An acquaintance of mine called Daisy Christodoulou has just published a book called Seven Myths about Education. It’s a merciless demolition of the received wisdom of the educational establishment, such as the view that there’s no point in asking children to memorise anything, because they can look it up on Google. I’m a huge fan, not least because she combines a conservative attitude towards education with a socially progressive outlook. As I’ve often argued, those two positions are complementary rather than incompatible.
One of the myths she touches upon is the idea that the progressive education endorsed by the left teaches children how to think for themselves, whereas the knowledge-based education favoured by nasty Mr Gove produces mindless conformists who do not challenge the status quo. Opponents of the coalition’s education reforms often claim that this is the secret motive of the Education Secretary, the idea being that unthinking automatons are more likely to vote Conservative.
There was a good example of this nonsense in the Guardian last week. Rayhan Uddin, a 19-year-old student at the LSE, did his GCSEs at a comprehensive and then A-levels at a grammar school. He wrote a piece attacking grammar schools for favouring ‘rote learning’ and praising comprehensives for teaching children how ‘to think outside the box’. He blamed this state of affairs on the lack of ‘socio-economic diversity’ at grammar schools, something that was brought home to him when discussing unemployment benefits in his politics A-level class. ‘I was suddenly propelled into the role of standalone lefty,’ he wrote. He concluded grammars only teach children how to do well in exams, whereas comprehensives teach them to think on their feet and ‘engage with people from different backgrounds’.
Now, the obvious question is: if his comprehensive was so marvellous, why did he choose to go on to a grammar school? Presumably, this was an act of unthinking conformism, which is weird considering his comp had taught him ‘to think outside the box’. Weirder still, he only seems to have picked up this skill — what lefties call ‘critical’ or ‘higher order’ thinking — since going to the grammar school. Hence his laser-like ability to see through Tory propaganda about benefit scroungers.
But the broader point is that he hasn’t, in fact, learnt to think critically at all. When it comes to the prevailing orthodoxies of the Blob (Gove’s word for the educational establishment), Uddin has accepted them all without a murmur of dissent. You might even say he’s learnt them by rote. He criticises grammars for teaching children how to regurgitate facts, yet in making this very point he is regurgitating left-wing dogma. What Uddin and others mean by ‘learning to think’ is its exact opposite. Like hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren up and down the country, he has been programmed to vote Labour. He is the automaton, not the brave souls at his grammar who dare to voice their scepticism about the culture of welfare dependency.
On the face of it, this is a paradox. People like Uddin claim they’ve been taught critical thinking skills, and yet they all think the same way. The explanation is that their teachers have been extremely selective about what they’ve encouraged them to think critically about. For instance, they’ll be experts at ‘deconstructing’ the case being made by David Cameron and others for military intervention in Syria, but all at sea if asked to criticise the policy of appeasing genocidal dictators.
In general, any opinion regarded as vaguely right-wing is subjected to forensic scrutiny, whereas left-wing ideas go completely unexamined. If challenged about this, defenders of ‘critical thinking’ will explain that conservatives base their ideas on a false picture of the world (we’re ‘lacking immensely in some sort of societal context or perspective’, according to Uddin), while lefties are in touch with reality. Consequently, there’s no contradiction between being an ‘independent’ thinker and regurgitating what your left-wing teachers tell you.
Unadulterated balls, obviously, but a myth that goes unchallenged in most comps. I’m all for teaching children ‘to think outside the box’, though if they use that phrase you can be certain you’re not succeeding. But as Daisy Christodoulou points out, you can’t begin to think analytically about the world until you’ve acquired some basic knowledge of it. The facts Uddin was forced to learn by rote at his grammar school haven’t impaired his ability to think; but the ‘critical thinking’ skills he learned at his comprehensive have turned him into a left-wing drone.
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Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
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