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Will education be the tool that helps us develop utopias, or will it remain our prison? Caroline Austin talked with "educational heretic" Roland Meighan.

Coercion and domination

Roland Meighan is an acknowledged “educational heretic” for his view that mass compulsory schooling is an obsolete and counter-productive learning system which should be scrapped as soon as possible. His latest book, Natural Learning and the Natural Curriculum challenges the very essence of the education system today. It is a devastating critique-and rightly so.

Caroline Austin: In your latest book, Natural Learning, you quote Mark Twain, who “never allowed schooling to interfere with his education”. What does “education” actually mean for you?

Roland Meighan: Winston Churchill echoed Mark Twain when he wrote that schools are mainly institutions of control and that education was different and had little place in school. But I prefer to personalise the issue and talk about educated people.

I see an educated person as one who, firstly, strives to do no harm to other people, secondly, tries to do no harm to the environment, and thirdly, sets out to do no harm to themselves. If these seem a bit negative, I am prepared to add a positive: behaves so as to leave the world a little better than they found it.

There is more to it than this, however, for in order to do these things, people have to become capable, confident researchers who can find out whatever is needed at any particular time. Mark Twain saw that schools do not do any of these things. So, currently, they produce large numbers of people doomed to consumerism, competition with its admiration for greed.

CA: Why do you think a National Curriculum was re-introduced in Britain just over 10 years ago?

RM: Learning is “compulsory” for us all because we are born natural learners with brains that are equipped to strive to make sense of whatever environment we happen to be born into. Cows, on the other hand, are fated to just repeat the patterns of the species.

The reintroduction [of a national curriculum] in 1988 had similar motives [to the introduction of the first national curriculum].

One official responsible for the planning was recorded as saying, “People must be educated, once more, to know their place”. Literacy for the needs of industry was again stressed and compulsory worship insisted on. As in Hitler's Germany, the British National Curriculum was to contribute to the idea of national unity, just when, (if you believe in an imposed curriculum), you might have thought a World or International Curriculum might have made more sense.

CA: Where are the movements of new visions of education today? You mention the “learner-driven curriculum” in South Africa, can you explain what this is?

RM: Nelson Mandela's choice for Minister of Education, Professor Bengu, declared that democracy meant “the absence of domination”. The schools he inherited were, like British schools, riddled with domination. The schools policy was firstly to democratise schools with schools councils, teacher councils, parent councils, and the like. In addition, the imposed curriculum was to be reduced in size to make way for a learner-driven curriculum, where the learners devised the studies or had a say in the programme of activities. How far this has actually progressed, I do not know.

CA: You quote John Stuart Mill in your book, who once called “a general State Education ... a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another” (On Liberty). What are the political implications of your “natural learning” system; what kind of changes would it bring about in society?

RM: The implications of Mill's observation is that we need to devise a learning system that provides “alternatives for everybody, all the time”. We already have institutions that do this. The fourth most popular leisure activity in Britain, according to opinion surveys, is using the public library-a learning facility that is learner-friendly. The Open University is another example. The Workers Educational Association (WEA) is another. We need to build on these positive models and phase out mass, coercive schooling as quickly as we can.

Caroline Austin is a freelance photographer and a home-educator.

Topics: Utopias | Education