Paul Anderson, review of Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating by Frank Furedi
(Continuum, £14.99), Tribune, 29 January 2010

Frank Furedi is the leading light of that strange, strange group around the website spiked online and the Institute of Ideas that used to be the Revolutionary Communist Party way back in the 1980s and turned into LM magazine in the 1990s. Starting off as (fairly) orthodox Trotskyists, with a penchant for the Provisional IRA and anti-fascist street-fighting, they have transmogrified into a bunch of media-savvy contrarians whose place on the political spectrum is hard to define.

They’re still very much of the Leninist left in their visceral anti-Americanism and anti-Europeanism – and at least to my knowledge they have never disavowed the crazily pro-Serb position they took in the 1990s that led them, notoriously, to claiming that entirely genuine pictures of Bosnian Muslims in a Serb prison camp that had appeared on TV and in newspapers throughout the world were faked. But on GM foods and climate change they’ve taken a line aggressively at odds with the left-environmentalist consensus – and they’ve been pretty-much libertarian on issues of censorship and free speech and on migration. On parenting and education, there’s a strong current of traditionalism in their ideas.

It’s a weird mix that few would swallow wholesale, but at least they’re not afraid to go against the grain – and for the most part they argue their case with some sophistication and verve. Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, is their most prolific writer and thinker and also the most stimulating, particularly on education. As well as writing weekly on spiked online and turning out a hefty book every year or so, he’s a regular in the pages of Times Higher Education, where he has been a trenchant critic of – among other things – the philistine managerialism now dominant in British universities and the dangers inherent in treating students as customers.

His new book, Wasted, had been widely trailed, and my expectation was that it would develop some of the themes he has pursued in THE and elsewhere. It does, up to a point, but it’s essentially about schools, not universities.

Furedi, ever the contrarian, argues that school education is failing because the whole political and educational establishment has lost sight of the primary function of education, which is to transfer humankind’s knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation. Instead of valuing education for its own sake, all the emphasis in contemporary schools is on equipping students for life after they leave school, whether as workers, consumers or citizens.

“Old-fashioned” and “useless” “subjects” are replaced in the curriculum by “relevant” and “useful” “themes”. The authority of the teacher is relentlessly reduced as his or her role becomes that of “child-centred” therapist and agent of socialisation rather than imparter of knowledge. Children’s respect for teachers is undermined, discipline breaks down, parents start panicking about the standard of schools, there’s more and more pressure to teach to the test … and so government comes up with fresh initiatives that unintentionally further dilute the intellectual rigour of schooling.

There is a lot of sense here, and anyone who teaches “traditional” subjects at A-level or lectures at a university will recognise the phenomenon of students who are exemplary in their work-related personal skills (punctual, polite, neat CV), conscientious in their environmentalism and tolerance of diversity, sensible in their eating, drinking and non-smoking – but also utterly uninterested in intellectual debate and incapable of seeing the point of simply knowing more. Furedi makes his case well, though the book lacks empirical back-up and is too long. Inside this volume is a thinner extended essay waiting to get out.

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