Progressive educational ideas constitute an attack on truth and authority. Traditionally, education consists of passing on to the next generation a body of knowledge, handing on to them the precious inheritance of human wisdom and thought which has built up through the generations. The teacher has authority because he has already mastered this knowledge, and has been chosen for the important role of passing it on to the next generation. But progressive ideas reverse all of this, placing the child on a pedestal, and asking the child what he wishes to learn. In making education child-centred rather than knowledge centred, progressive educators pass on this key dogma: there is no objective truth; there is only subjective experience, and to know more of this relativist ‘truth’, we must look within, not without.
It is well documented that these ideas took a powerful hold of state education in Britain from the sixties onwards, although their dominance was stronger in primary schools at first, and many bastions of traditionalism continued, particularly in the grammar schools that survived. While Harold Wilson had hoped for a traditional academic education to be made available to everyone – ‘grammar schools for all’ – the comprehensivisation of secondary schools in the seventies in fact ushered in ever more radical progressive experiments, as discipline was relaxed and traditional academic subjects either dropped or hollowed out to the point of meaninglessness. Read Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools, for more detail on this.
The dominance of progressive ideas in education from the sixties onwards has been part of a larger cultural shift away from received wisdom, traditional morality and objective truth towards a relativist, subjectivist view of human society, and of humanity itself.
What we have seen is an abandonment of the final cause: the fourth of Aristotle’s four causes, and the most important one. Aristotle considered it to be the strongest argument for the existence of God, as the final cause of the universe, and he also considered it to be indispensable for a proper understanding of any phenomenon. We must understand purposes and goals if we are to understand anything properly. We must understand purposes and goals if we are to make meaningful judgements. If I want to judge whether a pen is ‘good’, I must know its purpose. Once I know that its purpose is to write, then I can see if it writes well. If it does, I say it is a good pen. If I misunderstand its purpose, and decide to use it as a can opener, I will not achieve my goal – I will not open the can – and I will also destroy the pen.
This is what has happened in education. The final cause has been lost, and education has been used to achieve all kinds of goals for which it was not intended. And just like the unwise man who tries to open a can with a pen, we have tried to do all sorts of foolish things with education and in the process we have destroyed education.
The collapse of authority and traditional wisdom in state education is so widespread that it is now hardly noticed by most people. It has become normal. Generations have experienced schools where teachers are treated without respect, where history is hollowed out to subjective responses and ‘source analysis’, where English involves the arrogant dismissal of the writers of the past as benighted bigots.
Now we have a political class entering the highest offices of government that has experienced this kind of schooling. They are more likely than ever to see morality in terms of conformity to social norms rather than submission to any objective standard. They are more likely to see the population as in need of management and manipulation rather than as having possession of reason and free will. They will have experienced, in their formative years, a system dedicated to the ideological whims of the experts (seventies and eighties) or to fulfilling bureaucratic criteria (nineties and noughties) rather than to handing on the wisdom of the centuries to the young. So it would be natural for them to consider the role of government in a similar manner. Instead of government serving the people, the people must meet the critieria of government. Instead of government being limited to the maintenance of peace and the rule of law, government must interfere in every area of life, to ensure that ‘standards’ are being met. Government becomes one huge, overweening inspection regime.
That’s why I don’t find it reassuring that ever more government ministers are state educated.