Confessions of an Educational Conservative

By Colin Black

I was once asked at a job interview to explain a comment made by one of my referees who had described me as an educational conservative. I replied somewhat glibly that, were I to be entrusted with the headmastership of the school, my task would be to identify its strengths and then work to the best of my capacity to make them even stronger.


That was three decades ago and, in my naivety, it did not occur to me then that I was voicing a controversial approach to educational leadership. The culture of repudiation of the past is widespread in society and not least in schools and universities. It has been an ingrained article of faith for over fifty years among the educational establishment that, however things were done before, all must now be swept away. Well educated and otherwise very sensible colleagues preened themselves self-righteously as they announced that they were not teachers but “change agents”, or devalued their calling by proudly claiming to be no longer “the sage on the stage” but “the guide by the side”.  Davos-like jamborees, the annual junkets of publicly funded professional associations with high-sounding names, strummed loudly the cacophonous leitmotif of educational iconoclasm. Some of us who attended such evangelical gatherings left with a sense of fashionable guilt that we had not passed muster, but also with a deep feeling of unease that, in rubbing shoulders with these educational Jacobins, we had been participating in something that was essentially bogus.


The authoritarian intolerance of the Left is much in evidence in the English-speaking world, especially for those who work in schools and universities. It has escalated rapidly in recent years but the first pernicious shoots were evident five decades ago. Even then discussions among colleagues about, e.g., the pedagogy of reading or whether children really benefited from being taught in mixed ability classes, were conducted at a heightened level of hectoring emotion rather than debated in a measured and rational way. During the last century the destruction of the old academically selective Grammar Schools in England was an act of wanton barbarism wrought by a politically minded and vindictive educational establishment and pursued with the zeal of one-eyed revolutionaries everywhere. Yet it was these age-old institutions, often established many generations previously by royalty, the churches and local philanthropists, and which at no cost to families were open to all who could demonstrate they had the capacity to benefit from the rigorous and traditional curriculum, that provided the ladder of upward social mobility and personal fulfilment for so many children from the lower echelons of society.

The education class gradually became infected by a tangled skein of woolly progressive ideology, neo-Marxist spite and envy, post-modern nihilism and sheer self-interest in its own advancement, and would brook no opposition to its world view. Schools were now to be places of liberation, not of liberal education. In them the young must be “liberated” – from the demands of an intellectually taxing and subject-centred traditional curriculum, from insensitive competition which threatens self-esteem, from authoritarian teachers bent upon their indoctrination and disempowerment, and most certainly from the shackles of the Western cultural heritage which was of course inherently rotten, socially unjust and quite irrelevant to their personal and political needs.        

Throughout my life I have always seen schools fundamentally as places where children go to meet teachers. In them the transmission of knowledge, values and dispositions takes place in an orderly environment designed and set aside from the rest of society for that purpose. Their most valuable resource is a “little platoon” of educated men and women who are committed to the initiation of the young into the riches of the culture into which they are privileged to have been born and of which each generation is the proud and watchful guardian. They approach this daunting task with the humility of the English school-master Hector in Alan Bennet’s play The History Boys:

“Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.”

They are not swayed from their lofty calling by leaping upon the latest educational bandwagon which so often turns out to be a tumbrel. They know that teaching is both an art and a craft, and not a science. Teachers, well-read and well-educated people themselves, should be left to function according to their instinctual and inherited understanding of what works. The Austrian economist and philosopher F.A. Hayek argued that because the factors influencing human behaviour are myriad, beyond formulation and forever outside our understanding, central planning of the economy is unlikely to succeed and it is better left to the market to determine in its lumbering but responsive way the costs of goods and services. Similarly the “facts” of teaching are contained in countless transactions between generations past and present, wherever and whenever any well-intentioned person has sought to transmit information, ideas, and skills to young people for their betterment. It is beyond our capacity to codify in some theory of teaching the distillation of educational wisdom and experience inherent in all of these interactions, and so pedagogical theory and educational dogma are largely in vain, just as command economies invariably fail.

The responsibility of the leader of a school is to create the conditions under which teaching can take place, to enable teachers to be the best they can possibly be, for schools, by their very nature, are places of teaching first and learning second, and the link between the two is contingent, not conceptual. Young people learn from all sorts of agencies, their peers, their milieu, the media or the technological toys to which they are tethered much of their waking hours. But schools, in eschewing “relevance”, are their fall-out shelters from the tawdry, the distracting, the ephemeral and the parochial. It follows that places of education for the young must be deliberately artificial environments where good order and predictability prevail, and they must certainly not be slaves to the vicissitudes of popular culture. The judicious use of ritual and formality, in the dress code of staff and students, tastefully managed assemblies, respectful modes of interaction between teachers and pupils, underlines for all those involved that education is a most serious business even if some are as yet not mature enough to realise this. A complementary programme of co-curricular activities, and the involvement where possible of parents and former students, will help to create a genuine feeling of community and belonging, a first intimation perhaps of what the German philosopher Edmund Husserl called the lebenswelt, which gives meaning to our lives together and bestows on us a sense of home.

Teaching the young can be a most rewarding but desperately difficult calling. It is uphill even at the best of times. We cannot nor should we delude ourselves that we are engaged in some messianic quest to change the world. Most would be well pleased with the epitaph that George Eliot wrote for her heroine Dorothea at the end of Middlemarch:

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

For more content from Colin check out his portfolio for The Coolidge Review.

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