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Wasted: Why Education Isn't Educating

Alan Ryan backs the brickbats for Labour but senses a confusion at the heart of this polemic

This is a book that tests the dictum that my enemy's enemy is my friend. Frank Furedi is a good hater; he particularly loathes new Labour, and among its innumerable wickednesses, he particularly has it in for the peculiar combination of Utopian aspiration, bureaucratic hyperactivity and intellectual vacuity that has marked its education policies for the past dozen years. Like all sensible people, he would not let Ed Balls within a mile of a school, let alone put him in charge of children, schools and families.

So far, so good, and Furedi has a good stock of incisive one-liners. You can open the book at random and find thought-provoking sentences such as these on well-meant but spooky attempts to insert into the curriculum for very young children techniques for helping them to identify and manage their feelings: "These scripted forms of emotional management reproduce the worst features of learning by rote. Moreover, by adopting the language of reflection and openness, they hide their commitment to the management of children's internal life. This is not teaching but the programming of children." Anyone seeking the sort of examination question that amounts to a provocative statement and the injunction "Discuss" will find plenty here.

The problem is that Furedi seems to have wanted to write two very different kinds of book, and they get in each other's way. One is "all the things I loathe about contemporary educational policy and pedagogical theory". Whether we need such a book depends rather on how pointed the loathing is. There are moments in Wasted when we seem to be heading in the direction of a general denunciation of the modern world in all its aspects, which we don't need. But often the complaints are shrewd and on target, especially when they focus on the deep oddity of the fact that we bang on about the whole child and individuated learning while stuffing marking schemes down our pupils' throats in a fashion calculated to destroy the capacity for individual thought.

The other book is "this is what education really is, and this is how it should be delivered, to whom and by whom; and this is why it matters so much". Anyone who wrote the second book may have some sharp things to say about the ways in which we fall short of delivering a real education to our children; but one could denounce the present Government's approach to schools and higher education without knowing much at all about what a really excellent education is like. Incompetent Utopianism always merits a good kicking, as does the new Labour habit of trying to silence its critics by bad-mouthing their motives and saying ever more loudly that the emperor's new clothes are wonderful, even though they seem to wear out in six months.

So what does Furedi think? It seems to go like this. The deep issue is one of authority. Most of the time, he laments the under-mining of parental authority by a state that presumes to know more than parents about how children, even in their first few months of life, are to be reared to become active citizens and productive workers. At other times, it is the undermining of the authority of teachers that distresses him. At yet other times, these seem to be aspects of some larger crisis of authority, either a crisis of adult authority vis-a-vis the young, or a crisis in our culture and a loss of faith in the accomplishments, standards and values that we want to hand on to the next generation.

I am not inhospitable to this last thought, but it needs to be handled with care. It is an anxiety that has beset intellectuals in its modern form since the early 1800s, and in other forms as long ago as Plato. But Furedi is not good at reading philosophers with due attention. He gets annoyed by John Dewey's observation that in a rapidly changing world, rote learning won't do and that we need to acquire the ability to handle unpredictable change; indeed, he disapproves of my saying that Dewey was right.

But Dewey's point was more banal than contentious; imagine teaching someone to drive a car by insisting that they drive only from London to Brighton because that's what driving is for. Dewey was arguing against the rote learning that dominated primary education in the late 19th century, and Furedi is no friend of rote learning. By the same token, he has no idea what lay behind John Stuart Mill's insistence that parents be compelled to get their children educated - but not by the state. It was not that Mill thought that uncultivated parents couldn't produce cultivated children - though he no doubt thought that, too. His point was fiercer and more basic; it was a violation of the rights of the child to allow him or her to grow up unable to earn a living, and it was a violation of the rights of the rest of society, which would have to support them. I'd have thought that was a view Furedi would sympathise with.

Wasted: Why Education Isn't Educating

By Frank Furedi

Continuum, 256pp, £16.99

ISBN 9781847064165

Published 15 October 2009

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