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May 01, 2003
Some recommended reading

I am in a rush, partly because this evening I will be visiting some home educators (stay tuned), and partly because I have just spent some scarce (today) BedBlogging time reading an article called Why Education Is So Difficult and Contentious by Kieran Egan of Simon Fraser University (acrobat only I'm afraid). It was publilshed in 2001 but nothing in it dates.

In my opinion, drawing from one of the distinctions that he himself uses, Egan is something of a pedant, but disguised quite well as a man of wisdom, by which I mean that he writes much more clearly and entertainingly than most of us would expect from a seriously pedantic pedant. However, since what Egan pendantifies (I know, not a real word) is a nice, clear, three-tier history of educational thought socialisation, an academic curriculum, personal development and since, as I say, he writes clearly and entertainingly, I found my attention held, despite the piece running to 19 pages.

In my opinion Egan is a typical nationalised industry drudge, whose brain is really quite severely warped by the fact that the thinks that education has to be a nationalised industry. He's a drudge with a smile on his face, but a drudge nevertheless. So no wonder he regards the problems of education as insoluble, and the conflicts between his three core ideas as irreconcilable and doomed to cause permanent failure. It's just the same in nationalised hatpin factories, where the conflicting demands placed on The Hatpin are likewise considered beyond the wit of man to solve, despite the infinity of effort that "we" have expended, are expending, and are doomed for ever more to expend upon solving the problem.

For instance, Egan says that the idea of systematic bodies of knowledge conflicts with the idea of potential-development. Progressives versus Trads, in other words. If they can't settle their differences in a century, they never will, says Egan. One or both of these ideas must be wrong.

Both are right, and need no modification. They just need to be done right.

"Progressives" are (a) often horribly bad at actually developing potential (briefly: the prisons with pretty wallpaper syndrome) and (b) full of crap about how the world works, that is to say, foisting a syllabus on their charges that is full of nonsense. Plus (c) some of the progressives actually disbelieve in the very idea of a body of knowledge that's out there and gettable, so no wonder their little charges remain ignorant. They have to reinvent and/or rediscover everything for themselves, poor things, which is idiotic.

Although most Trads in my experience do actually believe in developing potential, they are typically unable to distinguish between the claim that something obscure and not overwhelmingly useful is true (which it usually is when they say it) with the claim that therefore children should all be made to learn it and can't be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not they'll bother with it.

Being sensible instead of silly about such things does not require that one or both of the twin ideas of sensible syllabuses or developing pupil potential should be dumped. They just aren't yet being done right by very many people.

Egan has, we learn, written a book in which he claims that he has started to solve many of "insoluble" problems caused by these three "flawed" ideas, by reworking the ideas. And maybe his new and improved ideas are better (not so very different from mine in other words) and I'm misjudging the man. Meanwhile, as a bird's eye view of the dilemmas of education as a survey of the questions if no answer on the answer side I recommend his article.

Here endeth the lesson.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:51 PM
Category: Education theory
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