Question Which Assumptions?

There’s a dreary little story in today’s Guardian. Chris Woodhead, former head of the Office of Standards in Education, wants to question the assumption that more and more education is a good thing. He opposes raising the school leaving age to eighteen or nineteen. “Such proposals have more to do with massaging unemployment figures than the needs of the economy.” All right, but while we’re at it, let’s also question the assumption that education is a tool of the economy and not, say, the other way around. Let’s question the assumption that the only question to ask about more schooling is whether it trains the student for a job. Let’s question the assumption that education is an instrumental good and not an intrinsic one, and even more let’s question the assumption that people are the equivalent of tools or bits of machinery. Let’s think about what education is good for besides providing drones for the economy.

But the economy is the government’s business, and education as a good in itself is not, people will say. But it is not self-evident why this should be so. Questions of value are mixed up in all these areas, so we might as well make them explicit and address them. If education is not a good in itself but only a fancy name for job training, then what of critical thinking, clarity, getting it right, accuracy, truth? Why worry about them at all, unless we need them for our jobs? Perhaps we should decide that engineers and doctors and chemists should be trained to think well and the rest of us can just muddle along in a blur, believing whatever makes us feel good. But Butterflies and Wheels is dedicated to the proposition that that is not the case, and that surely entails thinking that education is an inherent good and that fourteen is too young to abandon it.

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