This isn’t a rhetorical question. This short article isn’t even a polemic. I’m posing a genuine question – as the question mark implies. Honestly I really don’t know. I went through the English education system and, later on, studied at Universities in Britain, America and Germany. I even have a child and ‘step-child’ who have experienced (and one who is still experiencing) the delights of schools in the Czech Republic and France. This doesn’t make me an educational expert. Be that as it may. Yet just possibly some of you, wherever you are and whatever generation you belong to, might have asked yourselves the same question?
In Britain, and in many other countries around the world, it was surely a wonderful thing when education became open, and yes compulsory, for all. No longer was it just the preserve of the privileged elite. Children were no longer forced to go down the mines at the age of ten. No, they had to go to school. I for one am grateful to the generations of social and educational campaigners who fought for this right, often in the face of fierce entrenched opposition. Thank you.
Of course, even with the introduction of compulsory primary and then secondary education, schools were, and still remain, elitist. This much is clear. Most of us are aware of the fact that one of the primary purposes of schools has been to provide an obedient and pliant workforce for our capitalist society. But enough of that! There is also still the deeply held belief that school education is beneficial to us as individuals and is not just a production line to provide more factory, office or cannon fodder. I agree with this.
Yet let’s think a little about what we actually learn in schools. I apologize for the fact that much of what I will have to say is based on personal experience, my own and that of my family and friends, but just maybe it isn’t that unusual?
Start with language. Children don’t need schools to be able to understand and speak their ‘own’ language, or even to speak it grammatically. Children have picked up this skill quite naturally and almost effortlessly from their parents, family and peers for millennia – even before anything was written down. The fact is that you needn’t have the first clue about grammar to be able to express yourself fluently, and without fault, in your mother tongue. When my parents were at school they had to learn lots of English grammar. By the time I went to school in the 1960s and early 1970s I don’t recall any official grammar lessons at all, even though I went to a very academic Grammar School. Of course I might have nodded off and missed them. Despite this, I hope it is the case that nowadays I can speak and write correct English – like what you can. It’s quite different with my daughter. She goes to a French school. There the emphasis is on what in Britain we used to call the three ‘R’s’ – reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic. Some people in Britain wish this were still the emphasis in British schools. Without doubt it’s a joy for me, when I’m helping with homework, to know all the wonderful French tenses and what they’re called and when you use them. It’s even interesting to know all about direct and indirect complements and the rules of accordance when using the auxiliary verb ‘être’ in the various past tenses. Good stuff you might think. It enables the children to learn how to write ‘proper’ French. But is it? My own daughter can read and write just as good (if not better) English as she can French, and she’s never had an English grammar lesson in her life. But try to explain that to French teachers!
The same is true with foreign languages. I was taught French and German at school. I went to France on a school trip when I was sixteen. There I met a lovely young French girl. I wanted to tell her so much, and probe her deeper (if you see what I mean), but despite years of Racine, Maupassant and Flaubert, I couldn’t utter a sentence. Perhaps, given enough time, I could have written her a nice and grammatically correct letter, but a normal conversation was beyond me. I was tongue-tied. Knowledge of grammar and years of learning French in English didn’t help at all. That was a hopeless way to learn languages; yet forty years later the same so-called methods are still used in France. French school children can spend ten or more years learning English (usually with teachers barely competent in the language) and still by the age of sixteen or seventeen only have the confidence to say, with a certain embarrassed reticence, ‘Hello, how are you?’ And if you reply – they’re stumped. Now to be sure the French are particularly bad when it comes to learning other languages, even (and this is hard to conceive) worse than the English. In many other countries young children can and do learn foreign languages very well – and particularly the most important foreign (for them) language of English. It’s humbling. Some methods of teaching languages at school work and some are hopeless.
In schools we also learn other things: mathematics, science, history, geography and even (occasionally) art and music. When I first went to Grammar school I loved history and geography, even the rather restricted and nationalistic type being taught at that time. But the school system still continued to try to sort out the wheat from the chaff. I had been lucky in getting to the Grammar school at all, but that was only the start of the whittling-out process. From the age of eleven we had tests every year and the results of these tests really mattered. At the end of my first year in the wonderful King Edward VI Grammar School (I’m not being facetious at all, it really was a good school) we had lots of tests. I passed them all except for Latin. This result mattered most. You could be great at maths or history but what really mattered was Latin. If you failed Latin you went into the lowest class in the next year – as I did. For the first time in my life I was in a class with the ‘failures’. Most of the children who had failed Latin had failed everything else as well. Well I guess I could have felt that it was good to start being top of the class, but I didn’t. If you were in this stream you were already destined for the local prison, as one slightly deranged English teacher used to tell us. I had to get out. There was only one way to do so and that was to elect to join the science stream. I was allowed to do this only because I was top of the class. But what did it mean? It meant that I had to drop my favourite subjects of history and geography and do maths, physics, chemistry and yet more maths. Not only for the rest of my time at school but also for decades afterwards. So much for schools encouraging the interest and talents of their pupils.
Now before this becomes too much of an auto-biographical story of my own schooling, let’s widen the discussion a little. Some of us loved learning about geometry, linear algebra, the periodic table and Newtonian physics, but was it any use? I’m not going to say no. If you are going to go onto study a scientific subject at university then if you can’t do some maths you’re not going to get very far. Yet even though I spent years at university solving some quite difficult equations I can only remember a bit of it now. I didn’t become an academic scientist or even a jobbing engineer.
One of the reasons I’m asking this question at all is because of what we all know: very little of what we ever learn in school do we ever need, use or even remember once we’ve left. For most of us, all that geometry, all those differential equations, the biological experiments in petri dishes and even the poetry and history are instantly forgotten. So did it have any use or would we all have been better off learning how to wire up our house, cook a good meal or do a bit of plumbing – useful things?
Ultimately I do think that schools have real benefits for the individual and not just for the economy. I’ll highlight just three. Each of these is conventional, even conventional wisdom, but nonetheless true for that. First, for many children who want to avail themselves of the chance, schools can and do bring widened opportunities and aid upward social mobility. I know there are a lot of serious barriers to such social mobility and, at least in the UK, these barriers seem to be getting even harder to break through than they used to be. But without schools we’d all stay stuck where we were born – we’d know ‘our place’ – just as we were forced to do for centuries. Second, schools do teach us to think and to analyse. Some would deny this and point out that schools don’t encourage or foster ‘creativity’; the proponents of Steiner education being a case in point. Yet thinking and analyzing isn’t just about creativity or even making things up, it’s also about having to work hard through the logic and arguments that others have tackled and tentatively solved before us. It’s not always fun (though it can be) but if we have any residual belief in knowledge and reason it is indispensable. Third, and quite often I would suggest, a particular school teacher or subject can spark a real passion for learning in us. This passion might even lie dormant for years and then flower. Passions can come from other places as well, but how many of us can point to a particular English or History teacher who lit a spark in us that we are still nurturing today?
I guess that the best I can do for the moment on what schools are really for. I’d love your opinions.