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Soft bigotry of low expectation

It probably seems a little excessive to run three editorials on the trot about the changes the new government intends to make to the education system. But it’s of paramount importance.

As the late great, late 20th-century philosopher Whitney Houston once so wisely and tunefully noted, “The children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way.”

Unfortunately, on the current trajectory of our educational achievement, they look increasingly unlikely to be equipped to lead us anywhere especially desirable.

As was recently acknowledged, about one in five of our 15-year-olds do not reach the level they need to function effectively in later life, and we’ve barely nudged the deeply entrenched disparity between the top and bottom students in the past 20 years. And that was before pandemic policies that saw schools shut down in favour of ‘distance learning’ exacerbated the situation further.

As noted in the previous editorials, there are aspects of the incoming administration’s education policy that look promising.

Although there’s nothing specific to suggest the current system’s deference to “relevance” is in the coalition’s sights for culling, we can only hope it is.

The obsession with ensuring everything that’s taught is “relevant” to students appears to be the product of the “child-led” approach to teaching that’s been embraced – with little to no evidence but a great deal of ideological fervour – by our education sector.

Teachers are meant to take their cue from what interests their students, with the upshot that – to cite a frequently used example – the work of rapper Tupac Shakur is often more likely to be studied than Shakespeare.

It’s hard to find a better, more profoundly stupid example of “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.

Now, that phrase was first uttered by US President George W. Bush – he who also once famously publicly pondered, “Is our children learning?” – but putting aside the suspect source of the quote, it is an elegant way of describing the unintended consequences of the “relevancy” approach: less is essentially expected of already disadvantaged students, thus implicitly encouraging them not to reach their full potential.

Instead of education aiming to expand kids’ horizons, in practice it often appears to have the effect of keeping them trapped in the limited world they already know.

Although the Bard’s reputation has been on the receiving end of a bit of a posthumous kicking from some quarters – it’s claimed that teaching his work is “Eurocentric” and an indication of a “post-colonial” mentality – the longevity of his plays and sonnets is really down to his freakishly towering talent, not some form of cultural oppression.

The example of Shakur instead of Shakespeare is an instructive – and ironic – illustration of what appears a profound lack of imagination on the part of educators.

It turns out Tupac was a massive fan of our boy Will and his “timeless themes”, both performing in his plays while at school and explicitly referencing his work in one of his most popular songs, ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’.

What more “relevance” does a teacher with a modicum of wit really need to unlock the richness of Shakespeare’s insightful oeuvre for another generation?

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