Education is a bad word to use socially. If you are at a party and tell someone you work in education they’re likely to mumble about needing an early night. Many people expect to be as bored by the topic of education as they often were by the experience of it. But, if you ask them about their education, or about their children’s, the opposite happens. They pin you to wall until you start looking at your watch. Many people have very deep anxieties about education. It’s one of those issues like religion, politics and money that get among us. And it should. Education is vital to the success of our working lives, to our children’s futures and to long-term national development. More than this, it stamps us with a deep impression of ourselves, and of everybody else, that’s hard to remove.
Success or failure in education can affect our image of ourselves for life. Those who don’t show academic ability in school are often branded as less able. Some of the most brilliant and successful people in all walks of life that I know – or know of – failed in education. No matter how successful they have become, they carry within them a secret worry that they’re not really as clever as they are making out. I know teachers, university professors, vice-chancellors, business people, musicians, writers, artists, architects and many others who failed at school. Many succeeded only after they’d recovered from their education. What about all of those who didn’t?
A major reason for this vast waste of ability in education is academicism: the preoccupation with developing certain sorts of academic ability to the exclusion of others, and its confusion with general intelligence. This preoccupation has led to an incalculable waste of human talent and resources. This is a price we can no longer afford.
As the technological revolution gathers pace, education and training are thought to be the answer to everything. They are, but we have to understand the question. Educating more people – and to a much higher standard – is vital. But we also have to educate them differently. The problem is that present expansion is based on a fundamental misconception : the confusion of academic ability with intelligence. For years academic ability has been conflated with intelligence, and this idea has been institutionalised into testing systems, examinations, selection procedures, teacher education and research.
As a result, many highly intelligent people have passed through education feeling they aren’t. Many academically able people have never discovered their other abilities. We have developed institutions and intellectual hierarchies on the assumption that there are really two types of people in the world, academic and non-academic: or as they are often called by common sense, the able and the less able.