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Our educational crisis – has intelligence gone out of fashion?

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TO BE FAIR on Tony Blair, the expansion of the education system isn’t the only reason that intelligence has been chucked to the back of the wardrobe, but credit where credit is due, it’s a biggy.  A correlation between a degree and intelligence is nowhere near a clear line, but its fair to say that degrees have lost a little of their shine, and intelligence a little of its value.

Intelligence itself has been picked apart in dreary academic debates about what it means.  But for most of us, it’s straightforward. Like good art, we know it when we see it.  We absorb information, make decisions and act on the basis of our thinking skills.  Some people can do it faster, have more storage, problem solve and communicate more effectively than others.

Intelligence, ironically like Prince Andrew, has a history of links to unsavoury characters.  Widespread intelligence testing used to segregate children which is rightly now seen as having at best, questionable ethics and at worst, faintly Nazi-ish echoes.  Suspicion about testing has led to a suspicion about intelligence, what with its vaguely superior attitude, and needed squashing by a universal and open education system.

Educationalists with government backing, have also been putting the boot in on intelligence by developing what is now the accepted educational principles of ‘growth mind-set’ – which in simple terms says that anyone can learn anything, and if they can’t now, they just haven’t learnt it YET.  Politicians and schools love this pretty idea.  It helps that it shifts the focus from ugly statistics like reading ability levels.  If anyone does venture near the numbers, politicians shriek ‘MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS’ and no one can argue with ‘mental health’ as being so very, very important.   Hard facts are hard to find in children’s school reports, now smothered by meaningless phrases like ‘progressing well at her level’.

In England there are five indicators for schools to measure how a child is doing.  In Scotland, not to be outdone, it’s eight.   Only one indicator in each is concerned with academic learning.  The rest target the whole child’s development – you know, the things that parents used to be expected to look after – emotional wellbeing, relationships, motivation, values, physical health and whatever issue has made the news that week.

Schools reflect establishment values.  Academic skills and thinking jostle with emotional factors that do, of course, impact on a child’s life.   But the establishment does have limits.  We wouldn’t tolerate a blind surgeon or a dyslexic traffic warden.  That would be silly, they couldn’t do the actual job.  But teachers who cannot spell or use apostrophes?  They are now doing the job of teaching, giggling that their spelling and grammar is terrible – because it doesn’t matter anymore.

When politicians say they value and prioritise education, they are not kidding.  It’s just not education as we’d know it.

The new order in state schools is schools as parents. Intelligence and basic literacy have lost their place to emotional intelligence. Poor and underclass children are surrounded by professionals who want to relate to them, to build their confidence, and make a ‘difference’ to their lives – in the short term anyway.  Forget Shakespeare and learning actual academic skills and knowledge. If you think education should be a ticket to other worlds, it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Schools need to remember what they do.  They need to prioritise real learning, value intellect, encourage thinking, and see learning as their product and their unique selling point.

There’s some space for new trends.  But don’t throw out your wardrobe staples in favour of this year’s slogan on a T-shirt.   Don’t leave our children with trends and no classics. They’ll be of little comfort in the future when they can’t read or count.

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Gail MacDonald is from the west coast of Scotland. She studied at Nottingham and has been a professional psychologist and writer for over twenty years working in both public and private sectors. Views expressed here are personal. 

Shakespeare image with speech bubbles of the famous writer’s citations, including Old English greeting Holla! by Elena Panevkina 

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