Education Shall Set You Free - RSA

Education Shall Set You Free

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  • Picture of James Glasse
    James Glasse
  • Education
  • Teaching

‘We are all just data now.’

Or so it seems…whether it’s school league tables, SATs tests, OFSTED inspections or a host of other data collection exercises guaranteed to instil fear and create angst in both pupils and teachers.  As I look out of my window and watch a pair of swallows soaring against an azure blue sky it reminds me that we are the only creature on Earth that tortures itself with perceptions of a future that may never exist rather than focusing on the one thing that actually does – the present, right here and now. I know. Try telling that to the harried primary school teacher trying to get his or her English class to understand what a split digraph or modal verb is when just getting them to sit down is a challenge. (If they fail the test she can always console them by telling them that the grown-ups haven’t a clue either).

Yet nothing of substance was ever taught through fear. Great teaching only ever happens in the now, and inspiring teachers know that it is all that exists.

As William Shakespeare wrote:  ‘True nobility is exempt from fear.’

Which reminds me of an incident years ago when my late housemaster peered over his brass, half-moon shaped glasses and pointed the stem of his pipe at me after I had been caught having a sneaky cigarette. He uttered words that have stayed with me all my life. ‘Glassey, old man,’ he said, ‘don’t try and break the system because the system will break you!’ Actually instead of the word break he used a word that begins with the letter f and would not be at all suitable for this august publication but which hugely impressed a gawky teenager especially coming from the lips of a teacher.

A kindly man who personified integrity and humility, he had shown exemplary courage in World War Two, fighting for his country against fascism and saving his own unit at huge risk to himself. A brilliant educator and fiercely independent thinker, I often wonder what he would have said to me had he been able to see what teachers and their pupils face now. The question I would ask him is ‘What if the system itself is broken. What then?’

In the last century it was said, on the eve of both world wars and on both sides, that one was first broken at school before being broken again in the army. We live in the best and worst of times. Indeed, sometimes it seems that even in the developed world the whole education system is little more than a filter to weed out those who are too independent, can think for themselves or are reluctant to be submissive. Often the barriers between training and education seem to blur and human beings are viewed more and more as data or units of productivity. Yet the greatest thing we have to offer is our civilisation. As a primary school teacher, for me, education is all about communicating our shared humanity, as educating a mind without a heart cannot really be viewed as education at all. Our minds are not empty vessels to be filled but rather fires to be kindled. The world is our country and our religion is to do good - each of us is different yet the bonds that link us grow ever stronger. What kind of world do we want? 

For me, teaching is all about realising that I am but a tiny part of something truly great - the magnificent venture that is education. I am not so much a teacher, rather an awakener - what better role could there be than to enjoy the massive privilege of fostering a joy of learning? As I look at myself in the mirror, I ask myself the question: ‘Am I enabling those I teach to find out who they really are?’ John Dewey wrote: ‘Education is not a preparation for life – education is life itself.’ 

At the end of the day, education is about answering the question of who I am. Teaching is all about relationships, and the key to unlocking potential is to value learners as people. So whether you are eight or eighty it is vital to keep on learning and to realise that the journey has just begun.

Sometimes leaders seem to believe that it’s somehow cool to be cruel and to ignore consensus as they consign our pupils to more unnecessary and counterproductive Gradgrindian misery. Yet perhaps they would be wise to remember that they are not our leaders at all – rather our servants, and that those they choose to ignore are the same voters on whom their jobs depend.  The great lie of all governments is that things will be better in the future and this is used to justify all manner of horrors far worse than frontal adverbials. We all expect high standards and want literacy and numeracy for our children but we also want them to enjoy the journey because the present is all there is.  It may be possible to teach a seal to balance a ball upon its nose but that doesn’t mean that it is right or even desirable.  The purpose of education is to set us free, not to enslave us. 


James Glasse is a tutor, writer, artist and education consultant who researches education and related issues.

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  • Why is this not the debate we are having? Why is the humanity of the child so lost, and the beauty of learning so destroyed? I attended 'Creative Collissions' about the informal sector, the youth sector, and citizenship, participation, identity, respect, equality, justice... and no one screamed for the right of children to be human beings... Yet the debate was there at the beginning of WWI, it informed the 1918 Fisher Continuation Education Act, it informed teachers experimenting with methods and classrooms and schools, it informed chief inspectors of schools in art and music and... Your article reflects the members of The New Ideals in Education conferences, their magazine, their newspaper articles, their published case studies... Oh give us back the teachers and educationalists as heroes liberating the children instead of measurers and those who control, who need conformity to allow them to input and to  measure output....

  • On a Southern Crete coastline I met two people which relate directly to this article.  One, a Roma (I think) girl of 17 years.  Married, with a child, and illiterate entirely, with numeracy only up to a count of 10.  She was with her husband and child and she comes originally from Bulgaria. 
    The other was an almost apologetically pleasant man who was on holiday with his delightfully pleasant wife, both from wealthy, successful Southern Counties of England, and each educated, enlightened, and each equally richly curious about life and all things in it. 
    The latter pointed me to this particular article and I have to say that in the circumstances, on this day of voting to remain within the EU (is there really any other intelligent option of choice?) I think this article is as important as any written this year with regards to any aspect of Britain.  Education sets us free to choose.  It sets us free to inform ourselves.  It enables us to think and create and discover with more tools to do so wisely and well.  The lack of education of the Bulgarian girl meant that even as a room cleaner her  abilities were limited due to her lack of understanding of door numbers.  Take this to higher levels and it means that anyone lacking in decent education can quickly find themselves trapped beneath a low ceiling of achievement, with all the frustrations that can bring.  There's a phrase which springs to mind here, from whence I can not recall: ".. driven by a vision of greatness with a mediocre ability to achieve."  This sums up the lack of real education today.  Teaching children the 'right' answers instead of teaching them to think, really, critically think, is producing little more than almost robotic responses from people in response to questions.  I think the American term is 'dumbing down' and it's a sad reflection on one of the most innovative lands in history.
    Open the cages and release the children.
    Well written James.