09 December 2013

The dubious value of ‘education’

Recent statements by Michael Gove (the Education Secretary) and Andrew Hamilton (Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University), among others, seem to accept the usual assumption that assessments and appointments made by agents of the collective at all levels of the ‘educational’ system are meaningful and objective, and that working for a qualification within the system is a positive advantage to all who are allowed to do so – so that receiving a grant (for example) is automatically of value to the individual receiving it.

Referring to the special type of tuition offered by Oxford, Professor Hamilton says that
Excellence in most walks of life does not come cheap ... unless we can offer the best we can’t expect to get the best.
implying that more attention from teachers (via the tutorial system) is bound to mean a better product for recipients.

Yet having to have work assessed by tutors in a one-to-one interaction is not necessarily something which recipients are going to benefit from, let alone enjoy.

Michael Gove is highly critical of some recent negative comments made by Simon Cowell about the supposed pointlessness of school. Gove claims the future belongs to
... those who work hard, enjoy the best education and pursue the most rigorous qualifications.
The truthfulness of this statement may be limited to the fact that the future belongs to those who are able to avoid being subjected to state education.

Actually, Simon Cowell makes a perfectly good point by implying that for some, school is largely an irrelevance, and they would be better off leaving it as soon as possible, to get on with what they really want to do. Unfortunately, recent legislation – which Mr Gove allowed to pass unchallenged – means non-academic types like Mr Cowell are no longer able to leave school at the age of 16, but must endure a further two years (or otherwise go on an approved ‘training’ course), by which time a vital part of their youthful energy and optimism may have been exhausted.

* * *

In any individual case, working for an examination under the auspices of an official institution may well be less efficient than working alone, and may indeed lead to a negative outcome.

What is referred to loosely as ‘education’ is not simply the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills, but usually involves the acceptance of a power-relation in which you give other people the right to make judgements and decisions about you. If you are lucky, these people may choose not to act against your interests – this is obviously more likely if there is a financial incentive, i.e. you (or your parents) are paying them, or their employer, directly.

If you are not so lucky, their actions may undermine or annul your own efforts, so that the package labelled as ‘education’ ends up being a net negative as far as you are concerned.

Yet discussions of ‘education’ invariably proceed as if any resources devoted to something falling under that heading automatically lead to an increase in benefit for would-be learners.

* * *

In my own case, accepting a grammar school scholarship meant that I would spend many years having my life run by people who had no reason to wish me well and who, in retrospect, may be supposed to have been motivated by wishing to prevent my ability from expressing itself in any way that would lead me into the sort of university career to which I was highly suited, and which I badly needed to have.

Apart from any more subjective adverse effects, one very significant negative factor was in my being pressured for years to take a degree in mathematics. There were many subjects in which, working on my own, I could have obtained a first class result easily, but if I had been working on my own, I would never have considered maths as a possible degree subject. As a result, I was thrown out at the end of the ruined education with no usable qualification at all.

When I was ten or eleven, my father had my IQ tested by an educational psychologist who was employed by a local educational authority. He said that he had never tested a child like it before and never expected to do so again. In this he was expressing the previous ideology according to which people could be more or less exceptional, and the likelihood of their being good at anything academic was predominantly determined by a general factor in their IQ (Spearman’s g factor). There was also an idea that their IQ determined their suitability for various occupations. This psychologist told my father, with evident satisfaction, that his own (the psychologist’s) IQ was 140 and that in those days this was regarded as ‘a professor’s IQ’.

It was general knowledge at the time, and for at least a decade afterwards, that in a population of 50 million, there would be about 500 people with IQs over 180, as mine was said to be.

* * *

I have still not regained an acceptable social position. The egalitarian ideology which dominated my years at school and university was in force, and increasingly so, throughout the society within which I had to attempt to make my way, both within and outside of the university system.

I am still appealing for moral and financial support from associates of every kind, to enable me to become functional as soon as possible.