Who Decides What Education is For?

Few critiques of the aims of Teach First – or indeed of the general aspirations of ambitious schools serving a mixed student population – are as frequently posed as the warning against social engineering. Typically, this debate crystallises around the question of whether it is appropriate for us to state, as educators, our intention that all children attend university, or if in fact this is a projection of a certain set of middle-class (perhaps even bourgeois) values, that amounts to an act of oppression.

Space Colony 2This is a complicated question. Certainly, we should recognize that implicit in state education is a certain ‘violence’ towards the individual and even community. In a brilliant essay on Albert Camus, in which he seeks a trace of his hero in the sun-drenched streets of Algiers (‘too late: in the day, in the year, in the century’), Geoff Dyer reflects on the seminal intervention of a teacher into the poverty-stricken life of the young Camus – an event that was to fundamentally alter the course of his, and our, history – and recalls his own experience of education as an alienating force.

This was a turning point in Camus’s life and, as for many working-class children to whom the world of books is suddenly revealed, he never forgot the debt he owed his teacher. The course of my own life was changed, similarly and irrevocably, by one of my teachers. The first author I came across who expressed the sense of class-displacement that ensued was D.H. Lawrence in Sons and Lovers. A little later I could be heard reciting Jimmy Porter’s tirades from Look Back in Anger by John Osborne. Then, from Raymond Williams, I learned the political and moral consequences and obligations of being educated away from the life you are born into. Finally, in Camus, who made the most immense journey from his origins, I found someone who stated, in the most affirmative and human terms, the ways in which he remained dependent on them.

All of which is to say that there is no doubt that to some extent education requires the imposition of a certain set of values from teacher to student (however good a student that teacher is of Bourdieu or Piaget), and that when the values are those of the establishment being impose on an individual from outside the establishment, this entails a certain violence, and a certain implicit view of society. Is this inevitable? Yes. Should teachers be sensitive to this? Yes. But this should not be the debate that we allow to be central to our thinking on education.

Space Colony 1Situating the argument at the level of the aspirations of the teacher or school is to misunderstand a crucial function of the entire state school system itself, and to overestimate the determining power of the individual teacher in it. In his masterly essay Ideology and the State, Louis Althusser (1969) examines this question and argues that the education system has replaced the Church as the dominant State Ideological Apparatus. Here he borrows from Marx’s analysis of state power and state apparatus, distinguishing between the ‘repressive’ and ‘ideological’ state apparatuses. He shares a bleak vision of schooling:

Each mass ejected en route is practically provided with the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfill in class society: the role of the exploited (with a ‘highly developed’ ‘professional’, ‘ethical’, ‘civic’, ‘national’ and a-political consciousness); the role of the agent of exploitation (ability to give the workers orders and speak to them: ‘human relations’), or the agent of repression (ability to give orders and enforce obedience ‘without discussion’, or ability to manipulate the demagogy of a political leader’s rhetoric), or of the professional ideologist (ability to treat consciousness with respect, i.e. with the contempt, blackmail, and demagogy they deserve, adapted to the accents of Morality, of Virtue, of ‘Transcendence’, of the Nation, of the UK’s World Role, etc.).

And he argues that this is particularly pernicious in the case of the school because “ideology represents the School as a neutral environment purged of ideology (because it is… lay), where teachers respectful of the ‘conscience’ and ‘freedom’ of the children… open up for them the path to freedom, morality and responsibility.” This double-cross – the most subtle form of ideology being that which blinds us to its presence – is what we should occupy ourselves with as educators. We should stop posing the micro question of whether university is right – or not – for all kids, regardless of their background, stop rewording our philosophies to iron out the final1% of controversy. Instead, the question that we need to answer is what, as individuals, as communities, as a society, do we think education is for?

We stand now at the edge of future in which increasingly we will not have to rely on government to answer that question for us (to replenish the civil service, to produce satisfied industrial workers, to rule, etc.). Our challenge is to ensure that as individuals, as communities, as a society, we are as aware as possible of the ideologies – government, corporate, familial, ethical – that influence that choice.

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