Rethinking education continued

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In Rethinking education I set out a bold assumption on which our education policies ought to be based. It was that children are born with very much the same talents, capacities and intelligences. It isn’t the case that a few are very much ‘brighter’ than others. Rather, such children present early with a particular intelligence, which their parents and others happily develop. If the conditions at their school are good ones, their teachers will keep on developing this intelligence. Before long they are ‘doing very well’, coming top, performing. Buoyed with some justifiable confidence in their own abilities, they will very likely go on to do well in life.

That trajectory, I argued, is in principle attainable by all children, because we all start with those intelligences or gifts. All children learn to speak the language of their immediate society, and at about the same age. Not only that, they quickly discover that languages have rules, from which they deduce verbal forms which we then tell them are ‘wrong’, but which they have formulated for themselves after detecting the rule. A familiar example is ‘brung’ for ‘brought’, inferred from ‘sing, sang, sung’. All of us learn basic arithmetic quickly, however badly we did in it at school, once we enter the real world and are dealing with our own money. People who have never studied statistics in their life nonetheless become adept at probabilities if they become interested in betting or poker. All of us sing, hum, whistle or tap our feet to music – but, for many, not if anyone is listening!

In this article I want to point to some of the problems that would come at once if we were indeed to accept that all children are intelligent and deserve equal attention in their schooling. But first I need to deal with an apparent objection. What about ‘gifted’ children – what about the Mozarts of life? I could try to dispose of that point by maintaining that in educational policy we have to consider the society as a whole, not the exceptions, or by allowing that we could have a policy for gifted children too (because there are few of them), or by denying that there really are ‘gifted’ children – that what you see is simply an intelligence (logico-mathematical, linguistic, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, and so on) very highly developed by parents or carers.

I think the last is a cop-out, if only because even if the probability is small, when we are considering a whole society the numbers are large, and we have to accept that from time to time we will encounter genuinely precocious talents. Howard Gardner does accept this, and so do I. But I would argue that those with precocious talents rarely go on to surpass the adult achievements of the non-precocious.

Mozart, to take that example, was without doubt someone who presented his talent for performing music early, and without doubt that talent was highly (once might even say ferociously) developed by his father Leopold. There have been other precocious performers, too. But as composers? Mozart was not an important composer as a youth, and indeed is overshadowed by both Rossini and Mendelssohn as a boy composer. It was not until his late teens that he showed real strength as a composer. Rossini found a niche very early and cultivated it for the rest of his working life, pulling out while still relatively young (and very rich). Mendelssohn died in young middle age, but (it is argued) never escaped a kind of boyish charm in his music. His best music has none of the strength of dozens of others less obviously talented when young.

The point here is that the early flowering of talents is not a sign that the gifted person will go on in life to be superior to everyone else. There is a sense in which, in maturity, we are all able to catch up. And that pushes me to my main concern, that in educational policy we have to start with some assumptions: mine is the equality of talents possessed by all children. (I am of course excluding those born with defects like Down’s syndrome, or with serious birth traumas; we need all sorts of policies for them, but they do not come under my general assumption. I ought also to say, as a father of five children, that while they are alike in their attitude to the world and themselves they are not identical: sibling order, ‘spirit’ and biochemistry give siblings different assets and trajectories, despite a common parentage and, as far as is possible, upbringing.) Democratically elected governments are responsible for enacting policies that accord with some sense of the good society. I would like governments to go down the path I have outlined, because if they do so we will have not a few winners but so many winners that the notion of ‘winning’ will become irrelevant.

And you by now can see one of the real problems in doing so. Educational policy will have to overcome some of the life chances already differentially experienced by the parents. If children are equally intelligent then, by and large, we would expect them to present with one or more of their talents at much the same time, and we would be ensuring that the presented talents were further developed, for two reasons. First, we only have one life and need to build it around what we enjoy doing most, and second we need to have at least a minimal competence in them all, so that some of the others at least will have to be strengthened. This will not be a problem where the child is part of a happy family of parents who love each other and care for their child’s development and growth. It will be a great problem where the child has no such luck, and comes from badly broken, impoverished or neglectful family environments. The public schools of my youth, though they were fixated on winners and winning (‘top’, ‘dux’, ‘blues’ for sport, and so on), nonetheless assumed that there was a possibility of escape there for the children of poor families. Our school uniforms disguised the fact that some of the kids in our class came from very poor families indeed. There was a good deal of nurturing by our teachers of kids who began to show talent in some area as school progressed.

A perennial problem for policymakers and governments is that we can never start from scratch. Today’s parents include people who had bad experiences as children; some of today’s children are having bad experiences now. We can often see how to change direction for those yet to be born, but what do we do about those already here? Our society provides many possibilities for those with money, and it is easy to sympathise with someone who, having had a bad run early on, has overcome that poor start and insists that his kids are not going to go through what he did. Ergo, he has bought them entrance to the most expensive school he can find – where indeed they will have wonderful opportunities to develop their intelligences. He will hear what I have to say but, even if sympathetic, tell me ‘That that’s all very well, but I’m looking after my kids!’ Another great truth for policymakers and governments is that we value our own kids rather more highly than we do anyone else’s, let alone kids in general.

Another one is the persistent human tendency to rationalise inequality if one is the beneficiary of it, and to oppose changes to the system that would disturb one’s own position. This is especially the case when those with power operate to ensure that their own children and their own families do well out of the system. They do not need to do so crudely; it is enough for them, usually, to protect some of the inequalities from which they benefit by invoking apparently virtuous qualities such as ‘choice’ or ‘freedom’. By doing so they assist their own freedom and choice but at the expense of the freedom and choice of others. Of all the tendencies in human societies this is the one that any egalitarian democrat fears most. If our desire is to reduce systemic inequality then the educational system is a crucial arena because educational systems will reproduce the existing social order very easily unless something is done to alter things. Reiterating that equality is the rule, and that it works, has to be the keynote of reform.

Finally, babies are the outcome, not necessarily the intended outcome, of relationships between people that can be transitory and utterly short-term or deeply meaningful and for life. There is a universe of possibilities in between. The education system, in every society, not least our own, becomes to some degree a repair shop for the consequences of baby-making. What is the point of fixing up the educational system if we do not make some attempt to fix up the baby-making system? But here you can see a nest of very difficult issues. Does that mean that we should discourage parenting unless there is a loving and stable relationship in existence? Most people will argue that the decision to have a child is an utterly private one that belongs to the parents and certainly to the mother. Does it mean that our society should support birth control and abortion unless there is such a happy relationship? There is no agreement here.

Should we pay greater attention to preparation for marriage and parenthood as part of everyone’s education? Should we ensure that children are taught a great deal about sex and love so that they understand more, at least theoretically, about some of the pressures that will face them? What should happen when marriages, even those that looked so good in the past, fail? These questions are important, and there is no agreement about their answers, at least as real policy issues. We are not nearly at the point where Australia governments could develop strong policies of a baby-making kind. Yet I see them coming, slowly and autonomously, as more and more people, well educated, sense the answers and begin to adopt them for themselves.

It would be easy, at this point, to throw up one’s hands and say that it is all too hard. I have felt like that myself from time to time. But I am greatly encouraged by what has happened in the last fifty years, and see no reason why that progressive change should not continue. It is a pity that we have a government that does not see things from the perspective I have outlined. The reasons are partly ideological (the government thinks that ‘choice’ is a great thing, and very many Australians agree), and partly imaginative.

I spent fifty years in higher education, watching the system grow from 30,000 students to nearly 900,000. I grew up believing that only a few were really ‘bright'; now I avoid using that word. We are all bright. If we shift the gaze from winning to developing our talents and capacities the gain for the whole society will be huge. Our criminal justice system deals with the ‘failures’ of our society. It costs $7 billion a year and the cost is rising faster than inflation. Developing every child’s capacities in art, music, sport, writing and all the rest, encouraging them rather than condemning or categorising them, helping them focus on what they like doing best – this is the approach I would want governments to take. One outcome will be fewer people in prison, and less money spent on them and in them.

How do we get there? My advice is by talking it up and encouraging everyone, adult or child, to become a real person with interests and developing talents. We already do it: ‘Go for It!’ is one great contemporary Australian cry, and I never heard it in the 1940s in any domain other than sport. Now it’s everywhere. No government is going to make fundamental changes in these areas quickly, and it will only do so when people are already acting as though the legal change has come. There will be a lot of resistance along the way, and it is easy to dismiss proposals for change as ‘woolly’, ‘out of touch with reality’ and the like. A lot of people think the metaphor of The Game, in which winning is the whole point of life, is simply the way things are, rather than a metaphor that benefits those who have won (and men generally – it is a male metaphor).

I would like to be around in 2050 to see how much further we have progressed in the creation of a good society for everybody. I would be 113 if I were there, and that seems unlikely. But I expect no millennial change: these matters are at the heart of our existence as human beings, and they have been at the centre of all constructions of human societies. So change will be slow – ah, but it’s worth the struggle!

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His book, What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia will be published in September by Allen & Unwin.

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