A vaccination for ignorance

Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education spoke about the future of technology in the classroom at the BETT show a few days ago. One particular comment stopped me short. It made me gasp.

“In future, we could try to link qualifications to tax data too in order to demonstrate the true worth of certain subjects.”

I don’t have a problem with the education secretary pointing out that we need more STEM graduates or even that students should be aware that they may make more money in the future if they study them. However, did the person in charge of the education of our country’s children really just say that the ‘true worth’ of an education could be measured by the income it might generate?

Education provides an essential function whether or not it leads to high incomes or rising national prosperity.

Education dispels ignorance.

Nicky Morgan’s comment makes me think of the sort of parents who refuse vaccinations for their children. Caught up in first world quandaries they can air brush out the stark and heart breaking reality of what would happen if all parents refused vaccines. They are perhaps ignorant of the suffering of past generations who had to accept the regular loss of their young children to the diseases of childhood.

Vaccines addressed the problem of disease and state education was the solution to the problem of ignorance. In 1942 William Beveridge labelled ignorance one of the five giant evils in society, along with squalor, want, idleness and disease and his report provided the foundation of the modern welfare state. Ignorance may seem such an old fashioned concern. However, that is because we can no longer picture just what it means to be ‘ignorant’ in the way people were before mass ‘innoculations’ of education nearly wiped ignorance out. True, some people know shockingly little today but acquiring some knowledge is fairly unavoidable in our educated society. We take the ‘true worth’ of that education for granted.

Below are three extracts chosen simply because they have stuck in my mind as they helped me picture what is really meant by ignorance and just WHY our children need an education, whether or not they earn much more at the end of it.

My first example is an extract from one of my favourite books, North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell written in 1855. Gaskell’s novels aimed to offer a detailed portrait of society, including the lives of the very poor. Here the middle class heroine, Margaret, is revisiting a poor family she knew when younger. She is with her godfather, Mr Bell.

  They reached the cottage where Susan’s widowed mother lived. Susan was not there. She was gone to the parochial school. Margaret was disappointed, and the poor woman saw it, and began to make a kind of apology.  

‘Oh! it is quite right,’ said Margaret. ‘I am very glad to hear it. I might have thought of it. Only she used to stop at home with you.’     

‘Yes, she did; and I miss her sadly. I used to teach her what little I knew at nights. It were not much to be sure. But she were getting such a handy girl, that I miss her sore. But she’s a deal above me in learning now.’ And the mother sighed.   

‘I’m all wrong,’ growled Mr. Bell. ‘Don’t mind what I say. I’m a hundred years behind the world. But I should say, that the child was getting a better and simpler, and more natural education stopping at home, and helping her mother, and learning to read a chapter in the New Testament every night by her side, than from all the schooling under the sun.’     

Margaret did not want to encourage him to go on by replying to him, and so prolonging the discussion before the mother. So she turned to her and asked,     ‘How is old Betty Barnes?’     

‘I don’t know,’ said the woman rather shortly. ‘We’se not friends.’    

 ‘Why not?’ asked Margaret, who had formerly been the peacemaker of the village.    

 ‘She stole my cat.’     

‘Did she know it was yours?’    

 ‘I don’t know. I reckon not.’  

 ‘Well! could not you get it back again when you told her it was yours?’     

‘No! for she’d burnt it.’   

 ‘Burnt it!’ exclaimed both Margaret and Mr. Bell.     

Roasted it!’ explained the woman.   

 It was no explanation. By dint of questioning, Margaret extracted from her the horrible fact that Betty Barnes, having been induced by a gypsy fortune-teller to lend the latter her husband’s Sunday clothes, on promise of having them faithfully returned on the Saturday night before Goodman Barnes should have missed them, became alarmed by their non-appearance, and her consequent dread of her husband’s anger, and as, according to one of the savage country superstitions, the cries of a cat, in the agonies of being boiled or roasted alive, compelled (as it were) the powers of darkness to fulfil the wishes of the executioner, resort had been had to the charm. The poor woman evidently believed in its efficacy; her only feeling was indignation that her cat had been chosen out from all others for a sacrifice. Margaret listened in horror; and endeavoured in vain to enlighten the woman’s mind; but she was obliged to give it up in despair. Step by step she got the woman to admit certain facts, of which the logical connexion and sequence was perfectly clear to Margaret; but at the end, the bewildered woman simply repeated her first assertion, namely, that ‘it were very cruel for sure, and she should not like to do it; but that there were nothing like it for giving a person what they wished for; she had heard it all her life; but it were very cruel for all that.’ Margaret gave it up in despair, and walked away sick at heart.     ‘You are a good girl not to triumph over me,’ said Mr. Bell.     

‘How? What do you mean?’     

‘I own, I am wrong about schooling. Anything rather than have that child brought up in such practical paganism.’

My Second example is a dramatisation of one of many interviews conducted by Henry Mayhew in the 1850s. He conducted the interviews as part of a large scale survey of the working poor in London.

My final example is from a film about China in the 1920’s that I show to my year 11s every year. It includes the reminiscences of an old man who was a soldier for the Guomindang when young. He chose to fight but my class always erupt into giggles as he explains how he was taught the reasons he was fighting. Watch from 9.30 for one minute.

If you can’t play that last link you can find it here: http://youtu.be/m7C40M9GM3k

How many making education policy would allow this sort of gross ignorance in their own children? When people question the value of learning history, geography, literature, RE, languages and creative arts I think they display an ignorance of what it would mean if knowledge of those subjects was NOT generally known in our society. It is easy to pick out any one area on a history curriculum and question the worth of knowing it but that misses the point. Any one child could avoid vaccination and she would be unlikely to die of disease. Any one child today is unlikely to be as sadly ignorant as Betty Barnes, whatever her education because she lives in an educated society where at least some knowledge of history etc is widely known. We want to equip our students with useful skills for their working lives and we hope an education will enrich adult lives but it would be stupidity to forget the ‘true worth’ of a broad education.

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10 thoughts on “A vaccination for ignorance

  1. I think, perhaps equally important is that education is good for your soul. It gives you purpose, helps you identify your talents and passions and enables you to lead a fulfilled and content life; not dissatisfied, angry or empty????

    1. I do agree that education should provide ways for adults to lead enriched lives and ignorance stands in the way of that. I am not so sure how far it is within the power of schooling to fix adult unhappiness.

      1. I think the link between education and adult happiness/unhappiness is undeniable, whether we choose to admit it or not. As is the link between schooling and tax data. These relationships are extremely complex, and obviously there are always going to be many additional factors an adult might be happy or not, or pay tax (I wonder how her analysis will account for tax avoidance?!!) But to my mind the ‘outcomes’ of education stretch far beyond exam results day, to include everything we might encounter in your average news bulletin. And since news bulletins tend to be pretty bleak, I’d say we still have some way to go in designing an education system that is truly fit for purpose – ie to create ‘viable humans’, to quote Bob Geldof’s BETT talk. And so even if her thinking represents a pitifully instrumental vision of education as an incubator for economically productive “human resources”, I think it’s important that we start to use data to start to tease out the long term ‘outcomes’ of education, and for that back handed reason I welcome her announcement 🙂

    1. Pedagog do we know education makes you happier? We know that if you are poorer you are more likely to suffer from depression and those that are poorer tend to have had worse educations. Are there clearer links?
      While I do agree that education has an impact on adult behaviour, how far can schools viably take over the role of parents in shaping young people? Do we know how successful our efforts would be if we extend our remit and what is the opportunity cost of this new focus?

      1. I don’t think there are any clear-cut relationships between any of these factors – even 3 such apparently related things as you mention – poverty, education and happiness. There are many exceptions to the expected norms, and many counterintuitive influences at play. For example we know that being affluent can come with its own mental health issues, as can having an intense relationship with high academic success. And so of course we have no idea how successful our effort would be if we extended our gaze beyond the school gates – but I don’t think there’s any harm in asking these questions, and there is much to be gained from doing so.

        As far as opportunity cost goes, I think it can be easy to overlook the fact that our species has been poised on the brink of self-destruction for the last 50 years or so, and that there are now more clear and present existential threats than ever before – climate change and biological warfare to name but two biggies. I think that only measuring the value of education in terms of exam results has produced generations of people who equate success with being better *than* others, rather than being able to work well *with* others. Thus we have politicians who describe themselves to lobbyists as ‘cabs for hire’, bankers who run the economy into the ground by gambling with other peoples money, and then pay themselves obscene bonuses, and so-called ‘world leaders’ who engage in violent international resource grabs that they dress up as humanitarian interventions. Not to mention energy companies who pursue environmentally disastrous activities such as fracking and suppression of renewables, out of concern for the bottom line. All these are all examples of short-sighted, individualistic behaviours that if not caused directly by the education system, are certainly not helped by a sole focus on exam results, and are arguably exacerbated by them.

        Of course these are all highly debatable ideas, and I do not claim to hold the moral high ground over those who seek to “close the gap” and suchlike. But I do think that, given the woeful state of world affairs, any perceived ‘opportunity cost’ in seeking to align education with the development of a more sustainable society is arguably worth paying!

        I wrote about this idea recently, here – I would be interested to hear your thoughts. https://pedagoginthemachine.wordpress.com/2015/01/04/are-exams-killing-our-planet/

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