Amid the daily grind of teaching, philosophy can seem esoteric, a luxury. The exams, marking homework, classroom management are what seem to matter, but teachers need to return to first principles. They need to know why they do what they do.
“The first principle of human nature is mutuality. For this reason the first priority in education is learning to live in personal relation to other people. Failure in this is fundamental failure.”
Michael Fielding, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of London’s Institute of Education, spoke recently in Edinburgh on John MacMurray, Scottish educationalist and philosopher.
It was ironic that the lecture was in Edinburgh University’s Godfrey Thomson Hall, financed from the Godfrey Thomson Trust, the income of which was generated by Thomson’s battery of Moray House IQ Tests, developed to screen and select Scottish students for senior secondary and, ultimately higher, education. Such an approach was entirely foreign to MacMurray for whom the success of learning rested on relationships and not functional outputs.
Prof Fielding’s lecture was entitled Still Learning to be Human, a title from MacMurray’s own work. MacMurray’s starting point, as relevant today as 50 years ago, was that no-one who does not care for children should teach them, a point of which every teacher should perhaps be reminded as the starting point for professional review and development. MacMurray also preceded MacKenzie, Duane and Neill by insisting that the use of fear is a perversion of education and, perhaps even more fundamentally, that education is not concerned with immediate effect but with its abiding influence on character.
Prof Fielding is an academic educationalist but one firmly rooted in schools. He taught English in comprehensive schools in England for 20 years. What he brought to his Scottish audience was a humorous, light-touch but profoundly serious radicalism, a critique of schools, of where they were but where also where they are going. He achieved that while remaining committed to the concept of the radical teacher operating from within the system, challenging social injustice and educational inequality. He also gave the audience an appreciation for MacMurray, an educationalist with a powerful continuing relevance.
MacMurray entirely accepted that schools had a role in preparing young people for the world of work, a functional role, but while he asserted that the functional and the personal were interdependent, he also insisted that they were not of equal importance. The priority of education remained the development of people as human beings, the development of the personal.
Prof Fielding used MacMurray’s ideas to contrast high performance learning organisations with person-centred learning organisations. High performance learning organisations see relationships as important but primarily for instrumental purposes (to facilitate functional learning) within a market place society and world. Person-centred learning organisations, on the other hand, look to the functional side of learning as offering the capacity for personal learning to express itself. They also reject the currently fashionable culture of easy accountability, preferring an inclusive notion of shared responsibility.
Prof Fielding was at his most eloquent in describing the new emphasis on performance management based on a series of measurable, but often meaningless, outputs and concluded with a quote from MacMurray: “The golden aim of education – to teach the children to live – has vanished over the horizon, crowded out by a multiplicity of little aims.”
Relationships at the centre of learning, learning for work being secondary to learning to be human, voluntarily shared responsibility rather than imposed accountability: had these been the dominant values this veteran, and a few more, might have happily deferred retirement.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.