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The Confusion About The Aims Of Education… And Politics!

Over the past few years, I’ve read a lot of books about education. Most of them sound impressive and I’m sure that a lot of people will read a particular one and go, “Yes, that’s it, that’s what’s wrong with the education system and if only schools would all do this then everything would be fixed…”

The trouble with nearly every idea on education is that the person writing the book has started with an assumed aim about the purpose of education and then worked backwards to show us that the best way to achieve this purpose is to adopt a particular strategy by presenting all sorts of evidence about how it’s worked really well in such and such a place and therefore it should work everywhere.

Often they’re not wrong.

The trouble is that their original assumption about the purpose of educating our young people may not be shared by everyone. Usually this isn’t obvious because their aim isn’t explicitly stated or else it’s expressed in terms that nobody could disagree with like:

“Schools need to be places of empowerment where we give students the skills to be self-actualised, articulate leaders taking their place in a global 21st Century world where they can thrive as literate, numerate adults with the capacity to shape their lives in positive ways.”

Now, who could disagree with that? Certainly nobody ever says: “The aim of schools is to spend a few years giving kids some basic skills and after that we have to fill in their time for a number of years after because someone got rid of this child labour laws so we can’t send the difficult ones out to work in the fields or the factories once they turn seven…”

If you believe the aim of school is to maximise academic success, you can dismiss a lot of the subjects and activities as a distraction. On the other hand, if you feel that the aim of school is to create future workers, you may be dismissive of academia and, depending on your focus, you may think it should be developing practical, hands-on capabilities or soft skills like team-work and communication. On yet the third hand, you may feel that the aim is to develop happy, well-balanced individuals who have fulfilling lives following their dreams and not worrying about the fact that they only have two hands.

These are not the only ideas that people have about the function of schools, so it’s not wonder that education becomes a bit of a political football. If schools start succeeding in a particular area, someone will undoubtedly say, “Yes, but what about Latin? We’re neglecting Latin and when I said to a teenager the other day barba crescit caput nescit, he had no idea what I meant!”

And so this is one of the main problems with any educational improvement. When students were first allowed to use biros last century, some people decried it because they wouldn’t learn to mix their own ink. Until we have a clear agreed idea of what society wants from its education system, there’ll always be a haphazard chaotic approach that succeeds in some areas and fails in others, only to refuse this trend when people demand that schools stop doing what they’re succeeding at, in order to address the areas where they’re failing.

Which brings us to politics. Political parties usually have two clear aims:

  1. To achieve particular objectives such as the redistribution of wealth. (In some cases making wealth more equally distributed; in others directing it to a particular group)
  2. Winning government so that they can achieve their objectives.

Obviously it’s better when both these things align, but sometimes political parties find it… I am unsure whether to use the word “necessary” or the word “expedient” here… Let’s settle on “easier”… Sometimes political parties find it easier to let people know what they plan after the election. This doesn’t mean that every broken promise was a lie, any more than it means that an elected government are telling the truth when they say that this will be good for you in the long run.

Over the past several decades, it’s usually only been Labor or the Liberals in Coalition with the Nationals who’ve been able to aspire to achieving the second aim. The minor parties have usually had to work to persuade or manoeuvre the government party into making some sort of deal, just like Jacqui Lambie did when she repealed the Medevac laws. In return she got something that she couldn’t tell us about but whatever it was she got a promise that the Coalition would do it. Similarly, The Greens pushed for concessions before they passed the legislated emissions target.

When you don’t have to worry about the second aim because you have no chance of forming government in the near future, your path is clear. You do what you can to get as much of what you want as possible. This means that you don’t have to worry about the consequences in quite the same way. You’re able to play to your audience with the knowledge that it’s likely you’ll still wield the same about power after the next election so you’re more concerned with keeping your support base onside than winning over the swinging voters.

If we look at recent events, we can see that The Greens are still behaving like a minor party. However, while they’re holding up the Housing Future fund legislation in order to get what they want, the motives of the Coalition are different. Peter Dutton seems to be taking the Abbott path of stopping Labor achieving anything so that they can say, “Look, this party hasn’t done anything, so vote for us.”

This tactic gave some success to Abbott and had some suggesting that he was the most effective Opposition leader in our history. In fact, he was so good at being Opposition leader he continued to perform as Opposition leader once he became PM, preferring to attack Labor rather than get on with the business of government.

In Dutton’s case, it seems that he’s starting to behave more like the leader of a minor party, rather than one who is the alternative government. He seems to be playing to his rusted-on base rather than trying to win back seats from either Labor or the Independents. However, rather than trying to use his power to extract small concessions from the government, he seems content to issue a flat no and leave it to The Greens to push the government further to the left.

If I were advising Dutton, I’d suggest that he start learning how to compromise with Labor like a minor party would because the way things are going, his Liberals may end up being one before too long.


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  1. New England Cocky

    Rossleigh, perhaps you should have met my first serious Headmaster, now passed, who had the all encompassing educational philosophy that was brutally effective.
    ”Gentlemen; Make the kids successful. I don’t care how you do it, just make them successful. It is better than grog, better than smokes and often better than sex”. (Sniggers of mirth from assembled staff).
    And it worked in every case that I used it. Build self-confidence and they will grow.
    Now about your implied support for Boofhead Duddo & Sus$san LeyZee, the current leading characters in COALition politics. Boofhead is very good at making racist statements that show his true values when the microphone is switched on. The Pinkenba kidnappings set the standard that he has since maintained as he leads the LIARBRAL$ into well deserved politically oblivion.
    Sadly, corporations will likely prevent this much preferred future, because getting the Greens to think politically appears to be beyond the present mob, and dirty deals require the government party to know how to deliver the benefits.

  2. GL

    My last year of high school did wonders in helping me get work in the outside world in 1974. One year of the socio-economic policies of the USSR (see the Soviet Union before the Soviet Union sees you) in modern history and Greece in ancient history. Then there was calculus and algebra in maths, which I detested, and a language course which was either French or Japanese. Yes, they really helped me in getting a twelve month job a few months after leaving school making soap and mothballs (I still feel sorry for the moths). The company wanted brawn for heavy lifting and not brains. What got the job for me was my size and physical strength.

    Now I expect that the same courses would look great on a CV when applying for work at McChunders or Heaving Jacks.

  3. andyfiftysix

    I can only relate to how i found school in a catholic system. I was factory fodder. With 28 in a class, i was never going to get the max benefit. Looking back, i should have been a stock broker instead of an electronics nut. If you want me to be factory fodder, at least give me the tools to get on top of it. Yep, readin, writin and arithmatic.

    My kids also went through the catholic system and they did well academically. Emotionally, they are total shits. After divorcing their mother they have distanced themselves from me. So much for christian values.

    Education was supposed to be the great leveler. Personally its been an illusion. 30% of us were always going to be dumb bastards, no matter what. Now we are educated dumb bastards. How your going to elevate the 30% is beyond my pay scale.
    I cant even educate my dumbfuck windows laptop to read ENGLISH and not butchered american. But if high wages elude technical people, your not going to get many technical people. Not in a society that forces you to make a financial decision
    contray to your own desires.

    While we still focus on employability, we will miss out on flexible smart people. On the other hand, smart people who cant do basics will find employment difficult. Its a conundrum because of the place in time with the evolution of “capitalism”. As more and more is done by machines and computers, the less we need to focus on the production line of human capital. Do we rush into the future, because you know its the smart thing to do or do we go into transition mode that is neither here or there and get caught behind again? We ARE the dumb country so i dont hold out much hope till we are forced.

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