British sociologist Frank Furedi (University of Kent; see his new book Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating) argues that liberal education is supposed to teach children about the “cultural and intellectual achievements of humanity.” That’s controversial.
“Although education is celebrated as one of the most important institutions of society, there is a casual disrespect for the content of what children are taught. Curriculum engineers often display indifference, if not contempt, for abstract thought and the knowledge developed in the past. Both are criticised for being irrelevant or outdated; only new information that can be applied and acted on is seen as suitable for the training – and it is training and not teaching – of digital natives.”
We agree with Furedi: an emphasis on how-to skills rather than knowledge is not an education.
“The idea that we live in a qualitatively different world serves as a premise for the claim that the knowledge and insights of the past have only minor historical significance. In education it is claimed that old ways of teaching are outdated precisely because they are old. Knowledge itself is called into question because in a world of constant flux it must be continually overtaken by events. Policy has become so focused on keeping up with change that it has become distracted from the task of giving meaning to education.
The fetishisation of change is symptomatic of a mood of intellectual malaise, where notions of truth, knowledge and meaning have acquired a provisional character. Perversely, the transformation of change into a metaphysical force haunting humanity actually desensitises society from distinguishing between a passing novelty and qualitative change. That is why lessons learned through the experience of the past are so important for helping society face the future. When change is objectified, it turns into spectacle that distracts society from valuing the truths and insights it has acquired throughout the best moments of human history. Yet these are truths that have emerged through attempts to find answers to the deepest and most durable questions facing us, and the more the world changes the more we need to draw on our cultural and intellectual inheritance.
If the legacy of past achievements has ceased to have relevance for the schooling of young people, what can education mean? Thinkers from across the left-right divide have always realised that education represents a transaction between the generations. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist thinker, wrote ‘in reality each generation educates the new generation’. Writing from a conservative perspective, English philosopher Michael Oakeshott concluded ‘education in its most general significance may be recognised as a specific transaction which may go on between the generations of human beings in which newcomers to the scene are initiated into the world they inhabit’. Liberal political philosopher Hannah Arendt said education provided an opportunity for society to preserve and to renew its intellectual inheritance through an intergenerational conversation.”
Look again: a transaction between generations about what’s worth knowing. Not a transaction between schools and big business about how to save money training new employees.