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THE OFFICIAL DISSENTING EDUCATIONALIST: AN INTERVIEW WITH BETHAN MARSHALL



"Bizarrely you get people like Norman Tebbitt who made a speech at a Tory Party Conference where he basically equated the split infinitive with a life of crime. First they'll be sloppy in their speech, then they'll come to school and they won't be washed and the next thing they'll be out mugging people."

Diane Coyle interviews Bethan Marshall

COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


DC: Why is education important?

BM: It's a key mechanism for achieving some form of social justice. There's a huge disparity that occurs, especially in Britain, because of the way we educate our children. We have a class elitism built in to the system. It's appalling and to the detriment of our society as a whole. And because I think that a well-educated society is the only way of achieving true citizenship. If you look around the world education and an urgent move towards a more democratic society often go hand in hand. Because what you get is that as the populous get more educated they want to actively engage with the society they live in.

DC: Do you think all education systems have those inadequacies you talk about built into them? From what I know they seem to.

BM: I think what's interesting about the system in Britain as opposed to, say, the system in the States is that if you look at education in the States -- and you can see this in their television programmes -- teen programmes that have ostensibly nothing to do with education, things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Superman: The Early Years, all those kind of programmes show adolescence in a school environment. And what you see, almost by default, is an education system, obviously idealised, but what you see when you're not actually making a programme about the education system, is natural assumptions that people make about the education system they are in -- and what you get there is a very different view of education than you get in Britain. So what you see are children being educated for citizenship considerably more, you see young people being encouraged to get up and go, you see all skills highlighted, you look at a film like Legally Blonde or you look at something like Clueless where you get High School kids and what you get are them having to use their skills all the time, getting up and talking, even the show-and-tell thing at the beginning what they're trying to do is to breed confident, articulate citizens.

And the other thing you see is that they're all in the melting pot together. Or you get the very clever kids like Willow, really geeky kids, in with the Zanders of this world who is really meant to be academically dumb. They're all in there together and no one bats an eyelid because the ethos is very different from that in Britain. You also see young people being recommended for running the school magazine -- they don't wear uniforms except for the preppy one who is trying to introduce a European model. So what you get is a completely different ethos. Whereas in this country (not that we have anything remotely similar, which is quite interesting, we don't have adult type dramas set in schools) you wouldn't have young people being remotely interesting to adults so you just wouldn't make it. There isn't a British equivalent to something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That is because we have a completely different view of young people. So in this country you don't get that kind of programme at all and if you do it's deliberately aimed at children which is faintly patronising and you get what the British system is like which is rigid, it's uniformed, it's class-based and the only equivalent we get in the States are the Frasier Cranes who are seen as terribly snobby and therefore ridiculous. And that's the private-school sector. The trouble is that in this country even the State sector is trying to imitate the private sector. It's all very regimented.

DC: It's interesting that you raise the American example because although it's true that most young Americans go to their local school -- apart from the fact that they are then sorted by house price -- there's also tremendous pressures to conform amongst American teenagers. You could see the High School shootings as very twisted forms of defence against that ideal set out for people who can't actually make it.

BM: I think you're absolutely right. I don't want to idealise the American system which has huge inbuilt problems. Catchment by price tag is a real endemic problem. It is one that we imitate here a bit with the comprehensive. If we have the local comprehensive we have a problem and all governments grapple with that. How do you deal with inner-city comprehensives? There's a lot of research that shows that you need a critical mass and you don't need that much of a critical mass to make that difference. It doesn't even depend on class, it depends on motivation. The grammar school was a very interesting thing in this country. It was more classless in some respects than the price-tag comprehensives that you now get. So you've got a lot of working-class children going into the grammar school and on to universities and that was why they were established.

What's interesting about that is that underlying the British state system is a meritocracy rather than a democracy. We aren't actually educating young people to become democratic citizens. Everything about the British system is meritocratic. It's all about sheep and goats. So we have the most examined school population in the world. No other education system tests its school population on a national scale as we do in this country. That's not to say that American children are not massively tested or that children in the Far East don't sit a lot of exams and their education system is a lot different, but we have nationally labelling exams starting at the age of seven whereas most of our European neighbours don't even start sending their children to school before six and often seven. There is absolutely no research evidence whatsoever to show that all this testing does anyone any good at all, it's just about sorting out the sheep from the goats.

DC: I've never been clear whether it's better to be a sheep or a goat.

BM: I've always assumed it's better to be a sheep but that might be an innate prejudice against goats on my part!

DC: I've always preferred goats. They always seem a bit more feisty. Which leads me to my next question. The role of dissent in education.

BM: Dissent is very interesting thing in education because one of the things people talk about is progressive education in this country. It's had a very bad press because we had a big movement, theoretically, in the Sixties which said that progressive education was a very good thing. They had a big report called the Plowden report which said let a thousand flowers bloom. All children can be what and who they want to be. You can trace that idea back to people like Rousseau and the idea of the ideal goodness of children, that it's society that cramps them and does them harm and if…

DC: Did he have children of his own?

BM: No he was a man who had no children of his own.

DC: That's all we need to say about him then!

BM: Well he wrote very sexist novels about girls as well. But that's a notion of progressiveness, that it's child-centred. And recently that's got a very bad press and that's true in the States as well. The chief progenitor of child-centred education in the States was the philosopher Dewey. In an odd sort of way Dewey was not progressive in the same way as Rousseau was. He was basically in the pragmatic school of philosophy. He was no idealist. The reason he was interested in education was because it was at the heart of his notion of democracy. Right at the heart of democracy was education. His major tome written in 1916 was Democracy and Education. That's quite interesting because where he comes from is that Unitarian dissenting background. If you look at Britain and roll back a hundred and fifty years or so you see that an awful lot of the American Constitution was based on the writings of people like Thomas Paine who was a dissenting, Unitarian man who went out and said come on, let's make something out of this fertile ground. Of course it took a woman, Mary Woolstonecraft, to point out that women had rights too but it was that notion of dissent, it was the dissenters as an historical body of people who put education right at the core of what they did. Again, the reason that they did it was interesting.

The reason they did it was because they were rationalists. Although they had a belief in God they were very rational about their belief in God and they also had a view of humanity that was that everyone was equal -- because they had a theological position that everyone was equal in the sight of God -- and that meant that everyone was entitled to certain things. What's interesting is that because they wanted everyone to read The Bible, in their church government they were very democratic, everyone elected their preachers and so on, so they needed everyone to be educated so they could be engaged and rational so everyone needed to be educated. So in Britain, starting at the end of the seventeenth century and going into the eighteenth century you get the emergence of a dissenting academies and they are interesting because they are set up in direct opposition to the Church of England schools. These schools go right the way through the system from then on. It's not that they are anti-authoritarian, but what they are is not deferential.

So what they say is basically: you have to earn the right to have me respect you. I will not respect you just because you are in authority. They are rationalists. If you are rubbish, I'll ignore you and throw you out of the window. But they're not against authority per se. That in itself is quite an interesting contrast because other movements such as anarchists are predominantly anti-authoritarian. These aren't. They value knowledge. They are like the American school system in its idealised form -- they want people to be articulate, they want them to think, and they want them to be able to ask questions. Built in to these dissenting academies was the idea that you challenge everything and you thought things through and for that reason also they were the ones who brought science into the education system. Priestly and people like that. Joseph Priestley bringing science into these East End schools whereas in the big public schools and Church of England schools you just did scripture and the Classics. That's all you did. But these dissenters brought in science because it was part of their empirical, rational world. They broadened the educational base hugely. And that's the tradition that's got lost along the way. But resurfaces in a way in what I see as underlying American schools. Whereas we in Britain seem to have retained the traditionalist model.

DC: It seems very much not the model to have a centralised national Curriculum which is hierarchical, there is a body of knowledge diffused through teachers appropriately trained to be receptive.

BM: Absolutely. It's absolutely the opposite of that kind of thing.

DC: Dewey in Chicago was all about not having people tell you facts and you write it down but you would find out for yourself by measuring things.

BM: Yes. So the original dissenters came from a logical position. They said all people are equal. We need active citizens. We need people to think. And also, well they weren't socialists, but a lot of those early experimenters like the Levellers you get an awful lot of Marxist historians interested in dissenters. People like Christopher Hill is very interested in these dissenters. The Levellers who came out of Cromwell and the English revolution. And again you get people like EP Thompson who looks at dissenting schools in The Making Of The English Working Class.

DC: Marxism as it developed was not to be the school most interested in independent thought.

BM: That's what is interesting about dissent. Dissent is not like left-wing Marxism. Dissent in its best form is like what the critic Tom Paulin talks about when he talks about rational dissent. It's all about thinking. It's about making people think. And of course education is absolutely central to that debate. You want people to think because you want them to be citizens and you want them to be able to think for themselves.

DC: You make it sound fantastically attractive. Why is anyone against it?

BM: Well, if you are the powers that be, do you want that? Do you really want terribly independently-minded citizens? I mean, half the dissenters got packed off to the states because they were so belligerent. Look at the dissenters at the beginning of the nineteenth century -- half of them were in jail! They are difficult people. They will challenge authority if they think authority hasn't earned their respect. Now if you are in authority do you want to have to face this kind of challenge? You tend to want obedience. What is interesting about Britain -- and I have strong Republican leanings -- what we want here are not citizens but subjects. Our education system, our meritocracy, serves the State and the Civil service. The reason we had grammar schools was because you needed clever men to run the colonies and you couldn't get enough from the Public School sector so you had to widen the net. There just weren't enough toffs to do the job! You can tell a lot about a country by looking at the history of its education system. What we want here are subjects. You can tell people's view of society by the way they want people to be educated.

So you get people like Chris Woodhead and Melanie Phillips, a journalist, and everything they say is about obedience to a set of rules. If you read TS Eliot, you see he was riveted by education because he thought it was about the perpetration of a certain form of cultural hegemony to keep an elite going and the rest are just factory fodder. You deliberately pluck out the elite, give them the traditions and blow the rest. You give them enough in order to perform the perfunctory jobs they need to do. And that's our British education system. It's all about layering. Very bright people: you go here. As opposed to saying, everybody's equal, everyone has an equal opportunity. You may be in the gutter but one day you could be President! It's a completely different way of looking at it. Ours is exams, you grade everything within an inch of our lives. You look at most countries, they don't actually give out grades until you're eighteen. And we start when they're seven. It's all about sifting and sorting. Class and layering.

DC: It's not all to do with class and layering. It's also to do with raising basic standards because they're felt to be too low. It's hard to argue against tests if they can be shown to raise standards.

BM: Tests themselves don't raise standards. It's the quality of teaching that does that. There are arguments that say that over regular testing just makes people teach to the test. We've always known this. Two things about the standards debate that I think are quite interesting. Not that we don't want standards to be raised, but why do you want them to be raised? It's a useful piece of rhetoric for politicians. I want standards to be raised and you should never be complacent and you should always try and do better. But the rhetoric of standards is useful because it allows politicians to do something. It's useful to be able to say that standards are falling when there is actually no evidence for that -- for instance in this country we have the NFER which has been tracking literacy over about a fifty-year period and they haven't shown any evidence that standards are falling. Indeed, when big literacy initiatives were introduced slightly the converse was shown -- that standards were slightly rising. And there's evidence that, I can't remember the exact group, but it's something like 15 to 30-year-olds spell better than 50 to 70-year-olds! So the golden age…

DC: Never what they are cracked up to be!

BM: No! Never! So, the Standards debate makes politicians say that they can do something. It is also a means that at a time when lots of things have to be decentralised, education is one area where they can keep a lot of power at the centre. They can be very interventionist. You don't intervene, however, unless there's some crisis to solve. Hence the Standards Crisis! It's also very often tied in with morality. So bizarrely you get people like Norman Tebbitt who made a speech at a Tory Party Conference where he basically equated the split infinitive with a life of crime. First they'll be sloppy in their speech, then they'll come to school and they won't be washed and the next thing they'll be out mugging people. And you thought, woah, how did we get to there from a split infinitive? There is a thinking that makes an elision where you go from sloppy speech to being a sloppy sort of person. Then you get people like John Rae, who is the Head of a huge public school saying that the decline in the teaching of grammar that took place in the 60's was the educational equivalent of the permissive society. You can only understand that if you see education as being about how you see the world. So if you want a society that is rule-based, controlled and to do with discipline then you will want very formal grammar teaching, for example, where there are a list of rules and it's very patterned and it's all handed down. Dewey talks about stuff being handed down from the past. When he talks about progressive education -- and I wish he hadn't because it threw us all! -- but when he does, he says there's absolutely no point in doing that because children are not empty vessels. They come to school already with things and you need to be pragmatic. Find out what they know and get them to work things out for themselves, be experimental… but you can only see that if your views of education and society go hand in hand.

DC: In a very centralised country like this one where you have central government in control, then there's no solution is there? We're always going to have a system that does set out to control people in accordance with whatever priorities the government has.

BM: We're lucky in that there are groups of dissenters within the teaching profession. The government of whatever stripe can never get a perfect cascade from the centre down to the bottom. There have been times when schools have been left alone. At the moment schools are pinned down, and this is true of the United States too, so you get California where the State more or less tells the teacher 'This is how you must teach', but there has always been a degree of debate. The pity is that it just makes the job of the teacher harder and harder to do. I think people just don't get how boring it is for teachers to follow the rubric they're given. It doesn't have to be boring. If we took a more dissenting view and we engaged them in the process and gave people time to think it'd be better. Of course there's a degree to which people like being passive. If you want discipline quickly and easily then give them a comprehensive test or something!

They quite like doing that because you're not making them think. Thinking is quite hard. Couch potato syndrome. Colouring in because it isn't challenging them. So teachers and young people can be complicit in that. But there is so much of real interest out there in the world, and if you can tap into young people's sense of curiosity then the education system (if it wasn't so rigid) would be an exciting place to be. You get Matthew Arnold, the poet, writing this a hundred years ago! When state education was introduced in this country -- a lot later than in other places - he was a schools inspector as well as a poet -- he had to get pupils to get through tests, and more than once he pointed out that the fact that they got through the tests didn't mean that they had learned anything worthwhile because you can jump through the exam hoops and still not have been educated. That's the catastrophic mistake we're making at the moment in this country. We are pushing young people and teachers to comply with the exam system. It's compliance. So teachers are being forced to teach to the tests. Exams aren't getting easier. It's just teachers are better at teaching to them now. That's what teachers are told to do now, rather than educate the young people. Get them through the tests.

DC: Now that we're training a workforce to do different kind of work which values more creative skills, we need a workforce that can be imaginative and can do independent thinking, do you think that will change the pressure on education?

BM: Well, I think we ought to change the education system for the future. The problem is that the politicians have noticed that it's changed. To be economically viable we need to have a workforce of independent thinkers. Something of interest. We have these international comparison tests and we are beginning to teach in this country maths and science better than in a lot of places. What we are quite good at doing -- although the new Strategy introduced by the government will soon stop this being the case! -- is getting young people to problem solve. On the ground, teachers are better at doing things than they are given credit for. We have got young people to apply mathematical principles. Whereas the young people in, say, the Far East, where they score incredibly highly, is all to do with speed of calculation. Interestingly, in the Far East they are all taught in mixed ability groups -- whereas we set rigidly according to ability in this country -- and what happens in their lessons is that they wait until the least able can do the task before moving on to the next calculation. The thinking is that the most able will benefit from the practice and there is no anxiety that the top are being held back! It's all about making the bottom the best rather than thinking they're dragging the best back. That's our meritocratic attitude coming through again.

In literacy terms when we do these international comparisons our young people are much more creative in the way in which they use language. They play with language a lot more. They also spell better than the French which is interesting and something no one talks about!

DC: Another interesting fact is that a lot of the comparisons show the US not to be doing fantastically well in a lot of the comparisons, and yet at the same time they have a workforce that has massively more of the things required for the knowledge economy.

BM: Yes. Another thing of interest. A guy at The Institute for Public Policy Research -- Peter Robinson I think he's called -- did a survey on educational outcomes and economic viability and there isn't the correlation between the two that you would expect at all! It's the type of education that you offer. Go back to what I was saying about the US system. It's all about being an active citizen.

DC: You mean it's not about the content in the curriculum?

BM: It's about what the system encourages. You can see it in those teenage films and TV shows. It's a can-do culture. It's really appealing. In Britain we obsesses about discipline, order, rules, learning the facts and we have a view of education that is dominated by the idea of the acquisition of knowledge. We talk about a knowledge economy what that really means is dealing with knowledge. Being able to process it. You couldn't even begin to know everything now.

DC: Exactly. It's about the capacity to use it. That's much more important.

BM: Much more important! So we're back to the key idea of dissent. It's what questions are we going to ask? Where is this information coming from? What can I do with it? Who is in control of it? Who is it for? What is it for? All those kinds of questions.

DC: The point is that if you want facts you can find any fact in two minutes using Google.

BM: Absolutely. And I live by my spell check. Of course if I can't spell at all, then the spell check is useless but you get the point. We're not saying knowledge isn't important but if you look at those Dissenting Academies what they taught there was argument! It wasn't old-fashioned Rhetoric but it was similar. So you produced a generation of people who knew how to discuss and approach problems in a Socratic fashion. They could think things through and that's the rational approach. That's the key to the dissenting approach. It's about evidence. It's about empiricism.

DC: Where does this come from? Is it learned or is it personality? Can it be taught?

BM: I think it can be taught. The idea of challenging what you see can be taught, of being rational in your approach.

DC: It helps if you're a naturally bolshy person.

BM: Yes, but it's more than just being naturally argumentative. That's what's interesting about the dissenting approach. It always looks forward. All those early people were progressive in the way in which they thought. They were never shackled by the past. They always asked: what can we do to improve things? That's why it links directly to education, because education is always about investment in the future. That's why there's something almost contradictory about traditional education because it's looking backwards. Dissent is also optimistic. It's saying: we can change things, stuff the past. It's what we do now that matters. We can choose the future. We can change the future. It's possible that that is temperamental. Some people see the glass half full, others half empty. But whatever, it's a can-do culture. So it's not just about being argumentative. Because you can be that, but unfocused.

Anarchists seem to have that problem. You end up with a kind of 'survival of the fittest'. Dissent at its best is democratic. It says, we're all in this together, we won't leave anyone behind, we all move forward together to create a better society. That's why education is so important to dissenters. Education is about the next generation.

When you look at the teaching profession -- and in my book I look at English teachers in some detail -- there is a group within English teaching who are critical dissenters.

DC: Doesn't everyone want to be one of those?

BM: You'd have thought so, but no. Not everyone did. But it was one of the biggest categories. I'd be interested to see if you'd get such a big group of dissenters in another subject area. I feel that you might not. It might be that your dissenting mathematicians are not in schools. Dissenting English teachers are school-based because they go in with a radical agenda -- they want social justice. The other thing that was interesting, but a bit depressing, was how many of them were in London. Depressing because there weren't so many outside of London. All the dissenters bar two were from London. I surveyed the whole of the country. And those two had been London teachers. If you look at the socio-economic profile of schools and what those children achieve, places like Tower Hamlets, one of the most socially-deprived places in the country, produces much better results than the equivalent in the north of the country, outside London. Tower Hamlets is full of dissenting English teachers.

DC: So is it that teaching in London schools turns you into a dissenting teacher?

BM: There is some evidence of that. I tracked some of my students and students that started out as dissenters stayed dissenters. A number of them who were woolly liberals who went into dissenting departments became dissenters and stayed dissenters. A lot of students went all over the place but you did find that most dissenters stayed in London. So there is a kind of London effect. It may be the same in other big urban centres. But this is not a generalisable piece of research. This is mere anecdote.

DC: It's very suggestive nevertheless.

BM: Dissent has lost its theological roots. It's secular. The only place where it hasn't is in South America where you get Liberation Theology. Something very similar happened there. Some of the best education writers there, people like Freire, who again writes books on critical literacy, comes from that position. Like the dissenters they extract themselves from the Catholic Church. It's that move to educate and liberate through education. It's essential to the dissenting view.

DC: You started off wanting to distinguish Dissent from progressivism. But is that possible? Is it possible to have a right-wing critical dissenter?

BM: It'd be bloody hard. People look at Thatcher and say she was a Dissenter from the Right. Interestingly, she came from a Methodist background. Liberal economics, the Manchester School, which is home to so much non-conformity, you look at that stuff and you think, well, I suppose it could take you that way. So Thatcher's radical approach could be seen as dissenting.

DC: And it blew apart the Conservative Party.

BM: Well, it would because essentially the Tory Party is essentially conservative, traditional and reactionary. So to that extent you'd have to say something interesting was happening there. But I think it's possible to be radical but not a dissenter. She was a radical. But she isn't a dissenter. If you can say there's no such thing as a society then you aren't a democrat. She certainly wasn't saying: we're all in this together.

DC: I don't think she'd call herself a dissenter.

BM: No. But some people would perhaps try.

DC: But progressive? Is it really dissent?

BM: The trouble with progressive is that it's possible to be progressive without being rational and without being pragmatic. It can be floaty and hippy like. I don't think hippies were particularly dissenting. That's my punk origin speaking! There's a quietist strand in progressivism.

DC: I think there's a very patronising strand. Very middle-class and do-goody. And you can't do good to people.

BM: Absolutely. You have to give people the power to empower themselves. Dissent is all about empowerment. I remember reading the Port Huron Statement at University and thinking -- this is a load of woolly liberal nonsense. Jeremy Thorpe would have been proud of this. What's so radical about this? It's so floaty, they achieved nothing, you can only do it if you're rich. Everyone was appalled except Michael Bracewell who was there in his black plastic bin liner punk garb and he was going 'Yes Yes, it's rubbish,' cheering me on. Great stuff. But it's why so many former hippies slip so easily into corporate culture because it wasn't actually dissenting in the end.

DC: I think we should end with image of hippies in grey suits and John Dewey in a black plastic bin liner!




ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Bethan Marshall is the author of English Teachers -- The Unofficial Guide: Researching the Philosophies of English Teachers. She worked for nine years as a secondary English, media and drama teacher in three secondary schools in London before moving to work at King's College London. For five years she combined her lecturing post with that of advisory teacher in English, media and drama in the London borough of Ealing. Her work here was split between the primary and secondary phases. At King's she is director of both the English PGCE and English in education MA programmes and this is where most of her teaching committments now lie. A significant aspect of her research has to date involved looking at the nature of English teaching -- its history, current state and future. Read Bethan Marshall's work in 3AM.

Diane Coyle is the author of several books including Sex, Drugs and Economics, Britain's Urban Boom, Paradoxes of Posterity and The Weightless World. An interview with Diane Coyle appeared in 3AM in 2001.

   





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