Review of: Fight for Education: A Black Paper. Edited by C. B. Cox and A. E. Dyson. London: The Critical Quarterly Society, 1969.
British Journal of Psychiatry, 115, 1969, pp. 1082-3.
Accepted contemporary doctrine among educationists calls for a very far‑reaching egalitarianism, a reluctance to inflict disagreeable routine learning on the child, and enthusiastic encouragement of letting him find his own way and learn how to think for himself. When these laudable aims result in cramming of all levels of ability into large classes, with a very low teacher‑pupil ratio, in holding up the development of the more intelligent out of a belief that it is bad for anyone to find himself excelled, and in an ultrapermissiveness which fails to equip the citizen‑to‑be with any capacity for self‑discipline, one may feel that, perhaps, some other values might be held in mind. So at least think the contributors to 'Fight for Education', a vigorous and thoroughly enjoyable polemical pamphlet with a number of very famous contributors (e.g. Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Angus Maude). They would like to see children not all provided with the same educational diet but each provided with what is apposite to his needs. This, of course, means varying the curriculum for the bright, the average and the dull. How otherwise are we to get the best out of our children? And is there not something to be said for the pursuit of excellence, for the spread of scholarship, even for learning how to put in hard and frustrating work in order to achieve?
Tap a man's knee, and his leg will kick. The pamphlet obviously hit on a sensitive (an inflamed?) spot, and its reasonable suggestions have been met with unreasoning fury. Mr. Edward Short gave it a lambasting, without counter‑arguments or counterfacts, and the press have joined in at the same level ('a trivial document by some elderly reactionaries', Evening Standard; 'much of (it) ... tendentious cliché supported by superficiality piled on superficiality', Sunday Times). However, the points made by the authors are serious ones, and they should be met and discussed at a serious level. What was once liberal and humane educational theory seems to have become petrified, and may well be no longer either realistic or even humane.
J. B. S. Haldane, who was a lifelong champion of the under‑privileged, had no doubt that education should be tailored to meet the range of individual needs (The Inequality of Man, 1937). With courses arranged to St the average boy, he wrote, it is hard for the intelligent to learn more than his fellows. Like Spearman, J. B. S. believed that 'every normal man, woman and child, is a genius at something as well as an idiot at something'. One should aim at an education which would enable the individual to follow his bent; and the exceptionally versatile child should not be compelled, as now, to limit the field of his studies at an early stage. 'I do not believe that a recognition of the inequality of man would be a blow to democracy (or rather to representative government based on universal suffrage).' Perhaps the wisdom of the biologist will one day inform the councils of the social scientist!