I have been following with great interest the debate around the Purpose of Education at www.purposed.org.uk and particularly the #500words contributions last Feb/March and May this year. Although tempted to add my contribution, I decided an unofficial response would do as I cannot keep to a 500 word limit!
It seems to me that the debate is focussed mainly around social transformations made possible in education and perceived opposition (be that political, social class or some such other). And it is a true debate in that the debaters are committed to their points of view and mean to win either by persuading the opponent, proving their argument correct, or proving the opponent’s argument incorrect. The Purpos/ed #500words campaign would be strengthened if there were more evidence of the opposing point of view – comments on the blogs make fascinating reads but I think the time is ripe to publish to mainstream media (Daily Mail/Telegraph anyone?!) and elicit the direct response of the DfE, Rt Hon Mr Gove or his team of special advisors. Having been employed in and out of education has given me the opportunity to discuss what has been happening in schools/the curriculum and current DfE reforms with business people and potential employers. The dialectic often illustrated a clash of perception between those in and out of the classroom; for example, examples of University graduates with poor spelling/grammar countered with “Spelling? Surely its ideas that count, creative flow versus checking grammar errors, what nonsense!” The other hot topic was Information Communication Technology; the view being that the curriculum was focussed on producing web pages, posters and games whilst the reality of employment was spreadsheets and database entry! “Transferable skills!” I’d counter but actually I think what it really exposed was the bubble of what works in school versus application out of it. As a teacher of Art & Design (at some time Media and ICT too), I have been used to parental questions about “What should my Jane do Art for? There ‘int no jobs in Art round ‘ere?” [sic] which brings us back to the purpose of learning too. Few discussions with parents are going to focus on the contextualised acquisition of knowledge or the synthesis of behaviour, skills and experiences and yet this is all part of the mechanism of education. Our purpose as educators is to investigate the aspirations of the young, direct through motivation and accumulate a sense of success and satisfaction. The language of the learner as commodity is expressed by Mr Gove¹ through education as an investment:
“…equal shares in the inheritance of achievement… ensure(-ing) every child has a stock of intellectual capital which enables them to flourish.”
Intellectual capital conventionally refers to the difference in value between tangible assets (physical and financial) and market value². Should education’s purpose be to quantify the value of an individual in terms of skills, know how and expertise? As many of us have found out during the ‘global economic downturn’, creativity and innovation aren’t measured in quotients that secure our employment or employability – swingeing cuts are made to meet the ‘fiscal mandate’ irrespective of human capital. To some, learners do represent economic hard facts (ever had a falling roll in your school?) and will one day (hopefully) contribute to the global workforce but are not simple automatons and neither were Beethoven, Milton, Curie et al. as achievers of human ingenuity -these individuals had their own dreams and motivations long before their successes and achievements.
My proposal is that education’s purpose is not for the acquisition of a market value but for the far more inclusive cultural capital (Bourdieu) consisting of gaining social assets and promoting social mobility that motivate learning in the first place and can lead to achievement by transmitting the attitudes and knowledge needed to succeed. For a few this will be inclusive of economic migration, a certain automobile marque or for others ‘fame’ or notoriety. For many, it is linguistic skills, physical appearance, style of dress and even intellect that confer power and status in their localised society. Private school graduates dominate positions of wealth and power³ not because of economic value to society or inheritance of achievement either but because of institutionalised cultural capital that eases mutual acquaintance and recognition and thereby cultural to economic conversion. The old school tie is working just as well in Hollywood as in the Olympic selection committee. There are always exceptions to the ‘poor, stay poor’ and these act as cultural capitalists too; artist and entrepreneur Damien Hirst is reportedly Britain’s richest living artist whose art teacher pleaded for him to be allowed to enter sixth form (where he famously achieved a grade E). Consider also dancer, choreographer Ashley Banjo whose success on TV interrupted his science studies at Queen Mary, University of London and for which he hopes to one day return as he intends to fulfil his career as a scientist. Both individuals socially transformed by status gained outside of formal education and yet aspirational role models for today.
As educationalists we can channel cultural capital into institutional recognition, most often in the form of academic credentials or qualifications that relate to learners’ aspirations, goals and dreams relevant to that which motivates the need to direct their own lives, to create new things and to do better for our world.
²Paolo Magrassi (2002) “A Taxonomy of Intellectual Capital”, Research Note COM-17-1985, Gartner