A 'good' education

Somebody commenting here yesterday asked me how I would describe a 'good' education. It is a fair question. I have offered much criticism of other people's idea; what do I myself regard as an acceptable type of education? Actually, the answer is fairly simple and straightforward. In any company other than that of some home educators and the trendier kind of teacher, my notions on the subject would probably pass without any remark at all.

There is a tendency among some parents and teachers to recoil in horror from the idea of shoving facts into young children. The poor little mites should be allowed to decide for themselves what they wish to learn and if we are to teach them anything, it should be skills rather than facts. In other words, we should equip them with the tools to discover any facts which they want for themselves. This approach has seeped into the mainstream world of education, becoming almost an orthodoxy among many teachers. The problem is, as parents will know, that children might not wish to learn any useful facts when once they have been furnished with the necessary skills. They may only wish to use these 'research skills' to establish what is on the television tonight or to post offensive messages on Facebook! Does this matter? I think that it does, because a person who is not possessed of rudimentary information on various topics is hardly fit to be a citizen at all. Worse, the lack of basic facts can result in a reading deficit in children, which makes it hard for the child to benefit from any education on offer.

What sort of facts am I talking about here? It is hard to escape discussion in modern Britain of climate change, formerly known as 'Global warming'. Anybody talking about anthropogenic climate change will be anxious to reduce the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. Unless one knows that the generation of electricity almost invariably entails a coil of wire spinning in a magnetic field, or vice versa, any discussion of the rival merits of wind farms and other so-called renewable sources of energy, will be impossible. Here is a simple fact which is included in any Physics syllabus. Without possession of this fact, one will not be able to talk or offer any opinion about climate change. Teenagers might stumble across this fact by accident, but they may not. It is such a useful piece of information and so important, that we should not rely upon chance; it is something which should be taught.

There are many facts like this which will enable any adult to make sense of the world around them and take an intelligent interest in what is happening. Unless one knows what a gene actually is, a section of DNA which codes for one protein, then one cannot have any opinion on the topic of genetically modified foods. This is another fact which any person in the modern, industrialised world needs to know. It is taught as part of the syllabus of biology.

Here then, is my own idea of a good education. It is one in which adults choose a number of facts and impart them to children. They choose these facts carefully, being aware that the fact that electricity ifsgenerated by spinning a coil of wire in a magnetic field is likely to be more important than the favourite ice cream flavour of some pop singer. Not all facts are equally important and children are not best placed to make this judgement. Unless they have a collection of such facts, they will be stunted and unable to take part in conversations or even vote intelligently.

The very ability to read is hampered by a lack of knowledge. Consider this sentence from my newspaper;

'Across Cairo, 30 years of autocracy are pouring out on streams of tears and screams of joy'.

A ten year old could probably read that sentence, in the sense that she could say the words. But to read it, to understand the meaning of the printed words requires a good deal more than that; it requires a stock of facts. What is an autocracy? Where is Cairo? Has the reader read enough in the past, to be familiar with metaphor? Reading needs many facts to make it possible to decode the meaning of any but the simplest text. Without those facts, a person might be able to pronounce the words out loud in a mechanical way, but he will not be reading.

My thesis is that both a curriculum and teaching are vital for the education of a child. This means that we select certain facts and information and teach it to the child. We do this because we are better able to judge than the child what is necessary and good for her to know. There can be endless debate about the precise nature of the curriculum, but about the need for one I entertain not the slightest doubt. This curriculum must then be taught to the child. This, in short, is what I mean by a 'good' education. I hasten to add that I do not regard this as being all that is necessary for a 'good' education, but it is certainly the foundation upon which all else rises.