Monday, 16 January 2017

Common as

The very best way to assemble a conspiracy theory is by reverse engineering. Start with an observation, for example: today’s kids are dumb. Then examine what they are being taught; common core maths is incomprehensible to the older generations and is immediately suspect. Now, dig back in history to find some statements, some events, to ‘prove’ it. The 1909 Woodrow Wilson address to the New York City High School Teachers Association Fits the brief nicely:

“we want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

Hey presto, a one hundred-year long conspiracy to keep the low animals down, the pigs in power and restrict the potential of the majority of the human race in what are generally referred to as ‘developed’ countries. But, of course, Wilson was laying no such foundation. Read as part of the whole he was setting out, very eloquently as it happens, what we all know, or ought to be capable of understanding. And that is that not every student is capable of achieving high academic learning and even if they were, such learning is often of little practical use. We need a thousand people who can measure and cut and shape things, for every mathematician who can explain precisely what the numbers mean.

Another conjoined meme that regularly does the rounds is on the lines of “Governments don’t want an intelligent population because people who can think critically can’t be ruled. They want a public just smart enough to pay taxes and dumb enough to keep voting.” Variously attributed to H L Mencken, George Carlin and others, it is a popular expression of a deep-rooted mistrust of government that appears to seek the opinion of the masses but then does the exact opposite, or so frustrates that opinion that it amounts to the same thing. Such a shame I can’t quite put my finger on any topical examples just now...

Anyway, as much as common core maths seems ridiculous and intended to dumb ‘the kidz’ down I’m of a more generous inclination in assigning it to the category of ‘well-meaning idiocy’.  Just as Woodrow Wilson was talking about education preparing children for a useful life in the world, today’s educators are seeking to equip them, as efficiently as they believe possible, with the tools to negotiate an uncertain future. They’re just not as good at it as they would wish to be. Spoiling the child by sparing the rigour has long been a feature of ‘progressive’ education that strives to deliver a socio-political ethos as well as an education.

We don't need no...

But are they so very wrong, after all? We are in an age when one can make a living out of doing nothing very useful at all. The commentariat, the world of social justice, the equality and diversity industry and the new, burgeoning work for idle hands, exploring the myriad inventive gender identities which are multiplying by the day. Maybe, when the machines finally do take over all the grunt work, we will indeed need more products of a liberal education. What could possibly go wrong?