In 1983, I ended an article about education after four years of Thatcherism by quoting Raymond Williams from The Long Revolution. The old privileges and barriers had gone, he had argued in 1961. The question was now ‘whether we replace them by the free play of the market, or by a public education designed to express and create the values of an educated democracy and a common culture.’footnote1 Although I worried at the time that this might be too melodramatic, I was probably underestimating the radicalism of Mrs Thatcher’s aspirations—or, as it turns out, of Mr Major’s great simplicities. The Education Reform Act (1988), the National Curriculum, the scrapping of the Inner London Education Authority, the privatization of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, and the other measures associated with them constituted a deliberate attempt to destroy the post-Beveridge consensus embodied in the 1944 Butler Act. The new settlement was designed to ‘modernize’ education by displacing local-authority provision in favour of a more market-like system of regulation. To balance this gestural devolution, the degree of autonomy that schools and teachers had in formulating the curriculum was significantly diminished. Instead, the content of schooling was to be prescribed ‘from above’. The National Curriculum, as first conceived, had promised exactly that: a standard language, a narrative history of national destiny, and so a normative, monocultural definition of community claiming the legitimacy of familiar values and an eternal identity.
Since 1983, these policies have left education in a mess—though how much more of a mess than before is debatable. No surprise there, if only because a systemic inertia makes education maddeningly impervious to the initiatives and wiles of any government. More interesting, in some ways, has been the extent to which Williams’s apparently selfevident alternative to ‘marketization’ has itself come to look increasingly questionable. Although Thatcherism might claim some credit for this enforced rethinking, it has just as much to do with the lessons,
Recently, several books have appeared that chart the vicissitudes of education under Thatcherism. In the present context, it seems redundant to recount the often incisive and revealing things they say about that history. Instead, in this review I want to emphasize how they formulate the question of education, and how, given the bleak experience of the past fifteen years and an unfriendly future, they attempt to imagine alternatives. In this light, the books represent a fascinating picture of changing times. The pain of adaptation is evident in the new tone of disappointment and bitterness in the latest volume from the veteran Communist historian Brian Simon. Of all the authors I shall consider, he remains the most wedded to conventional modes of thought. He still sees the struggle for educational opportunities as part of the laborious Hegelian march to democratic self-realization, and the comprehensive school as a means of unifying the People as the subject of this history.footnote2 The new Education Group at the University of Birmingham’s Department of Contemporary Cultural Studies—the English home of the creative dialogue between a Gramscian politics, a radical sociology and contemporary critical theory—not surprisingly prove themselves more open to change. In a crucial, though still hesitant, theoretical move, they have begun to talk about agency rather than resistance, and they accept the need to engage with pluralist and liberal traditions of educational thought. Although they still see their task as defining the ‘really useful knowledge’ that was the ideal in the earlier Unpopular Education, they here acknowledge, to some extent at least, that this will require not Just new institutional arrangements but a new (or revived) political vocabulary.footnote3 Perhaps the most intriguing sign of the times, however, is the way that
When I trained as a teacher in the early 1970s, Dewey hovered in the background as a shadowy and somewhat irrelevant presence: on the side of the angels, yes, but too committed to scientific method and to liberal individualism for the radicalism of those days. Twenty years on, everybody wants to claim him. To borrow a phrase from Edward Said, his has become a travelling theory. In the United States, his ideas are invoked to bolster the eclectic populism of Henry Giroux,footnote5 or to underwrite Richard Rorty’s case for a postmodern bourgeois democracy.footnote6 Ken Jones reads Dewey in neither of these ways. Nevertheless, the different appropriations do point up a new emphasis that organizes the current debate. That is, what would constitute a specifically democratic education?
Dewey’s unfussy pragmatism opens up some possible answers; or, at least, it closes off some old orthodoxies. His rejection of any idea of a ‘fixed, ready-made, finished self’ neatly subverts the banalities of those forms of progressivism based on a non-interventionist developmentalism. The question of education is not about a Rousseauian human nature to be repressed or liberated. Similarly, Dewey sees the search for democratic social institutions as necessarily ‘experimental’. His guiding principle is therefore the creation of a democratic community, even though he acknowledges that this ideal cannot be realized: ‘Democracy in this sense is not a fact and never will be.’