Two models for educating our children and ensuring our future


In recent speeches about education and schools Mr Howard and Mr Rudd celebrated their differences. Mr Rudd stressed the importance of education for economic growth, and promised to make technical education more generally available. Mr Howard gave priority to values, endorsing traditional educational processes for their capacity to form skilled and self-reliant individuals.

The difference between the two programmes was less than appeared. Both men insisted that Australian education must contribute to economic growth and to the development of the individual student. Neither showed evidence that he had reflected at any depth on the relationship between education, economy and human development.

The problem for governments is that they begin by imagining that education is for the economy. Even when they qualify this starting point, they fail to appreciate the paradoxical truth that the economy is for education. Education is the process that enables human beings to flourish — to develop rich relationships to their world and to other people.

These relationships include curiosity, wonder, critical and practical skills, compassion, and an eye for the common good. When people flourish in this way, they will build an economy that satisfies their needs. More important, they will sustain the moral conditions of reliability, trustworthiness and altruism on which the economy depends. But economic growth is not the goal of education, simply a result of good education.

If this is the case, governments should first ask not whether education serves the economy, but whether economic activity is structured in ways that contribute to good education. It is difficult to see that the emphasis on the individual and on individual choice in the regulation of work, the consequent atomisation of families, and the tolerance, indeed encouragement of greed, in commercial life are consistent with good education. People with a single-minded zest for making pots of money, whom any well-educated person would enjoy as comic figures, are taken seriously, envied, and even proposed as role models.

When governments consistently undermine the foundations of good education, it is tempting to disregard their words about values in education. Nevertheless, Mr Howard’s account of education, with its mixture of goals and means for attaining them, deserves comment. It has some good things in it and raises interesting questions.

He praises a traditional style of education that looks primarily to quality, not to expenditure. It is characterised by high academic standards, competitive examinations, teacher directed classes, and good discipline. It will help individuals develop, socialise them, build character and ground them in Australian values.

Other features of this approach to education include literacy and numeracy tests, and the public accountability of students for their results.

The virtue of this approach to education is its seriousness of intent, even if the means to achieve it belong to the early twentieth century rather than to the larger tradition. A traditional education, for example, would be based on rhetoric and would not include competitive examinations. There is a variety of paths, all encouraging self-discipline, to serious learning.

Mr Howard’s emphasis on values, like his treatment of the economy, lacks reflectiveness about the personal qualities and social relationships that further human flourishing. Instead he offers the ideal of competitive individuals who are defined by the choices they make, and of a school whose value is defined by its results in competitive examinations. This is a thin view of humanity. Schools currently do much better for their students than this.

Compare Mr Howard’s account, for example, with the qualities attributed to Catholic schools. They are said to encourage compassion and a concern for social justice. We might question whether these values are general and deeply held among students of Catholic schools — they are at the least inconspicuous in many Catholics engaged in political life.

But to the extent that they are inculcated, they represent a deeper vision of what it means to be human and so of education than that offered by Mr. Howard. And the same would be true of the educational processes of other kinds of schools. It is to be hoped that in the debate before the next elections, both leaders will reflect more deeply on what education as well as economic development are about.



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Existing comments

a thoughtfully put together article...We don't realise how skewed our thinking csn become when economic success of a country is so often the only thing being measured.

I am now armed to be better attuned to the two leaders when Education is their topic in the lead up to the election.

Now, do me a favour,....break open and share your 'swithed on' thoughts again for us when other significant policies are being touted by these two leaders in the lead up to the election.
Get us thinking Andrew!

therese van kints | 24 May 2007  

Interesting read. I wonder, however, how much real impact any general plan of either Howard or Rudd would have in a classroom anyway? Certainly enforcing a national curriculum and more stringent standardized testing would on the surface appears to be rather controlling, looking at the NSW HSC curriculum (of which I suspect a national curriculum would probably somewhat mirror...whether that is a positive is a matter for debate) their is still a great deal of space for experimentation and indeed achieving effective and transforming pedagogy.

I think we need to be very cautious about Howard's agenda for education in more specific fields. You pointed out the obvious of his focus on individual excellence (dare I say a very "liberal" notion, not with the slightest irony), I think that if we look at his new found fascination with the value of history in schools (of which pragmatically I should not complain as a preservice history teacher) that if we look at what he wants in particular this holds a highly ideological agenda (including his focus on the "role of Christianity in AUstralian society", my immediate question being "What kind of "Christianity" are we talking about?).

Anyway just a few thoughts, I especially enjoyed your comment about "values" in Catholic schools.

Bernard Doherty | 24 May 2007  

It is always troubling when politicians, all of whom went to school somewhere and who have children who went to school somewhere and therefore understand education, pontificate on what schooling should be about. Schooling, or should that be training, certainly not education?

When their ideas are driven by votes and polls and what insecurities they can stir up in the voters, or alternatively massage, then we have ideas and discussions that actually leave out the deeper issues of education. I remember a VC talking to my school's assembly about thinking more widely and deeply about why they wanted to go to university, other than to be bean counters and lawyers, because there were already too many of them. Alas he was not listened to and there are even more bean counters and lawyers cooking up a mess of business all across the country.

It is a salutory exercise to see how the public reacts to ideas such as nationally recognisable reports, stricter classrooms, percentage marks and weak teachers. Politicians can cover a lot of ground without actually entering the classroom for a photo opportunity, a la GW Bush after 9/11. Many parents are frightened because they sense something is wrong, and the answer is not to be found in what dilettante politicians talk about.

John Kennedy didn't get everything right, but if paraphrased and mangled, his comment about what people could do for their country was a good one and could be equally directed to what young people could do for others, rather than for themselves, with their education.

What can we expect when the current PM cries out against bulllies in schools when he himself comes from a political system that is adversarial by nature and relies very heavily on various forms of bullying, picking on the faults of opponents as a respectable modus operandi, whereas his opposite number is still coming to grips with the complexities of funding and equity, issues which he must settle before he gets down to tin tacks about what should happen in the classrooms.

I often wonder who the leaders go to for their ideas about education, because I never get the feeling that their pronouncements are grounded in what really goes on in the classroom.

This is certainly a more complex issue than can be adequately dealt with in an email response.

I am a former government school teacher, former deputy of a catholic school, former principal of an anglican school, and currently spend my time teaching and setting up literacy programs for the disadvantaged and dispossessed in the south of India, and with Tibetan refugees where I am also setting up education programs in leadership for those who will return to their native Tibet.

It is quite an eye-opener to see children with bare feet and no pens and paper, crowding at the door to get into the classroom where they sit on the floor on very thin mats but with a lot of enthusiasm. What a pity that so few of our schools can generate such enthusiasm and sense of wonder and deep urge to learn.

What have the politicians done to help or hinder the situation we now have in our schools, where morale seems to be very low, and the current proposals seem to deal with the symptoms of an ailing system not the causes?

tony london | 26 May 2007  

Apart from me, are there any other readers of/writers for "Eureka Street" who believe that it is the family, more so than institutions such as schools, which will most influence whether children grow up to be compassionate and concerened abut social justice?

Cathy Taggart | 26 May 2007  

Great article. Thanks for the info, this is really a helpful post. BTW, if anyone needs to fill out a Skilled Form, I found a blank fillable form here

ARLINE WHITSON | 19 August 2015  

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