May 19, 2003
Theodore Dalrymple on education

When I returned from my trip to France on Wednesday of last week, I brought with me a copy of Theodore Dalrymple's book Life at the Bottom, kindly lent to me by my hosts out there. It paints a picture of a class who, with their mere physical survival needs taken care of, and with their brains rotted by second-hand versions of bad liberal intelligensia ideas (don't be "judgemental" - sexually anything goes (or should go) - criminals are not to blame for their crimes, and so on), have descended into a hell on earth.

The moral for those of us concerned about education and its alleged failures in recent decades is that if isn't fair only to blame teachers for the failure of education to get very much better. If the underclass is both sinking into hell and expanding in numbers, it is hardly reasonable merely to blame teachers for people not knowing to the nearest two centuries when the Second World War occurred, or who fought the Battle of Hastings and why, or what six times seven is.

If you talk to an average teacher, this is pretty much what he will tell you. The world is going to hell, so don't blame us for everything.

But Dalrymple doesn't exclude educators from his criticisms, or to be more exact he does not exclude liberal intelligensia thinking about education. He notes that his father, who was born in a slum, singled out for his particular gratitude certain teachers for having shown him that there was a better world beyond the one he was born into. Chapter Seven of Dalrymple's book is entitled "We Don't Want No Education". It's final paragraph reads thus:

In one sense (and in one sense alone), however, the underclass has been victimized, or perhaps betrayed is a better word. The educational absurdities foisted on the lower orders were the idea not of the lower orders themselves but of those who were in a position to avoid their baleful effects: that is to say, middle-class intellectuals. If I were inclined to paranoia (which fortunately I am not), I should say that the efforts of educationists were part of a giant plot by the middle classes to keep power for themselves and to restrict competition, in the process creating sinecures for some of their less able and dynamic members – namely the educationists. But if these middle classes have maintained their power, it is in an increasingly enfeebled and impoverished country.

So you can see how educationists wouldn't want use Dalrymple to excuse their failures, even though to some extent he does, for to him they are part of a larger picture of intelligensia and administrative class failure.

Dalrymple in particular denounces the idea of "relevance". The more I read of the thoughts about education of others, the more I keep coming across this idea that education is about more than just getting a good job, but furthermore that this "more than" is also a matter of huge economic significance. Education does not necessarily abolish your poverty, but it may make it far easier to bear. It means, in other words, that happiness will cost you less.

A man with an interest or pursue, or at least with the mental equipment to pursue an interest, is not in such dire straits as a man obliged by the tabula rasa of his mind to stare vacantly at the four walls for weeks, months, or years on end.

I know the feeling. Doing this blog can sometimes be a bit of a slog, but it certainly beats staring at the wall.

But Dalrymple immediately adds that a man with plenty of irrelevant education is also likely to get a better job. Irrelevant education, in other words, is actually very relevant indeed.

He is far more likely to come up with an idea for self-employment, or at the very least to seek work in places and in fields that are new to him. He is not condemned to stagnation.

… which is also part of the idea of this, for me.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:04 PM
Category: Relevance