Sunday, 27 April 2014

Dumbing Down.

There was a good piece in The Guardian by Frank Furedi on the effects of Gove's reforms on the way philosophy is being taught in colleges and sixth forms across the country. As I fell for philosophy as an A-level student I can't help but take an interest in the substance of the reforms. From what Furedi writes these reforms are not a step forwards:
Tragically, the draft philosophy syllabus offers an intellectually inferior version of the old. Some of the most intellectually stimulating questions of the existing curriculum disappear, such as that on free will, as does political philosophy. A new compulsory philosophy of religion topic – which counts for 50% of the AS course – suggests a reorientation towards the teaching of RE.
What's most disturbing is that the text disappears, to be replaced by an online anthology of extracts. Why? According to the draft syllabus, to provide "greater clarity on the content so that teachers are clear about what they need to teach". The impulse to remove a teacher's capacity to make judgment calls threatens to turn what has been an exciting intellectual adventure into an exercise in box-ticking. In line with this pedagogical orientation, the assessments have been revised to cater for a more intellectually light curriculum.
The revised assessment appears relatively indifferent to the integrity of philosophical knowledge. The draft says the methods of assessment "focus clearly on the core skills of philosophy". The language of skills and instrumentalism dominates this syllabus. The draft responds to the question, "Why choose philosophy?" with the answer: because "students will develop and refine a range of transferable skills". Philosophy, which originally meant the love of wisdom and which many regard as a guide to life, is now rebranded as the bearer of transferable skills.
Of course, I'm not at all hostile to the teaching of philosophy of religion (or as a subject in itself), but I am suspicious of any attempt to depoliticise philosophy in this way. I would view moral philosophy as the vital component, with political philosophy as a continuation of ethics by other means. That's no reason to leave out the God question, of course, and there's no reason why they can't be taught alongside each other. Some would argue that these changes are towards the more juicy end of philosophy of religion. That's not the key problem. It's the depoliticisation coupled with dumbing down (in the form of the raised dependence on extracts) which I'm opposed to. The emphasis on the philosophy of religion may be a crude attempt to supplant politics with moralism. This is the grass-roots impact of Gove's neoconservative agenda.

The tension in education policy has always been between the impetus for critical thinking and the need to churn out well-equipped consumers/workers. The enlightened citizen is far from the ideal of educational policy. If you swing too far towards the latter you end up with high-performing automatons and no innovation. A populace can be too deferential and obedient to the point of stagnation. And, of course, you can run into serious trouble if you find yourself with excess innovation. It could be argued that that was precisely what happened in the 1960s when the post-war generation began to question the Establishment and its authority on a whole series of questions. Education policy will oscillate within this spectrum to try and strike a balance of opening a space for innovation in one area while closing such a space elsewhere.

Far from anything new, we can now properly situate Gove in this bipolar shuffle and this is no matter of speculation. Before Michael Gove was an MP he worked for The Times as a columnist (writing at £5,000 a month for a column he churned out in an hour) and he was not shy about his views on a lot of issues. On the tuition fees set by the Blair government Gove wrote "Some people will, apparently, be put off applying to our elite institutions by the prospect of taking on a debt of this size. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is all to the good." A good education is conceived of as a commodity and, in Gove's mind, it is too readily available to the lesser classes. It's a vision in line with the view taken by Allan Bloom, a fellow neoconservative, that the masses are to be moulded by the ideas of the few great men. The bewildered herd are to be kept in check.

So I think we may risk the suggestion that Gove doesn't mean well when he guts the humanities of innovative capacity. Even the A-level course I took in philosophy, which Furedi foolishly romanticises, actually had political content in the second year. At AS we looked at epistemology, ethics, tolerance, and aesthetics, then at A2 we looked at moral philosophy in greater depth and finally political philosophy. That meant normative and meta for moral thought. Then we moved onto reading JS Mill. On Liberty has its flaws (which the English are impervious to conceding) but the students could at least develop a perspective on its content. So we could then decide whether or not we buy into Mill's utilitarian brand of classical liberalism. You would think Gove would be for this sort of thing. Instead we find the syllabus is being debauched even more than it already had been.

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