The power of education: Part II – Considering the broader context

The power of education: Part II – Considering the broader context

by Jill Stephenson
article from Monday 4, May, 2020

THEY SAY that travel broadens the mind. Perhaps it does, but it certainly opens one’s eyes. 

I used to think that, for linguistic purposes, going abroad simply meant taking a phrase book and a dictionary, and doing a little preparation before leaving home. I could recognise something of a language with a Latin/French or Germanic basis. Having studied ancient Greek at school, I could – slowly and painfully – transliterate phrases in modern Greek or (roughly) the Cyrillic alphabet. The height of my achievement was recognising the name of the station we needed to alight at on the Moscow metro - Preobrazhenskaya. But I was completely unprepared for travel to Asia. My first experience was in Tokyo, where I found I was functionally illiterate. Fortunately, the excellent Tokyo metro catered for people like me, using colour-codes for different lines and numbers for stations, with arrows to show you which station, by number, was next, to the left or the right. And it seemed remarkably efficient and inexpensive. My home station was number 5 on the purple Hamzomon line. The Tokyo metro system was easy to master and a joy to use.

It has been humbling to visit Far East destinations and to be, for most purposes, illiterate. I doubt that there are many in Scotland who are as illiterate as that in English. But too many are not fully functional in what is their own and, for many, their only language. It is our advantage and our curse that our language is, currently, the global language, and that so many people around the world speak it, often enough saving us the need even to consider learning their languages. Similarly, staff in a bank or a shop in another country will take much pleasure in showing off their command of English. 

Foreigners learn English at school, and can write as well as speak it. Finnish students were, as I remember, particularly proficient. But I recall above all a female student from the former GDR, who came to us for a year not long after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. It was her first visit to an English-speaking country, and her spoken English was a little hesitant at first. But her written English was remarkable, not so much of native standard but rather of a standard that was much better than most of the natives’. Her grammar, spelling, syntax and punctuation were exemplary. The errors she made were those routinely made by non-native speakers. In our difficult language, how do you know when to say ‘I am going to hospital’ but ‘I am going to *the* theatre’? There is a particular tic that Germans have. Where we say ‘if I had done…’, they say ‘if I would have done’, the direct translation from German. 

My German student wrote three essays for me. As she progressed, little lapses and inaccuracies crept into her use of language. I was disappointed by this until I realised, grudgingly, that she was truly acclimatising, picking up the lazy errors that peppered the natives’ writing. It was rather disillusioning. It all led me to think that the only way to achieve complete literacy in English in Scotland (or England) would be to import the teachers who taught English language to foreigners in their own country. They seemed not to have been infected by the ‘progressive’ theories that took hold here some decades ago, so that inaccurate English usage is now endemic in much of the country. I hear, however, that the Finns are showing interest in the ‘Curriculum for Excellence’, which shows a depressing lack of taste. 

What has made me think more about our education system is a series of glimpses I have had of education across the world. In Ukraine, I visited a village school that started English classes for pupils aged 5. All round the classroom walls were boards with sets of English grammar, like ‘bad, worse, worst’, ‘far, farther, farthest’. Children learned these and progressed. In a rural school in Madagascar, the pupils applied themselves with great seriousness of purpose. In Grenada, a notice outside a school said ‘Literacy is not only your right. It is your responsibility’, an admirable injunction. Children in Grenada and Sumatra, as well as in Tokyo, wore neat school uniforms with pristine white stockings. They were proud of being at school and of having an education. Their parents knew it was the way to a better life.

I am not sure that is any longer the case here. In a world where ‘entertainers’ with little discernible skill can earn sums that really are beyond the dreams of avarice, that becomes the goal while education is taken for granted and for many is regarded as a chore. What children have to learn may not always be to their taste – I had a particular dislike of geography homework – but learning and making an effort are transferable skills, as well as instilling bodies of knowledge. 

The school system now seems to deprioritise learning as it increasingly becomes a branch of the social services. School seems to be regarded as a place for parents to park their children and get them fed. There is much emphasis on ‘wellbeing’, with the GIRFEC (Getting It Right For Every Child) and SHANARRI (Safe, Healthy, Active, Nurtured, Achieving, Respected, Responsible, Included) programmes. All that sounds very laudable, yet it is clear from the stubborn attainment gap between those from poorer and those from more prosperous backgrounds that the system does not get it right for every child. The slight narrowing of the attainment gap recently has, shockingly, been the result of lower achievement among the more prosperous. I have yet to understand why tears are wept about ‘failing schools’ but little is done to enable them to succeed.

Beyond that, schooling has been politicised, in two ways. In particular, there is now a strong emphasis on RSHP (Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood), with priority given to inserting LGBT content into every subject. In February, the emphasis was on ‘LGBT History Month’. This led to the now notorious episode in Paisley, where the local MP brought a ‘drag queen’ with what we might kindly call an ‘adult’ public profile to read to a class of the youngest pupils. I gather that not entirely dissimilar events occurred elsewhere, including in East Lothian. Do very young children understand what ‘section 28’ was about – let alone a ‘drag queen’? Do they need to? In addition, there are new sex education classes that are, it is claimed, ‘age appropriate’. They contain content that one can at best call (again) ‘adult’, with graphic lessons prepared by an American company, with American presenters. I believe that practices such as ‘anal licking’ and ‘facial ejaculation’ figure. We can only speculate about the thinking behind these priorities and at whose behest they have been included in school classes.

The other form of politicisation involves (before the Coronavirus lockdown) frequent visits to schools by politicians, especially those from the ruling party. A couple of years ago, Nicola Sturgeon joined a primary art class, where the only thing she could think of painting was the SNP logo. Mock elections are held in schools, as they always have been. In the past, we used to invent our own parties and devise manifestos and policies. Some were serious, some were wacky. I understand that Alex Salmond once stood in such an election on a promise of giving everyone free ice cream, and, not surprisingly, he won. Now, however, real-life party politics have been imported into the classroom, and political parties provide children with propaganda materials. A couple of years ago, the SNP’s chief executive, Peter Murrell, was offering packages of SNP ‘merch’ (merchandise?) – bags, pens, folders, that sort of thing, bearing the party logo – to schools for a mock election. In John Swinney’s constituency, the local SNP branch distributed large foam hands bearing the word ‘Yes’ at the school gates. 

School is a time and place for children. It should encourage learning and activity, and self-reliance within a supportive and safe environment. Now, it seems that school is a forcing house for young people who have to be encouraged to grow up quickly, rather than enjoying a time free of adult concerns. Yes, they should be introduced to these sensitively and gradually as they progress. Politicising their development and imposing unusual sexual preferences on young children robs them of their childhood. 

Jill Stephenson is Professor Emeritus of Modern German History at the University of Edinburgh. Part I of this series can be found here.


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