indeed, we must not learn only from the best of our words, but also from the worst of our deeds. So unless we would rather rip up society and start all over again, we must have a curriculum that aims to teach the best that has been said, thought, and done, and this means recognising and critiquing the fact that power and opportunity have been skewed towards privileged, white males. And although it might seem paradoxical, perverse even, by providing our poorest and most marginalised pupils with access to this knowledge, it means our future will be more diverse. And really, isn’t that what we’re aiming for?