The power of education: Part I – How it empowers people

The power of education: Part I – How it empowers people

by Jill Stephenson
article from Monday 6, April, 2020

MY VIEW OF EDUCATION is a very simple one. Education is empowering. Without education, or with an inadequate education, a child’s life chances are stunted. Education begins in primary school, and that is where the building blocks of education need to be established securely. Literacy and numeracy should be embedded in primary school, yet, after decades of ‘progressive’ education, it is clear that those teaching in primary schools are often not equipped to facilitate this. It also seems as if actual education is not valued as it once was, and as it is in many developing countries, where it is rightly seen as a key to success. Here, it sometimes looks as if education has become a branch of social work.

My interest in this is personal. My paternal grandmother left school at the age of twelve. By her account, her teacher begged Granny’s mother to let her stay on because ‘She’s a bright girl’. But Granny was the eldest of five children, and her mother needed her at home. Soon, though, she became an earner, working in a fish shop in central Edinburgh. Her father was a trawler skipper, and in time her mother and she set up their own fish shop. To the end of her long life, she never ceased to resent the fact that her youngest sibling, also a girl, had been sent to Trinity Academy, had taken a secretarial course and had married her boss.

Granny married a delightful but altogether unambitious railway worker. Her life’s mission became to ensure that her two boys had a good education. Late in her life, she would tell checkout assistants: ‘I’ve a son who’s a headmaster and another who’s a procurator fiscal’. She was right to be proud: her drive had ensured they had the opportunities that she was denied. In my last good conversation with my father, I told him: ‘You and I have a lot to be grateful to your mother for’. He had inherited her view of the importance of education and ensured that I, although a girl – this was in the 1950s and 1960s – had the opportunities that a son would have had, in the face of my mother’s anxiety that ‘All this studying for girls isn’t a good thing. It diverts them from marriage’.

Without a rigorous and solid grounding in the basics of literacy and numeracy, other academic subjects are at best only partially accessible. I remember some university students telling me how, when they started French classes at school, their French teacher had first to teach them English grammar before they could start learning French – because they had left primary school without an adequate grasp of the mechanics of English. For those not intent on an academic route, literacy and numeracy are equally vital. How does a tradesman read instructions for tools and appliances, for example, or regulations about standards, if he is not fully literate? How does he measure and calculate if he is not fully numerate?

Children need to be so thoroughly trained in literacy and numeracy that the use of these functions is as automatic as walking – we don’t think about what our feet are doing when we walk around shops, stopping here and there to look at items of interest. For anyone writing an essay, content and form should be our concerns, not the nuts and bolts of sentence structure, which should have become automatic. When scrutinising a bill in a shop or restaurant, we should be able to spot instantly whether we have been over- or undercharged. Yet there are children who emerge from primary school with a tenuous grasp of literacy and numeracy. For some, including university students, a column of figures engenders fear. I used to present a simple table of unemployment figures for Germany in the 1930s and ask a student to comment on it. ‘Oh, I can’t do figures’, was a not uncommon response. I would say: ‘Presumably you can tell whether one number is bigger or smaller than another?’ There was sometimes reluctance to contemplate even that.

My old-fashioned view of education, as outlined, is, of course, out of sync with the views of modern ‘educationists’ who have long wanted children to ‘express themselves’ without being constrained by the bonds of accurate grammar, syntax, punctuation and spelling. This started in the later 1960s, when the tedious business of learning, and especially rote learning, was  anathematised as ‘authoritarian’. I recall Neil Kinnock saying on ‘Any Questions’ in the early 1980s, when he was Labour’s Shadow Education spokesman, that he regarded it as authoritarian to make children learn irregular Latin verbs. Perhaps he also didn’t approve of pianists or violinists learning scales and arpeggios, or of chemists learning formulae. Yet for any discipline there is a hard core of factual information that has to be learned if the student is to progress. We would all prefer our surgeon to have a solid grounding in anatomy before wielding his knife. The emphasis now is said to be on skills rather than knowledge. But how can you exercise skills if you don’t have material – that is, knowledge –which you can utilise to put these skills into practice? You cannot exercise skills in a vacuum.

Part of the problem appears to lie in expecting children to buckle down to tasks that are repetitive and require industry and application. The cardinal sin in education is expecting children to apply themselves to anything that is ‘boring’. Learning by rote is boring... Well, is it? I may have been some kind of a freak, but I remember taking great pleasure, as a child, in learning off by heart historical dates and Latin grammar. OK, so some might consider me a freak. Nevertheless, a child may well like to have amassed a body of knowledge; it instils pride and confidence. But now knowledge has to be sanitised to make it interesting and easy to assimilate. This, once again, underestimates the propensity for young people to like a challenge.

It would be unproductive, as well as unkind, to set children tasks that they cannot possibly accomplish at their age and stage. Yet stretching not only the very able but also children of all levels of ability, just beyond what they think they are capable of, can be very satisfying for the child when s/he succeeds. We should not underestimate children’s sense of achievement in having mastered something difficult. On the other hand, children will find that there are things that they try and try again without success. (Algebra, in my case.) It is part of preparation for adult life to encounter failure and disappointment. There is no point in pretending that a child has ‘excelled’ when that is demonstrably untrue. It seems that in some schools, particularly in poorer areas, there is a culture of low expectations. Kids who have a harder life should not be pressured into doing more than comes easily to them, runs the logic. Yet they are precisely the children who should have their ambition stretched, to gain the education that will liberate them from poverty.

And it should be their effort that achieves their goals, not someone else’s. If a parent ‘helps’ with homework, how does a teacher know what the child’s ability and competence are? If a teacher ‘helps’ with in-class tests, how do the results reflect a child’s attainment? I encountered students who clearly had grown up expecting to be given substantial help, presumably at school. They would approach me and the conversation would go like this: 

Student: ‘Can I talk to you about my essay?’ 

Me: ‘Yes, of course’. 

Student: ‘I wondered what you were looking for in the answer to this question’.

Me: ‘I don’t have a model answer in mind. I’ll react to what you say when I read your essay’. 

Student (slightly puzzled): ‘Yes. But I wondered what I should be looking for’. 

Me: ‘You should be looking for an answer to the question that was set. Here’s a clue: try taking the question apart and analysing its constituent elements. Test case: “Why was there a revolution in France in 1789?” What is a “revolution”? Why France, and not somewhere else? Why 1789 and not at some other time?’

What they really wanted was for me to do the hard work for them. Is that really what they learned at school? Education is a very personal project. Teachers can teach, and can guide, but for education to be worthwhile in achieving its aims, the effort has to be made by the learner. There is no substitute for that.

Jill Stephenson is Professor Emeritus of Modern German History at the University of Edinburgh. Part 2 to follow.

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