FACULTY OF EDUCATION
Wednesday 16 October 2002
Paul Standish (University of Dundee)
One of my MEd students was telling me last year of the Christmas party that was held at the school where she was teaching. She has children of her own and is no prude, but she was obviously struck and somewhat troubled by the way that some of the girls were dressed up for the occasion – miniskirts, platform shoes, backless dresses, eye-shadow, mascara. The girls in her class are six years old, and they are presumably taking their first steps in “clubbing”. Earlier that day they had been talking in the staff-room of the new concern over police checks for those entering teaching and similar jobs. On television the previous evening there had been yet another programme about child abuse. These are but examples of what appears to be a contemporary confusion over childhood: on the one hand, its precocity and sexualisation; on the other, a kind of ostentatious protection and sometimes an idealisation of innocence. In media images we are bombarded with such messages that mix moral outrage at abuse with voyeurism, and that demand of demand of children both innocence and street-wisdom. The spending power of children was discovered about twenty years ago and this reshaped the pop music industry and children’s fashion, both exploiting and fuelling this precocity, while at the same time the idea of responsible parenting did much to ensure the success of high street chains such as Mothercare and the Early Learning Centre. In that period also the protection of children through various forms of censorship, and the idea of the nine o’clock watershed on television, have been rendered increasingly anachronistic by changes in technology. The contradictions of protection and exposure here seem perhaps to connect with a more general contemporary confusion over the relation of the private and the public spheres of our experience, where people retreat from the public world in various ways while being prepared to reveal the most intimate details of their private lives to strangers, sometimes to audiences of millions.
It would be a mistake to assume that such confusions are peculiarly a feature of the postmodern age. Charles Dickens’ novels are full of the tensions, and the confusions, between an idealised conception of childhood innocence and the cruel exploitation: it is not simply that contradictory practices existed side by side but that sentimentality and sadism were curiously intermingled. Rousseau’s “discovery” of the natural goodness of the child is made against a background awareness of the, to us, bizarre mixture of pampering and neglect with which the children of the aristocracy in the eighteenth century were treated. But in pre-modern times it does seem that childhood did not exist in anything like the form that we have come to know it. For at that time the very ideas of exposure and privacy were scarcely current: “not in front of the children” would not have made sense, while ages of consent did not exist. In recent centuries periods of education and economic dependency have been prolonged even though physical maturity, the onset of puberty, comes to children earlier and earlier.
Not surprisingly then it has become familiar enough to speak of the social construction of childhood as a phenomenon of the modern period. In 1900 the twentieth century was welcomed by Ellen Key with her book, Barnets århundrade, translated asThe Century of the Child (1909); yet before the end of the century Neil Postman was to publish The Death of Childhood (1989). While there is here the implication that childhood has been forgotten, this is not the main sense that I find in the expression that is the title of this essay, as will later become apparent. In any case such a clear trajectory does not seem quite right: if Back to the Future and Harry Potter now re-present the child in a kind of postmodern pastiche, the figure of Peter Pan was perhaps not without its ambiguities. But what does seem clear is that this was a century characterised by compulsory schooling and public education as never before. New technology and the spectacular rise in home schooling should now at least unsettle the assumption that these will continue to be part of the fabric of our public world, and of the lives of children, in the manner that we have inevitably come to expect.
If this slightly heady prospect leads us too much into the realms of speculation, let us draw back from this a little to consider something of what has happened to schooling in Scotland over the last fifty or so years, for it was such changes that were very much at the heart of John Darling’s work. He liked to give examples of the bad old days when he was a child in primary school in the late 1940s. Quite recently he wrote:
The 1947 guidelines for teachers in Edinburgh advised that children should be acquainted with historical figures and episodes that are today largely unknown, and that would now be regarded as difficult for children to comprehend. Eight year olds were to learn about the union of the Scottish and English parliaments; seven year olds had to know of Sir Andrew Wood [the fifteenth-century Scottish naval commander] (“brief references will be sufficient”); and six year olds were to study Peter the Hermit and the Capture of Jerusalem (Darling, 2002, p. 296).
It is easy enough to see with him the remoteness of what was learned from the lives of young children. He was struck also by the mindlessness of the rote learning, the drilling and the intimidation that characterised so much of children’s experience in primary school. To him so much of this seemed to be useless knowledge.
Actually he was quite wrong about this, because over the years these same examples were to serve him remarkably well in numerous lectures and papers on progressive education! More seriously though, it is not difficult to concede his point. The poignancy of the dour and comfortless scene he sometimes evoked could readily enough conjure the image of the innocent bewildered child. There is no doubt that Darling felt that the primary schools that developed two or three decades later were immensely more humane and enlightened places, crucially of course as a result of the Primary Memorandum in 1965.
It was commonly held that it was the thinking of Piaget that shaped the development of the Memorandum, but Darling was struck more by its echoes of Rousseau (see, for example, Darling 1994 and 1999). When the Memorandum claims that “There are many attainments and skills which children achieve spontaneously, and many things which they discover for themselves at stages in their development when they are ready to do so” (SED, 1965, p. 3), the assumption of stages of development may seem to derive from mainly Piaget, but the inspiration for Piaget’s thought is clearly there in Rousseau. The parallels between Rousseau’s words and the text, however, are more specific than this suggests. Thus, where Rousseau writes, “It is not your business to teach him the various sciences, but to give him a taste for them and methods of learning them when this taste is more mature” (Rousseau, 1911, pp. 134-5), the Memorandum states, “The acquisition of knowledge and skills, once the aim of education, is no longer as important as it was. . . Much more vital today . . . are the fostering of intellectual curiosity, and the development of the capacity to acquire knowledge independently” (SED, 1965, p. 158). Rousseau set about overturning the conception of the child that prevailed in the eighteenth century: children then are not adults in miniature, and neither do they think in the same ways. He writes: “Nature would have them children before they are men. . . Childhood has its own ways of seeing, thinking and feeling; nothing is more foolish than to try and substitute our ways. . .” (Rouseau, 1911, p. 54). So too, for the Memorandum, the teacher must “realise that the child is not an adult in miniature: he does not feel, or act or think like an adult” (SED, 1965, p. 3).
We are today perhaps not inclined to be struck by Rousseau’s thought precisely because it has become so naturalised in the modern world. The general principles of his account of childhood are familiar enough. What is natural is good, and social influences may harm the young child. Childhood is important in its own right. The environment teaches, not the teacher, and early learning is a kind of experimental physics relative to the child’s own body. Freedom is grounded in a proper adjustment to the natural, and this requires recognition of the fundamental equality of human beings.
If thoughts such as these run through the Memorandum, one can also see the clear influence of John Dewey, as is well known, and the following paragraph provides something of a bridge between the two thinkers:
It is now generally accepted that the primary school is much more than a preparation for secondary school: it is a stage of development in its own right . . . [Schooling must] meet the child’s needs and interests . . . [The teacher must] provide the environment, experiences and guidance which will stimulate growth along natural lines. . . [The child is] not an adult in miniature. . . [N]atural endowment of children is not uniform. . . [G]rowth and development . . . are continuous. . . The artificial nature of school organisation [needs to be compensated for]. (The Primary Memorandum, 1965, pp. 3-4)
Dewey holds that the child is necessarily social from the start. The child learns from the environment, and a part of that environment is the social environment, the shared practices that human beings develop in dealing with the natural environment. Schools are special environments, and their abstraction from the natural world is both a necessity, required by the extent of the social store in modern societies, and a potential problem, where schools become “bookish”. Rather than simply imposing on the child, teaching must channel existing energies. Education is a process of growth, which continues throughout life. Education in schools is a (potential) source of social cohesion. It was in the light of the persuasiveness and the coherence of these ideas, and perhaps remembering the forbidding classroom in which he had learned about Peter the Hermit and the Capture of Jerusalem, that Darling welcomed with enthusiasm the move towards progressivism in the 1960s.
It was his view that progressivism in Scotland was adopted in what was generally a non-radical way, and that this protected Scottish primary education from the kind of backlash experienced south of the border. For there, beginning in 1969, the Black Papers of Cox and Dyson, and later of Rhodes Boyson, mounted a concerted attack on all things progressive. While at the time these papers seemed to many teachers to be as eccentric as Rhodes Boyson’s facial hair, the Thatcher government, which picked up on and gave enormous impetus to the rumblings of reaction, brought mainstream policy close to their thinking. At the Conservative Party Conference in 1991, John Major had no difficulty in rousing the ranks with: “The progressive theorists have had their say, and they have had their day”. Darling took some comfort in the rejection of the Conservative government that came about in 1997, but his optimism about this with regard to progressivism was never really justified: amongst policy-makers of Westminster of whatever persuasion, “progressivism” has continued to be a dirty word.
An indication of the more measured adoption of progressivism in Scotland, and of its continuity, is the fact that, nearly thirty years after the Memorandum, the Inspectorate publication, 5-14: A Practical Guide still speaks of “child-centred learning”, albeit that this is now understood in terms that are altogether more systematic and more structured. So too, more recently, the Revised Guidelines for the Structure and Balance of the Curriculum helps to interpret the key principles of breadth, balance, continuity, coherence and progression, terms whose ambivalence seems, on the face of it, sufficient to harbour and sustain child-centred sympathies, even as, below the surface, it may function as a kind of inoculation against the threat progressivism is imagined to pose. These words need, however, to be seen in the context of a different kind of vocabulary. In speaking of the management of the curriculum, this document (p. 45) emphasises the priorities of:
This is couched in a vocabulary of efficiency and effectiveness, of quality assurance and accountability, of time allocation, processes and profiles that is redolent of the “ethos of achievement” that is sought.
It is, furthermore, worth noticing the style of these documents. Instead of the sometimes elegant prose of the Memorandum, we now have numbered paragraphs, subdivided and with bullet-pointed lists, we have spreadsheets, flow-charts, appendices and summary reports, and these provide the veneer of no-nonsense managerial effectiveness that has come to characterise so much the discourse of policy-making and implementation. What, the voice of common sense seems to say, could possibly be troubling about something so ordinary as a list? Iris Murdoch said that lists are instruments of power. Peter Lillee had a little list. What needs to be noticed here, a point that I shall further demonstrate below, is that what purports to be rigorous and objective involves the deployment of a rhetorical style. Ostensibly eschewing literary effect, writing of this kind is all the more insidious in its influence.
It would be wrong – too convenient for this argument, and more than a touch romantic – to suppose that this new, more systematic understanding of educational policy and practice has met with the universal disapproval of teachers. Far from it. In their Evaluation of the Implementation of the 5-14 Development Programme 91-95 – The Professional Journey, Mary Simpson, Jonquil Goulder and Jennifer Tuson draw attention to responses from teachers that celebrate this new ethos. A Senior Teacher from an English department comments:
I am firmly behind the profiling initiative. It’s saying it’s no longer possible to keep the kids in the dark about what is expected of them. We really have to open up the whole learning process for them, letting them know what is expected of them, perhaps even in specific behavioural terms and informing them of the criteria, which we open up for the pupils, giving them feedback that is detailed in terms of what they have achieved against the criteria (Simpson et al., 1995, p. 14).
There is not only a reasonableness, a teacherly common sense about this, but also a kind of energy that is hard to resist and that persuasively rounds out the more formal commitments that the 5-14 documents express. Who after all could be against the raising of standards? Who could be against making clear to all concerned what is required? But there are also here more subtle elements that surreptitiously displace something that is evident or implicit in the original inspiration of progressivism. It is no small matter that the “ethos of achievement” here, and the rhetoric of standards and performance indicators with which it has come to be associated, is a world away from the opening chapter of the Memorandum, a chapter, as Darling notes, significantly entitled “The Child”. It would be to exaggerate to say that this implies that the child can now be taken for granted in favour of the more important things with which new policy is concerned. But there is here a kind of effacing of the question of the child that should not be lightly passed over. In order to bring out what is at stake it is worth remembering the ways in which the accommodation of progressivism within Scottish education has helped to resist some of the more technicist developments south of the border and in the United States. It is salutary to consider where they might lead.
In 1997 David Reynolds, then Advisor to the Department for Education and Employment for Numeracy, gave the SERA lecture. This was a celebration of the achievements of school effectiveness research and a eulogy to the teacher-technologist and the researcher-engineer. A particular theme that Reynolds develops in the lecture concerns the tendency in school effectiveness research to focus on pushing up the ceiling of achievement rather than on raising the floor. This aim of raising the floor seems laudable enough, and for Reynolds at least the solution is clear. It is to be realised by turning schools into Highly Reliable Organisations – organisations, that is, such as nuclear power stations and air-traffic control, where mistakes must be avoided at all costs. We now have, Reynolds claims, a research base that shows clearly how schools can become highly reliable, we know what works, and the price of failing to implement this is dire:
The more recent estimates of the cost of avoidable school failure within the United States (and I know these beg serious questions) estimate that cost as the equivalent of a plane crash every week, yet historically little has been done to prevent school failure by comparison with that done to prevent air traffic control failure (Reynolds, 1997b, p. 106).
Of course, the need for such cutting edge research may be lost on those who imagine, as Reynolds anticipates, that teaching is an art and not a science. Elsewhere the technological orientation of education, the possibility that it may deliver more, is unquestioned: teachers in Taiwan are “proud to be applied technologists, not philosophers” (Reynolds, 1997a, p. 21). It is, in fact, only a peculiarly British parochialism, a hostility to grubby empiricism, that has prevented this from being realised sooner:
the continued concern about “ends” not “means” that has characterised much educational research, over the last twenty years has been a particularly British one, and is not paralleled in any other country that I know. In its essential Britishness, it has reflected a national culture that gives more status to the pure than the applied, to the useless more than the useful and to the educational philosopher more than the educational engineer, that dirty handed and overall clothed school effectiveness researcher. (Reynolds, 1997b, p. 99)
Now that major questions concerning educational aims have been settled – Reynolds is admirably clear on this point – what more do we need than a straightforward listing of the facts of the matter, with the tabulation of results? What indeed could be plainer? The tables that are presented to us in education are as sturdily reliable as can be. Hence the no-nonsense straightforwardness of the technological approach:
Not for us in school effectiveness the celebration of new policies because they are new or because practitioners like them, or the opposition to new policies because they potentially damage the interests of educational producers. For us, our “touchstone criteria” to be applied to all educational matters concern whether children learn more or less because of the policy or practice (Reynolds, 1997b, p. 97).
Reynolds is plainly putting his cards on the table here. What the cards tell is a rather different story, for what purports here to be an account of a technology, what casts itself as rigorous empirical research, has its effect not so much because of the reliability of its data or the cogency of its argument as because of a certain rhetorical style. Reynolds’ texts are replete with an imagery that is elaborate, emotive, and picturesque, with humorous slurs at the expense of his critics (in which the reader is invited to collude), and hence with a self-conscious positioning of author and audience in the inner circle of the initiated. The honest and self-effacing educational engineer is clad then in designer dirt, the “touchstone criteria” dressed up in inverted commas. What could be more honest and straightforwardly practical? This, a context in danger of being taken for granted, is the epistemology of “what works” in education.
The literary devices in Reynolds' writing have the effect, whether through his intention or not, of arresting careful thought about these matters: they channel the response and hector the reader. Rousseau's text in contrast stimulates and unsettles, with a playfulness evident on anything beyond the most superficial reading. Emile has sometimes (naively) been read as a kind of manual for progressive teaching, but this is manifestly to fail to respond to its extraordinary literary brilliance, its wit and uniqueness of form. Not quite a novel nor yet a philosophical tract, the tutor Jean-Jacques not definitively related to the author Jean-Jacques, recipes for breast-feeding mothers interspersed with an indictment of civilisation as we know it – it is a book described by Allan Bloom as the Phenomenology of Mind masquerading as Dr Spock.
The scope of Emile is such as to recognise that childhood, education and society are internally related concepts. This is to say, that each depends upon the other in such a manner that alterations in one have their effect on the others. Hence in exploring what an education might be like Rousseau is at the same time concerned with how society might become: the book is as much a castigation of what passed as civilisation and society as it is a lament for the benighted tutoring of children with which Rousseau was familiar. It is less a theory of schooling than a political philosophy. Neither childhood nor education nor society can be conceptualised, it shows, in the absence of some sense of the good in which each participates.
It should be clear that the technological approach to education is hostile, if it is not simply blind, to these insights, and the background assumptions that it gradually infiltrates makes it all the more difficult for them to come to light. The very idea that teaching is a technology is predicated on the assumption that there are certain ends that education is designed to serve. As Reynolds makes clear – and he is by no means eccentric in this – those ends are the economic prosperity of society. This assumption seems at a stroke to pre-empt any serious consideration of the nature of childhood, for it is as if the child has been defined by default. We can work back from this assumption to determine what the child needs from education; the child, the being who stands in need of the skills and competences that will enable her for work, is understood in terms of this lack.
While the language of contemporary reports stops well short of the unqualified faith in the technological that characterises Reynolds' position, the effect of its vocabulary and style is very much to finesse the question of childhood in this way. Breadth, balance, continuity, coherence and progression come to be understood in terms of “quality” and effectiveness, and in the face of the emphasis on achievement and efficient management of the system, childhood is understood by default. There is a danger that it is rendered unproblematic and presumed to be known. There is a danger even in the desire for clarity and transparency, eminently desirable though these in so many respects seem – because this fosters the idea that what matters here is simply to be known. In contrast, in the writings of some of the best authors in progressivism, as the supreme example of Rousseau demonstrates, there is an attitude to the child that recognises the way that the child goes beyond what can be grasped by the educator or anyone else. The very sense of this expression – that something can go beyond what can be grasped – is likely to be opaque to the technologist-educator. Not surprisingly the very possibility is easily forgotten. And I do not deny that it is elusive, but it is this, I think, that is at the heart of the problem, and it is this to which I shall return below.
But first let us return to Darling’s sustained defence of progressivism. We seem to have arrived at a point where the contemporary rhetoric of policy-making is cast as the problem while progressivism provides the solution. How far is progressivism also at fault here?
In John Darling's book Child-Centred Education and its Critics he considers the attack on progressivism as coming from two main sources. One is found most prominently in the polemic of the Black Papers, and it is easy enough, though not always fair, to see these simply as a reactionary and knee-jerk response to what is most enlightened in progressivism. The other is associated especially with the critique of progressivism that was developed by R. S. Peters, Paul Hirst and Robert Dearden, and other philosophers of education associated with the London Institute of Education. (This is not to say that criticism was confined to the UK. For example, in the US Israel Scheffler advanced similar arguments.) They had scrutinised such central concepts of child-centred education as play, creativity, happiness, imagination, discovery and integration, and had found progressivism’s attitude to the child to be naïve and somewhat sentimental. Darling accepted the cogency of some of the arguments that are advanced and was ready to acknowledge the contribution these thinkers had made to clarifying these ideas. But whereas his own inclination was to see in this clarification a means of making child-centredness more robust, the London School, as he called them, were more dismissive. The conceptual analysis they understood themselves to be engaged in frequently betrayed, and sometimes acknowledged, a more substantive, normative commitment to a vision of education at odds with progressivism in many ways.
Darling tends to link these thinkers with the reactionary authors of the Black Papers, and to bracket them together under the term "traditional education". In doing so, however, he covers over a matter of crucial importance. Progressivism and liberal education are united against any crude utilitarianism or intrumentalisation of education in their commitment to the value of freedom. If this is obvious in the opening words of Emile – that man is born free but is everywhere in chains – or in A. S. Neill’s overriding desire for children to be free, it is there no less in the very idea of a liberal education that these thinkers advanced. (It is there too in the ancient, classical idea of a liberal education that they sought to restate.) What is most at issue, however, is the question of whether freedom must be given now to the child, or whether freedom is rather a state to be worked towards and progressively achieved. In both the ancient and the restated versions of a liberal education, freedom is to be achieved through an initiation into those ways of thinking that cast aside illusion and enable the mind to see truly. In short this initiation constitutes the development of mind, and there are no short-cuts to its realisation. (That mind is to be understood in something like these public or social terms is surely evident through what is manifestly absent in such extreme cases of isolation as that of the so-called wild child of Aveyron. That the modes of thought that are to be found in the various subjects of enquiry that have come down to us over the centuries offer the most rich opportunities for the development of mind is a plausible rationale for the substance of the liberal education that is advocated.) It is an error to imagine that this initiation is to be understood in terms of a simple transmission of knowledge: it involves rather engagement in an activity where one is confronted by something that is exacting and makes demands but that itself makes possible a kind of adventure. In Michael Oakeshott’s memorable phrase, it is an initiation into “the conversation of mankind”.
R. S. Peters complained that progressive educators were too much concerned with the manner and insufficiently with the matter of education. In attending to the nature of the child, they gave less attention to the content of education that was appropriate. This is not to say simply that they did not always choose the right curriculum materials. The point is rather that in their understandable concern over right relations between teachers and pupils they underestimated the third element in the so-called sacred triangle, the content. This is incidentally a triangle vividly in evidence in some of the dialogues of Plato, where Socrates is very different from the expert in thinking skills or questioning he is now popularly imagined to be, but is rather in a relation of reverence towards what is being studied, a reverence into which he draws the pupil in a kind of loving relation. And if the term “reverence” is apt to sound a little too pious, think of this as an absorption or fascination that energises all points of the triangle. It has been a contention of this paper that there is an internal relation between childhood, education and society. The triangle of learner, teacher and content is richly implicated in this. A neglect of any of these elements is likely to skew the others in some degree, with effects rippling through society and its understanding of the child.
It is at this point that the charge of sentimentalisation of the child in progressivism becomes more plausible, for it does seem that with its inattention to the content of education there is likely to be an excessive emphasis on the child herself. The social construction of childhood became in certain respects a contributing factor in the culture of narcissism, in Christopher Lasch’s phrase (Lasch, 1980). When such thinking was passed on to inexperienced and perhaps idealistic student teachers, many of whom would be unlikely ever to explore the more profound arguments from Rousseau or Dewey that were progressivism’s inspiration, there was every likelihood that this tendency would become more pronounced. Two further consequences follow from this. First, the nature of content tended to be rendered unproblematic, and any sense of its intrinsic interest and complexity or its demands muted; it was merely a matter of what would best motivate the child. Second, in the attentive scrutiny of the child’s “needs”, the neglect of the relational nature of the child’s being tended to be obscured, and a presumption of clear and unmediated insight into the child herself reinforced. The good progressive primary teacher really “knew” the children in her care; and the progressive secondary teacher, when asked what she taught, would sometimes pointedly and proudly say “I teach children”.
If this is right, progressive education as commonly practised, if not in the visions of Rousseau or Dewey, can be seen to collude in some of the deproblematisation (the presumption of knowability) and indeed in a kind of disenchantment that progressively characterise the century of childhood. To further understand its effects in this respect it is worth going back to other theoretical influences on the thinking of the Memorandum. This, as has already been acknowledged, came from child psychology. If this was the century of the child, it was also the one that saw the rise of child psychology. Yet what – especially in a paper about education – can be said against the study of the child?
In a provocative article entitled “Children are not meant to be studied” W. A. Hart begins to develop his case on the strength of a number of quotations (Hart, 1993). Let us begin by considering two of them:
a) “This book is intended for anyone wishing to make a serious study of children, whether as student teacher of nursery assistant, child-care worker, play-group organiser or concerned parent. Three basic techniques – specimen description, time-sampling and event-sampling – are considered in enough detail to make their use possible to the novice. All are observational techniques which require no specialised equipment or training but are scientifically respectable means of gathering information with a long history of use in many disciplines” – from the cover of Making a Start on Child Study (Webb 1975).
b) “No one today knows enough to raise a child. The world would be considerably better off if we were to stop having children for twenty years (except for those reared for experimental purposes) and were then to start again with enough facts to do the job with some degree of skill and accuracy. Parenthood, instead of being an instinctive art, is a science, the detail of which must be worked out by patient laboratory methods” – J.B. Watson (1928: 16).
And two more that take a rather different view:
c) “I suspect our contemporary pedagogical and psychological enthusiasm for the child of dishonourable intentions” – C.G. Jung (1954: 169).
d) “Teachers in colleges talk of studying a child. And they go about it with moral microscopes in their eyes and forceps in their finders. Not the way at all. Children are not meant to be studied but enjoyed. Only by studying to be pleased do we understand them” – Wilfred Owen (Owen and Bell 1969: 179 – from a letter, 29 January 1913).
Hart argues that the project of studying children in order to understand them is fundamentally misconceived. It rests upon the false belief that we can only know something properly by deliberately and systematically pursuing knowledge of it, especially by accumulating more information. It offers a paradigm of knowing children that justifies parents and teachers in not giving themselves sufficiently to children.
What can be meant by “giving themselves”? An important clue to this is found in a suppressed meaning of the word “study”. Owen’s strange phrase “studying to be pleased” makes a little more sense in the light of the fact that the Latin studere originally meant “to love”. “Love” here implies something like loving attention. So this might be exemplified in the love of a subject that teachers typically show, and that they want to extend to their students, bringing them into to an appreciation of the subject matter at hand – the sacred triangle once again, as we clearly see.
But how does this apply in the education of young children, where the emphasis on the subject is less prominent? It might be tempting at this point to think of something like the teacher’s recovery of the freshness of the child’s vision, but this would be to rely on the very term in the triangle that is at issue in this essay. Moreover, the “freshness” of the child’s vision is today as likely to be excited by television cartoons as by anything the teacher can offer. The answer must still be found in some sense of the inherent value and demands of what is studied, especially where the child’s relation to what is learned is not one of acquisitive grasping but rather involves the kind of energising engagement that has been adumbrated above.
In contrast, the reinterpretation of the problems that adults experience with children as technical, as arising from lack of information about them, ignores the personal and moral dimension of adults’ relations with children and thus further alienates them from one another. In other words, an artificial distance intrudes into the relationship between teacher and learner, a distance that is not bridged where the relationship is simplified to these two terms but that requires the common element of this third term. In its absence the teacher comes too readily to be thought of as something like a technician, with a set of skills that she exercises on her class.
Conversely, it is important that to acknowledge the personal element in teaching is not to sentimentalise the relationship. On the contrary, what is at issue is the fact that, where this personal relationship is missing, the very substance of what is taught and learned is devalued, for this is internally related to that relationship.
In sum, the error exposed by Hart’s account of the study of childhood is manifested primarily, as we saw, in certain conceptions of psychology. Typically the error takes the form of a kind of technicisation of understanding and of the idea of teaching and learning. The child becomes an object to be subjected to scrutiny; teaching expertise becomes the application of techniques. At its worst such an approach involves a crude behaviourism; in any case it tends towards positivistic conceptions of human being. In some conceptions of pedagogy in the UK and the USA, as we have seen, these tendencies are seen in extreme forms. What links the excesses of behaviourism with the far more plausible stances to be found in contemporary curricula and policy, stances that typify the culture of accountability, is the belief that things can be made present, can be brought into view and scrutinised, and can be known and understood in this way. It is possible to tell a rather elaborate, though I think convincing, story about this, and to give the problem a rather grand philosophical name: the metaphysics of presence. This is roughly the assumption that the ultimate authentication of what is real is to found in what is present, here, now. It is not possible in this paper to elaborate on this in any detail, but let me conclude by at least sketching how such a story might go, for it seems to me to be at the heart of the problems we are dealing with.
In identifying some of the problems of the prevailing discourse with the preoccupation with efficiency and accountability, I have echoed criticism that has become conveniently brought together under Jean-François Lyotard’s helpful term “performativity” (Lyotard, 1984). What is less well known in his work is his recurrent concern with what it is that performativity obliterates or obscures. One way he has tried to approach this is precisely in terms of the nature of childhood. In his book Lectures d’enfance (1991), for example, he ponders the ways in which childhood is not to be understood and tries to articulate the implications of this, bearing in mind all the time that we have all been children and that we inevitably harbour something of this past within us. Our childhood recedes into a past that we cannot know, or that we can only know by report; what we think of as our childhood is typically what we reconstruct on the strength of such reports, and hence is an anthropomorphic distortion of, or superimposition on, childhood. To acknowledge this requires our understanding of childhood as something that cannot be known in purely cognitive or intellectual terms; as something that can be covered over by images of childhood precocity, to be sure, but also by those of transparent innocence; and hence, as something that can only properly be understood, or properly related to, in terms of its mystery; and as something requiring personal engagement. This points towards the need for a kind of attention that is quite different from the observational stance of the child researcher. It is something that we are naturally impelled to forget, so it seems, a forgetting that we are perhaps particularly inclined towards by the ways of thinking that have become dominant in our lives today.
There are ethical implications here for the kind of attention that is properly due to children; overriding these in the presumption that we can understand children fully constitutes a kind of ethical failure. Moreover the ethical aspects to these questions have implications for the moral education of children themselves: what they learn will be crucially shaped by the kind of relationship that their teachers have with them; and this relationship will be shaped by the nature of what is to be learned and the way that this is understood (whether in terms of definitively specified, realisable objectives or in terms of something altogether more open and more challenging).
Dewey saw immaturity as a strength, the power to grow, but Lyotard’s point is different. Regardless of any telos, lack is internal to our experience of our own childhood. It is not so much that as children we lack reason. It is rather that we are “affected at a time when we do not have the means—linguistic and representational—to name, identify, reproduce, and recognize what it is that is affecting us. By children, I mean the fact that we are born before we are born to ourselves” (Lyotard 1993b: 149). The infant (the infans) cannot speak for itself, cannot represent itself. Our own childhood is then necessarily forgotten, and it is a crucial mistake to forget this. Once childhood is brought to consciousness, it becomes progressively less like childhood. Our childhood exists as something that starts before we are aware of it – a necessary, unrecoverable background, like the inevitable background there must be to all our knowledge and understanding. This background seems deficient in the light of our ideals of fullness of knowledge and self-awareness. It is seen as lack and education tries in its different ways to replenish this. Our recognition of the necessarily forgotten child within ourselves brings to our understanding a kind of humility that holds us back from excessive expectations of clarity and control and that opens us to the kind of reverence that education requires. It is the acknowledgement of this necessary forgetting, and the dangers of a forgetting of this forgetting, that has been this essay’s overriding concern. It is this sense of “childhood forgotten” that I have tried to draw out.
There are dangers that we have become accustomed to operating in an educational culture where nothing is worth doing unless it can be recorded and accounted for, in what seems to be a new and more pervasive, more surreptitious implementation of “teaching to the test”. This itself is a manifestation of the metaphysics of presence. It models a whole world for the learner. Such circumstances make us all the more blind to the insight that Lyotard offers here, a failure that ironically demonstrates the cogency of his point of view.
In John Darling’s writings there is a rich sense of mystery and wonder at childhood that preserves something of the unknowability that is Lyotard’s concerns, and that manifests a sensitive reverence towards it. My own view, however, is that the failure of progressivism-as-practised to recognise the need for a reverence towards what is studied, and to the demands that this makes on us, leads to a kind of etiolation. In some ways this neglect has opened the way for the reactionary and deadened conception of what is to be learned that has largely taken progressivism’s place.
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