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What is education for?

As both a parent and a governor during this year’s GCSE results, I found myself in an odd predicament. Should I be pleased with my son’s results because they were his achievement, or because the school had succeeded in ‘adding value’? How did we get into this strange dilemma? A generation ago, there would have been no question. Surely, achievement belongs to the pupil, and schools should be measured on their input into that process, not the results themselves.

The fact we have become confused about this is the result of a powerful narrative which is pressing the educational process out of shape.

A large part of the public discussion on education focussing around making sure pupils get results which will give them the skills to compete in the workplace, and in turn mean that the British economy can compete on the world stage. We use this language so much, that we don’t even notice what it implies. ‘Competition’. ‘Results’. ‘Skills.’ This is mechanistic approach to education, where the process of learning had become industrialised; pupils are (at the beginning) raw materials which enter the educational machine, and have components added so at the end they emerge from the process as complete contributors to the world of work. (I was tempted to use the word ‘citizens’ here, but such language is too broad for this industrial model. If they are good citizens, then it is in order that they can contribute more productively).


136129510_dawkins_449347bIf this narrative sounds dehumanising, then that’s because it is, and this arises from its origins in the industrial revolution, where mass education first started. But the controlling value here is utilitarianism, which began as a system of thought by putting human desire and happiness at the centre of decision-making, but in fact fails because it assumes infinite human knowledge. We were given a little glimpse of how dehumanising this kind of thinking really is by Richard Dawkins last week, in a Twitter exchange about Down’s Syndrome:

Tweeter:  I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma.

Dawkins: Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.

As Krish Kandia pointed out,

Well at least he isn’t arguing for a consumeristic situational ethics: ‘If you don’t fancy raising a child with a genetic abnormality then choose for yourself.’

No, Dawkins has no place for this kind of relativism. He asserts categorically that it is immoral. So anyone who has carried a child with Down’s Syndrome to term and lovingly cared for the child until adulthood and often beyond as many people with Down’s Syndrome do not go on and live independently, has been immoral.

And the real problem with this was exposed when Dawkins ‘apologised’ for what he had said:

If your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down’s baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare…

Those who thought I was bossily telling a woman what to do rather than let her choose, of course this was absolutely not my intention and I apologise if brevity made it look that way. My true intention was, as stated at length above, simply to say what I personally would do, based upon my own assessment of the pragmatics of the case, and my own moral philosophy which in turn is based on a desire to increase happiness and reduce suffering.

The real problem is…that Dawkins does not see the problem—first, that he is assuming perfect knowledge; second, that people are valued on the basis of their usefulness; and, third, that rationality, rather than emotion, is the only way of thinking that counts.


The hubris of assuming we know the future was set out in this moving response ‘Once I would have agreed with Dawkins. Then my daughter was born with Down’s Syndrome’:

rosie2I understand the Professor’s point of view implicitly. In fact, what he says still makes total logical sense to me…18 months ago I would even have agreed. The arrival of my daughter with the surprise of having this very condition has shone a light on the gulf of ignorance, not to mention the factually incorrect prejudice underlying this opinion.

I put my hands up to say that, without knowing it, our baby has already taught us the most groundbreaking lessons of our lives so far, and we would quite literally change nothing about her – especially her genetic profile. It has completely turned on their head my opinions on what success in life looks like and what my aspirations should be for all of our children. I always end up in the same place, happiness and contentment are what ultimately matter, and I know that Rosie will have those in abundance.

Thanks to her, I believe we’ll be in a better position to encourage such success for her sister and brother-to-be, unshackled by the notion that success in life is solely linked to academic attainment, careers and money.

But this was not the only comment which made an explicit link between utility, ethics, education and success. Another article from a parent of a child with Down’s Syndrome commented:

As I watched the Twitter debate unfurl, you continued that you would not recommend abortion for individuals with Autism, say, as they ‘contribute’ to society, for they are ‘enhanced’, which, in your view those with Trisomy 21 are not. You even went so far as to say children with Down’s syndrome ‘suffer’.

Now hold your horses just one moment Mr Dawkins. I think perhaps you are confusing non-essentialist, humanist thinking with a loss of humanity here.

And this article notes the basic mistake: surveys show that people with Down’s Syndrome are actually happier than the population as a whole. The problem is with those who are challenged by their presence in society. Even on its own terms, utilitarianism fails.


At the end of this second article was a picture of the author’s daughter wearing a t-shirt with a profound quotation from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

We know what we are, but we know not what we may be. (Hamlet, Act 4 Scene 5)

The great failure of utilitarianism is a presumption to know the future—but the great secret of education is that the future holds all sorts of untold possibilities. Mike Higton of Durham University wrote a short theology of higher education a few years ago in a Grove Ethics booklet (and later a longer book I think). He draws a parallel between the process of education and the call the first disciples experienced as they went about their business as fishermen on Lake Galilee:

Jesus sees what these two men currently are, and calls them to a transformation—to a strange fulfilment of what they are. They are fishermen (halieis), but he calls them to become fishermen (halieis anthropon: fishers of people, ‘fishers of men’ in an older translations). Simon and Andrew respond by leaving what they are, and beginning their journey towards this mysterious fulfilment—towards what they will be. They become, in that moment, disciples. They become learners. This is already clearly not about their desire to accumulate some extra information, or gain some skills. It is about a deep re-making of what they are—a process that will engage with the selves they are now, and which will lead towards the transfiguration of those selves. They are captivated by the possibility of transformation. (p 4)

I love that phrase: ‘captivated by the possibility of transformation’. Alongside factual information that must be learned, pupils need a vision of who they might become as part of the educational process.


Another powerful voice speaking against utility in education is the remarkable Ken Robinson. His talk ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ is the most watched of any TED lecture, and it is worth seeing.

He was on Radio 4 this morning in the first of a short series ‘The Educators’, talking with Sarah Montague. Part of the conversation went something like this:

KR: Have you noticed that all education systems have a hierarchy, with maths at the top, and dance at the bottom—everywhere in the world. Isn’t that odd?

SM: Are you suggesting that dance is more important than maths?

KR: No, I am suggesting that it is equally important.

SM: But we use maths every of our lives. In every decision, we have to use maths…

KR: Not the maths we learn at school. Most of us never use calculus or algebra. But we all use our bodies, all the time. Education too often makes pupils physically passive, and we are even medicating children so they can cope with this. Children are not brains on sticks.

p0249d51Robinson, who has been in teaching all his life, is not here criticising teachers. Instead, his criticism is aimed at policy makers and ministers ‘who are there for a moment before moving on to another ministerial post.’ He frequently highlights the way that he and others discovered their gift and calling through education, and sees this as vital. (He comments of those who taught him in ways that wonderfully echo Higton’s account of Jesus calling the disciples: ‘They saw something in my that I myself had not seen.’) It is far from clear that the changes introduced by Michael Gove will make this any easier.

In our public discourse we need to find a new narrative for education which focusses not just on the acquisition of skills and knowledge, but also includes a strong focus on the self-discovery of vocation and giftedness—the possibilities of education. This happens in good schools with good teachers, but since it is not easily measurable, it does not form part of national policy.


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3 Responses to What is education for?

  1. James Byron September 1, 2014 at 9:59 pm #

    “In our public discourse we need to find a new narrative for education which focusses not just on the acquisition of skills and knowledge, but also includes a strong focus on the self-discovery of vocation and giftedness—the possibilities of education.”

    Couldn’t agree more, Ian — but I don’t see how utilitarianism is a roadblock to this end. In seeking to produce the best outcome, nourishing a person’s vocation is quintessentially utilitarian!

    • Matt Wright September 4, 2014 at 9:01 am #

      Surely the point is that utilitarianism beguiles by promising what it can’t deliver, happiness. Ian’s point is that taken beyond very narrow confines, the theory is quickly shown to be false, it doesn’t produce happiness. This is because is not really about happiness, but about a set of imported assumptions that you use to measure happiness. These are not obvious, nor true

  2. Dave September 2, 2014 at 9:23 am #

    Ken Robinson’s views are refreshing.

    Results, Self Esteem, High Achievement are intertwined in a classroom. I used to teach practical systems electronics kind of stuff. Students loved being able to successfully invent and then make things beyond what they thought they could do. That helped increase self esteem as well as an individuals academic results.

    Most teachers want to see students enjoy learning, enjoy life. An prescriptive curriculum that constrains creative teaching, harms teachers and students alike.

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