There’s an old music hall joke designed for a double act. Let’s call them Eric and Ernie: Eric says, ‘I used to play football for my school.’ Ernie says ‘That’s impressive. What position?’ Eric replies, ‘Left right out’. That’s the position I would sometimes like to play.
One of the deepities we hear from time-to-time is the notion that ‘everything is political’. This sounds very wise and is true in a fairly trivial sense. Everything is affected by political decisions, from cola to koalas to contemporary art galleries. But this doesn’t meaning everything proceeds in the manner of politics. Science, for instance, has its own method for determining truth.
Of course, some people genuinely do believe that everything really is political. These are those who see power as the fundamental irreducible particle from which everything is made and they beat reality with their philosophical hammers into a shape that fits this idea. But we won’t waste any more time on these people.
The rest of us understand that power and politics are just one shade of human experience. This is why socialists and conservatives can sit next to each other in church, praying to the same ambiguous god or shake their heads and fists together at a death metal gig or read the same great book and be moved in the same way. Not all is politics.
So where sits education?
Clearly, education is highly political. It is one of those things that governments spend our money on and so it features in our elections, usually with respect to how much money different politicians intend to spend on it. But that’s largely it. And it’s usually a fourth or fifth issue after the economy, crime, health and whatever is the fancy of the moment.
The idea that different teaching methods are political is faintly absurd. And yet it is an idea that has taken quite a hold within education itself. Explicit teaching and behaviour management have somehow become seen as right-wing whereas inquiry learning and other student-centred approaches have become associated with the left.
Enough of this.
It’s the equivalent of labelling evidence-based medicine as right-wing and alternative medicine as left-wing. Such a label makes a sort-of sense if your image of the left is of well-heeled ageing hippies planning their next yurt holiday in Mongolia. We can perhaps imagine these people being into voodoo medicine.
But, er, hello! Prince Charles is probably the world’s most prominent lover of quack medicine and I don’t see him raising the red flag over St James’s Palace any time soon.
And what of all those more traditional champions of the left; the trades unionists and the factory workers? I can’t see them investing their hard-earned cash in reiki or crystal healing.
Viewing teaching methods as political is a category error. We should agree some clear aims for education. Despite the smokescreens, these can be informed by pretty objective data. Do students with strong literacy and numeracy go on to have a better quality of life? If so, what are the most effective methods of ensuring they gain this knowledge? Despite the many difficulties, these are essentially scientific questions answerable by the scientific method. Approaches that work are akin to medical treatments that work.
Educational methods that do not work should be seen for what they are: a lost opportunity at best and quackery at worst. They should not be legitimised by an entirely spurious association with a political position.
Let’s discuss these approaches and let’s discuss the evidence for these approaches like other professions. Let’s leave politics right out of it.