Children, I would argue, have a right to know about the world in which they live. They have a right to be taught about the structures of reality at both cosmic and atomic scales; they have a right to be taught about living creatures on this planet and how they interact with one another; they have a right to be taught about the passing of the seasons, the rise and fall of tides, and the water cycle. They have a right to be taught about humans in the past, what those humans did, and how we today live with the consequences of what happened before we were alive. They have a right to be taught about the kinds of stories humans tell one another, and how humans live in communities that are divided in different ways by wealth, class, gender and race.
The world we live in is a complex place but, as a species and as a society, we have come up with powerful tools for making sense of this complexity, and they are the academic disciplines. We most certainly can debate which are the more important academic subjects and we can debate what ought to be taught within each academic subject, but, as a principle, I would advocate that children have a right to be taught academic subjects because these are the very things they need in order to make sense of the complex yet wonderful world in which they live.
The great educational injustice in this country is that children up and down the land are told that academic subjects are ‘not for them’.
In some cases this is done with the best of intentions, a concern that it is in a child’s best interest for them to be doing something ‘useful’ or ‘practical’ rather than ‘academic’ or ‘elitist’. Some might well argue that chemistry or poetry or medieval history is going to be of little use to someone who will go on to be a computer engineer, a fisherman (or woman) or a hairdresser. Some might argue that it’s better to let a child do something they enjoy, or something they might be more likely to get a qualification in, rather than risk failure in studying academic subjects.
My response to this position is that I think computer engineers should know Shakespeare, that fishermen (or women) ought to know about the structure of molecules and that computer engineers would lead richer lives were they to know a little medieval history. There is a time for vocational training, and I believe it starts when we enter the world of work. It takes time to learn the academic disciplines, and five years of secondary education in the life of an individual who is likely to live for eighty years or so is not unreasonable.
Those who advocate bringing ‘vocational’ education earlier and earlier into the school curriculum are robbing children of their childhood, taking away those few precious years when children have the opportunity to learn knowledge for its own sake. In some schools children are allowed to stop studying history when they are 13, providing (at best) two years of teaching on one hour a week, quite likely taught by a non-specialist. There is plenty of time after finishing secondary school (say at 16) for vocational education. One’s job might change and one might need new vocational training through life, but knowledge of physics, literature and mathematics will stay with someone for life, provided they have been given the opportunity to be taught it.
There is a further problem here, which is that, for a variety of reasons, those children who have the opportunity to study academic subjects taken away from them at increasingly younger ages are those from less wealthy or lower social class backgrounds. For some of these children, school is the only chance they are going to get to learn the academic disciplines. It is a matter of social justice that such children should have their right to be taught academic subjects protected, not whittled away by the rather patronising view that ‘academic subjects are not for them’. Perhaps with the exception of children with severe special needs, I can think of no child – whatever his or her social background, parental wealth or intelligence – for whom academic subjects are not appropriate. Indeed, the children who are not from comfortable middle-class backgrounds are often those who are most in need of – and who have most to gain from – an academic education.
At heart, a traditional, liberal, academic education is socially progressive and those who believe in improving the human condition ought to be supporting it.