Blaming the victims of state education
Russell Degnan

I mentioned some of my thoughts on education a few weeks ago, and hadn't planned to return to it for a while. But, last week, Hugh Mackay produced an op-ed so full of illogical errors and slurs on parents and private schools that I will comment further.

He starts by questioning the idea that parents want "discipline" and "respect for traditional values" from their schools, accusing them of wanting to relieve themselves from the burden of their parental responsibilities. Needless to say, I see it very differently.

Students spend 200 days per year at school, for 7 hours a day, plus the time to travel. They spend further time at home doing homework, or outside the house doing extra-curricular activities (though not all of these are attached to the school). They meet the vast majority (if not all) of their friends at school. In terms of the time spent on school related things it consumes more than half the waking hours of the average young person. Do you think, that, maybe, all that exposure to other students and the school system might have an effect on a young person? Perhaps, rather than abdicating their responsibilities, parents are merely trying to avoid having their efforts undermined by probably the largest determiner of their child's character.

This mistaken view that schools somehow shouldn't or aren't responsible for teaching morals and discipline is merely part of a larger confusion on what schools are for that comes out later in the article. In successive paragraphs, to read Mackay: parents shouldn't have a choice in what they are getting from school; parents should not be using education to increase their students opportunities in life; that their is more to school than achieving high marks, but that private schools are only interested in marks; that privatising schools means students are in a battlefield competing for university places; and that public education should be a symbol of our egalitarian society. All of which are inconsistent, rubbish, or both. At least if you think education is something that people should be able to pursue, and that the pursuing is best done at an early age.

There has always been two concurrent views of education that Mackay has bundled into the mess of ideas that seem to represent his actual view on the role of education.

The first is for education as a means to self improvement, and as a useful adjunct for a person's broader role in society. It has consistently manifested itself in the upper and middle classes, in Grand Tours and the original Liberal Arts, in universities and schools that admit people on 'character' as well as sporting and academic achievement, and in special cases for education as a means in and of itself. It is a distinctly unegalitarian view of education, because it sees it as a step towards greater advancement on an individual level.

The second view is that first promoted by advanced Italian and Dutch city states, and later by the rise of public education in the 19th century, that of an educated populace for the advancement of the state itself. It started as universal primary education, and as the years have progressed, the 'required' education has increased likewise. Nowadays, governments see a university education as a simple requirement. They promote a university education for all, and have been doing so for twenty years. But it has never been a view supporting education as a way to self actualisation; it has always been as a required adjunct to a vocation. Any education behind the minimum requirement has always cost money, whether it was for grade four maths in the depression or a PhD today. And it is not and never has been about egalitarianism, but social engineering.

Both views are still held by large segments of the population, and they aren't incompatible. But as state schools descend deeper into the bleak hole of zero expectations, parents see them as failing in the first role and they head to private schools. That there is a focus on 'marks' is entirely the result of the socialisation of the university system. Governments have - rightly perhaps - made marks the sole determiner of whether a student can pursue a university course. Parents and private schools are smart enough to realise what that means. If Hugh Mackay engaged his brain he'd see that too, as he'd also see that noone has a vision for the role of education in the broader society anymore. If he'd like to keep promoting it as a means towards egalitarianism he would be well advised to produce one.

Sterner Matters 16th August, 2004 01:06:53   [#]