Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Wasted – why education isn’t educating
Frank Furedi
Hdbck. £15.99
Pubs. Continuum (246 pps)

Furedi, for those who don’t know, was a founder member of the so-called Revolutionary Communist Party, which began as an avowedly ultra-leftist party, before mutating to become a libertarian one. He now occupies a place akin to Christopher Hitchens - a man who professes to be of the Left, but who adopts many contradictory and obtuse right-wing positions. Furedi, for instance rejects economic sustainability, denies global warming and defended Sarah Palin’s attempt to become vice-president of the USA on the spurious grounds that to attack her was to undermine women’s rights.
His latest book is an attempt to examine what is wrong with British education. His main thesis is that we have a crisis of authority; both in society and in the field of education; adult authority has been and is being corrosively undermined. ‘When grown-ups become disconnected from the young they cease to play an adult role,’ he says, and argues that education must involve the passing on of cultural experience and knowledge to the next generation, something that cannot happen without authority. He feels education has become too much of a political football with policies based on short-term point scoring rather than on long-term objectives. He castigates the policies of consecutive governments and calls for what he calls the ‘depoliticization’ of education.
He appears to be advocating a return to ‘old-fashioned teaching’ of set academic subjects and eschews the trends towards a so-called child-centred pedagogy and wht he sees as the deification of modernity with the introduction of ‘trendy’ popular subject matter. He sees education as something other than learning, which is an ongoing process throughout one’s life, but education is about passing on traditions, history, culture and values. He feels schools are becoming more centres of child behavioural management and are ignoring the basics of a real education which would enable all children to engage with their country’s history, culture and tradition. While his book certainly raises a whole number of provocative and interesting questions about the role of education in society, he remains frustratingly nebulous when it comes to the hard choices facing educators and governments in the real world. He doesn’t mention the corrosive role played by the private school sector in Britain and the consequent drain on the state sector, nor does he mention academies or the mushrooming of faith schools. Surely it is impossible to discuss education in a meaningful manner without doing so? His is very much an academic approach, which by no means invalidates his arguments, but it does leave them somewhat up in the air. He is undoubtedly correct when he argues strongly that the ‘crisis’ in schools is not an educational issue as such but a societal problem transported into schools. ‘The aim of this book,’ he says, ‘is not to condemn the conduct of individual adults, because the problem lies with the inability of society as a whole to give meaning to the exercise of generational responsibility.’ Certainly a thought-provoking read, but it demonstrates that it is always easier to criticise than offer realistic solutions.

Nanoethics – big ethical issues with small technology
By Dónal P. O’Mathúna
Pubs Continuum (235 pps)
Pbck. £12.99

The author’s own preface is not encouraging when he thanks all those who helped him, including: ‘God, who gave me the gifts…’ (I don’t think he’s being ironic). I can only comment, that it is a pity the man in the sky didn’t endow him with more. Nanotechnology for those who aren’t too sure what it means is the understanding, control and use of matter at very small dimensions on the molecular or atomic level. The possible uses of such technology are mind-blowing, but it is still in its infancy. The possibilities it could open up would have enormous repercussions on human biology, longevity and medicine to name but some of the areas.
This book is so littered with source attributions that any authorial ideas there might be are obscured; instead of developing his own thought, the author seems content to quote others at every stage. He has also adopted the idiosyncratic idea of interweaving examples from science fiction into his attempt to delineate nanotechnology and its impact. He polemicises against posthumanism but doesn’t define it in any meaningful way. There is little discussion of the real ethical implications and how these may differ from previous scientific breakthroughs. He leaves out the central ethical question of who controls such technology and how it will be used in a capitalist context. He concludes that: ‘The underlying problem is that no amount of nanotechnological or genetic manipulation will enhance the human heart and spirit’! Need I say more to underline the confused philosophy?

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