Overschooled but Undereducated begins with the fable of a deer whose evolution hasn’t adapted it to cope with car headlights. “We too are transfixed by the lights which are about to destroy us,” is the anthropomorphic moral at the opening of a book that develops into a survival guide posited on a revamped education system.
The final chapter – still veering toward the apocalyptic – begins as follows: “Two competing stories, two narratives compete for our support. The stronger, more apparently attractive and certainly the most strident since the 1980s, is that life is improved by maximising your wealth … The second, upon which the future of the planet and the survival of the human race may depend, has emerged quickly over the past five years; it is about the need to adjust individual life aspirations so as to achieve ecological and social sustainability. These are very different narratives – the first argues for the rights of the individual, the latter for inter-dependence and community.”
The intervening chapters contain a plea for less selfish modes of life. The political commitment to collective values is informed by a career-teacher’s conviction that education has the power to redeem both individuals and society. Idealism and optimism are balanced against a measured pessimism about the malevolent influence of test-based schooling that answers to economic demands. To paraphrase, the need to compete with Johnny Foreigner is being imposed on the unequal institutional muddle of current education where (time, now, to quote) “the modern secondary is … a kind of holding ground in which the problems of adolescence [are] worked through” while fee-paying schools are “the ideal mechanism to create, and subsequently to perpetuate, class divisions”.
The lesson is that all current approaches are deficient because new knowledge about brain physiology and about evolution is being ignored. Meanwhile the pressures of post-industrial capitalism have adolescents demonised rather than celebrated and understood in the light of modern science and of older wisdom. Instead of schools “going with the grain of the brain”, there is a rush for accountable results that leads to widespread failure and distress. Further, this type of education as measured outputs is impeded by what is labeled an upside down inside out approach. John Abbott’s solution is to concentrate teaching energy and resources on all of the very young rather than a merely few of the older and very bright pupils. Highly staffed infant schools and lecture-based universities would be the new order. Those, very briefly, are the book’s lessons.
Lessons that are unlinked to experience or passion are a definition of boredom. Ask any adolescent. Throughout this book is a consistent story-telling metaphor, which tells of a writer and teacher who knows in his bones that a good story commands attention and will then, perhaps, make some of his lessons stick. “Stories,” John Abbott writes towards the end of the book, “give context to the problems of every day.” Stories deliver their themes and context by entertaining us, and this book takes its reader on a rumbustious tour of folly and progress with old-fashioned fables and modern narratives drawn from science, and from personal and social history and from an enlightening history of education.
Contemporary criticism has taught that we learn different things from the same book. Thus, I recall an entertaining account of how and why Babylonians defined time and space on a number base of 60; of how the author’s cramming for a Latin exam left him with a qualification but neither the understanding nor the enduring satisfaction that came from learning how to carve wood; and of Sir Richard Livingstone who, in the 1940s, suggested that children leave school at 14 to possibly return when they decide the sort of further education to best suit them. The book also chimes with my experience as a teacher This reader’s response is that it’s true to say that “levels of trust have fallen dramatically [and that] clinical depression has risen as people fill every moment with frantic activity.” I recall the frantic activity I felt bullied into when pretending to prepare lessons for some bogey-man inspector on whose judgments the fate of the world was meant to turn. But schools are nothing if not authoritarian. Nonetheless I was commanded, in effect, to forget story telling and instead obey an alien formula reliant on the business and military concepts of learning objectives, main activities, plenaries, assessment opportunities, aims and targets.
A good storyteller will command attention to elicit all manner of personal responses and Overschooled but Undereducated succeeds here. The we’re-all-off-to-hell-in-a-handcart planet panic rhetoric is overdone. However there is an incontestable case being put forward that our society moves too fast and that we have forgotten the virtues of a moral education through story-telling and a practical education through apprenticeships. These things evolved at a more considered pace than the latest government directive for lesson planning and this is a book