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Do We Need Formal Education at All?

When kids can find out everything they need to know from books – or the internet – then do we really need formal education at all? David Didau would like us to think about it...

  • Do We Need Formal Education at All?

Despite the esteem in which it’s held, education is as hotly contested and ideologically riven as any other field of human endeavour, probably more so than most.

Much of the disagreement stems from the troublesome fact that there’s little consensus on what education is actually for.

In most developed societies, school is taken utterly for granted and, like death, taxes and other things that are unavoidable, we often view it with a mixture of resentment and disdain.

I look back at my own time in school and remember it as being three parts mind-numbing tedium to two parts social battleground.

I wasn’t a good student. I didn’t know how to study and I wasn’t at all sure why I was there. By the age of 13, I had started voting with my feet.

My free bus pass became my ticket out of school, and for months at a time, I would leave home in the morning in my school uniform and catch the bus into central Birmingham.

And where do you go if you’re a 13-year-old with no money in the middle of England’s second biggest city? The library, obviously.

Shelf life

Birmingham Central Library was my refuge, my sanctuary and, in some ways, my alma mater.

When I wasn’t flicking through decades-old headlines, I’d scour the shelves for interesting sounding books and take a handful into the reading room to peruse.

I read all sorts. As well as indulging my penchant for science fiction and flicking through encyclopaedias, I wrestled with aging classics like The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, On the Origin of Species and The Prince, as well as more popular titles like I’m OK – You’re OK, The Selfish Gene and Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman?.

And for some now unknowable reason I became a devotee of Russian literature: I read Crime and Punishment, The Gulag Archipelago, The Master and Margarita and Anna Karenina.

I didn’t understand them all that well – and I certainly didn’t like them all – but I stubbornly ploughed through them, day after day. And no one in the library ever questioned my right to do so.

But it couldn’t last. Eventually I was found out.

My school – after many blissful months – finally worked out I wasn’t turning up and got around to calling home to ask my parents whether I was attending another establishment.

I won’t detail the exquisite agonies of my punishments here, but the one accusation that still rings in my ears is that I was throwing away my education.

At the time I went along with it, but now this seems rather bizarre. After all, what is education?

My memory of school is that I spent a lot of time being bored, staring out of windows and playing squares.

For years, I thought of myself as something of an autodidact and that I learned practically nothing at school. I now know that this is incorrect, but more on that later.

Why bother?

What, we should ask ourselves, is the point of going to school? Why do we make children wear uniforms, sit at desks and do homework?

What’s it all for if children can learn as much – or more – from libraries (and, of course, the internet)?

The point, as I’ve slowly come to realise, is that most children are not like I was. If I’m honest, even I wasn’t much like the way I remember myself.

At the library I only read what interested me. At school I had to learn about blast furnaces, quadratic equations, osmosis and The Mayor of Casterbridge, whether I wanted to or not.

Much as I might try to deny it, something of each of these things is lodged somewhere in my brain. I am my own example of survivorship bias!

In a society where we no longer believe it ethical to put children to work in factories, school gets young people out of bed and gives them something productive to do instead of just Snapchatting each other all day.

As an adult, with children of my own, I have sympathy with this.

I instinctively dislike the idea of children purposelessly meandering through their days, as seems to be the case at weekends, and going to school is, on the face of it, better than sending them up chimneys.

There are no end of cynical takes on what education is, as opposed to what it ought to be.

Matt Ridley complains, “Rarely, if ever, has the purpose of state education been to add to scholarship and generate knowledge.”

He quotes the American journalist HL Mencken as saying, “The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all. It is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same level, to breed a standard citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.”

A depressing thought.

Closing the gap

But, less selfishly and cynically, when we think about why we send children to school, the answers tend to fit into three broad areas: socialisation, enculturation and personal development.

  • Socialisation
    In this view, education is primarily a tool of the state, employed to make its citizens more productive. With this way of thinking, children should be prepared both for work and to become loyal and enthusiastic participants in the activities of the state.
  • Enculturation
    The notion that the towering achievements of our culture should be passed along, like the Olympic torch, from one generation to the next to allow young people to fully participate in the intellectual and cultural life of their society.
  • Personal development
    Many take the view that education ought to address ‘the whole child’ and aim to make children flourish in as broad a sense as possible. This includes the belief that education should be both therapeutic and concerned with developing character.

Underlying each of these is the notion that education is our best chance for eradicating inequality.

This includes the belief not only that all children, no matter their start in life, should be afforded the advantages enjoyed by the most privileged, but also that all children have the capacity to rise to the top if their disadvantages are specifically addressed and playing fields are systematically levelled.

The question we need to ask, then, is whether school – or schooling – is currently doing an adequate job in these regards?


Want to know more? This article was extracted from Making Kids Cleverer – A Manifesto for Closing the Education Gap (Crown House), in which the author goes on to address some of the details of these three broad visions for the purpose of education, and offer research-informed guidance on how to help all children acquire a robust store of powerful knowledge, and the skills to make use of it.


David Didau is an independent education consultant and author. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidDidau.

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