Education, it occurred to me, watching this summer's A level debacle, is like holding a jug under a waterfall. With luck, the jug catches some water. It may even fill right up. Most of the water goes anywhere but in the jug, which would be very frustrating for the waterfall if it did not like pouring out water for its own sake, which most teachers, happily, do. An uninformed observer might think that it would be more economical simply to fill another jug of the right size and pour it into the first jug. No mess, no waste, full jug. This, it seems to me, is the operating principle of GCSE and A level curricula in recent years, and these are also the qualities which are rewarded by exercises in teaching quality assessment in universities. The trouble is that education is not only about what you learn. It is also about everything all round what you learn: the near misses and the things you discover that you do not know, but of which you get some tantalizing sense - what they are and where to find them in the future. If your education consists of a limited, measured transfusion, three things are likely to follow. What you know, you will know so well that A level boards (or even, heaven forbid, university examiners) may feel obliged to tamper with the grading system to stop 'too many people' getting the top grades. Beyond what you know will lie an arid emptiness which will break the hearts of your university teachers (or research supervisors) when you begin your higher studies. And you will lose the sense that learning is a generally life-enhancing experience. A few months ago, a college friend observed to me that she could no longer see any point in the undergraduate degree she took: it was no use at all in her present life. Aside from my surprise, since she read music at Cambridge and is now a professional violinist, I was struck by how up-to-date her views were. She sees education as functional or nothing. So does the government, apparently. But at a time of increasing leisure, structural unemployment and a growing expectation that people will have several jobs or careers during their working lives, we need more than ever to see education as something generally life-enhancing, a resource for leisure as well as work, and a resource for many kinds of work. The jug-to-jug method does not do the job.
So this is a plea for fewer ewers and more falls in every area of education. Everything can be grist to the mill, and a little chaos is much less damaging than the absence of vision, enthusiasm and ideas. Giving people a sense of what they have not learned, that they could learn, is as important as giving them the basics. Not for nothing are the Muses associated with springs and streams, and mythical educators like Chiron with excursions into wild and unregulated places.
CUCD Bulletin 31 (2002)
© Council of University Classical Departments 2002