Over the years, I experienced plenty of unsavoury racist views in the nearly-all-white bit of Essex where I worked. But in the past decade, the area has changed as a more racially-mixed generation moved out from East London. To my surprise, as the school’s composition also changed, very little tension resulted. I won’t say ‘none’ – but for the most part the young people in that school seemed genuinely unconcerned about the colour of each other’s skin, in a way my generation hasn’t entirely managed. It was a joy to behold.
That is entirely as it should be – but while we as a nation are perhaps doing reasonably well on this, it may have come at the cost of necessary personal discrimination – in the sense of not being indiscriminate.
I was greatly heartened by Geoff Barton’s recent call (TES, 4th Jan 2018) to reclaim teaching and make it again the deeply humane, fulfilling occupation it once was. Part of that, I suggest, is to rediscover the joy of inducting the up-coming generation in the glories of a Life Well Lived – the personal and intellectual rewards of the cultivated mind, qualities that have been neglected in the drive for factory-education. That means making judgments.
There is a huge societal gain to be had here, for all that it won’t show up clearly in the results tables. The tribulations of the nation over recent years have led me to suspect that part of the problem is the inability of many to access the cultural capital that can genuinely enhance lives. These are the things that furnish the perceived elites with their Good Life, and can be anything from an appreciation of good food, art, music or dress sense, to a receptiveness to other cultures, the ability to sustain good relationships – and an understanding that the real value of material possessions is not in their flaunting, but in their savouring.
I have seen far too many people, both pupils and adults, seemingly taking the view that certain cultural assets were ‘not for the likes of them’. The most saddening were the talented students I encountered who would not apply for Oxbridge on the grounds that it was “too posh for them”. What we are seeing here is the unwitting perpetuation of perceived elitism by the self-exclusion of the rest; the best way to disempower that part of the population which suffers from excess entitlement is to acquire the means to access the same things oneself. For instance, little wealth is needed to appreciate the delights of an orchestral symphony: recordings are cheap – and it sounds just the same from the inexpensive seats. The life-enhancing cultural dividend can be huge – but real problem is that many self-select out before they even get near a concert hall, theatre or gallery.
I think education has a major change of direction to make here. For understandable reasons, teachers have often fought shy of giving a cultural lead; in part that derives from the plurality of modern life, but the result has too often been to flounder in a mass of cultural relativism that was afraid to distinguish between the excellent and the less so.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had useful things to say about fulfilment. He identified the importance of complexity, which he defined as the progressive deepening and refining of one’s understanding or competence – and he observed that this seems to be where life’s greatest satisfactions are found. Yet education has routinely side-stepped the challenges that result – for such they are: ones that have to be addressed by each and every individual for them self. The rush to make learning accessible, engaging and ‘fun’ has ignored the very real effort that is required of every single individual if they are to acquire these assets. (Before I am accused of reinforcing ‘establishment’ notions of cultural capital, plenty of people find their complexity in fields well away from the mainstream – and that is absolutely fine. What is less so is only ever to scrape the surface of your own particular poison.)
The foregoing has implications for what it means to be a teacher. Instead of prevarication, it suggests that the teacher needs to lead: to be someone who is unafraid to take the uncertain (even literally) into places that they would never dream of going for themselves. It means making a stand for standards, and knowing them well enough oneself that the resultant confidence rubs off. Sheepishly admitting one’s own ignorance is never going to have the same effect.
It means refusing to accept meretricious rubbish simply for the sake of ‘equality’. It means encouraging people to be discriminating in what they accept, in all aspects of life: if you expect poor quality, then that is what you will most likely find. It means pointing out that achieving deep appreciation requires effort – and that the dumbed-down products of instant commercialism which now form the core of many people’s lives, are unlikely to be the best place to find it.
I have hopefully prickled some readers here – but I am not suggesting that one need be disparaging in order to be discriminate. It is just a matter of the quiet choices one makes. The criteria can be one’s own too, though they are best informed by wide exposure: in order to separate wheat from chaff, one needs to have a depth and breadth of experience to begin with.
What we are really talking about here is the need to raise people’s expectations – and most particularly their expectations of themselves. “Because I’m worth it” need not imply entitlement so much as determination and high standards, starting with oneself.
There is a further implication for teaching profession here: in order to lead learners in this direction, teachers need to have the requisite experience themselves. They need to be people who already live life to the full – but the time and energy required to do just that is precisely what the demands of the profession, as currently configured, is depriving them of.
Ian Stock is the author of The Great Exception: Why Teaching is a profession like no other, published by John Catt Educational. Ian has taught full-time in a large and successful secondary school in Brentwood, Essex since 1987.
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