What’s Wrong With Education

This is about a distinction that might appear to be “splitting hairs”, a mere matter of emphasis and detail, but which is absolutely fundamental to education. The issue falls into the category of things that we decide right at the very beginning when we hardly realise we have begun, things that appear quite innocent, but which turn out to be absolutely crucial in defining and establishing the character of education.

Let me set this out in relation to the contemporary interest in the Olympic skier Gu Ailing and her widely-publicised approach to athletic and intellectual achievement.

Traditional approaches to education, leaving aside those associated with “beating some sense into children” that alltoo-many generations had to endure, have emphasised hard work and putting up with the occasional – sadly, often frequent – tedium and irrelevance of the topics on the school curriculum as a necessary precursor to and preparation for future success and achievement, the educational equivalent of “no pain, no gain”, misery now for the sake of glories to come. It is typical of this framework that other people decide what children ought to learn and enjoy. I freely admit that I was the victim of this kind of education, and am ashamed to say that for many years I probably contributed to it in an unreflective deference to prevailing practices. But I also believe it to be fundamentally misconceived, destructive of human life, and the cause of most of the problems we have with lives that seem perpetually unsatisfactory. If you wish, you can call this our contemporary prob

lem with widespread

affluence that seems to deliver minimal happiness or fulfilment. Adults all-too-often have everything and enjoy nothing.



To solve the problem of widespread unhappiness we have to look at the values built into this traditional approach to education and correct them.

The key difference lies in the reversal – the inversion – of the relationship between present enjoyment and future reward that is embedded in the traditional approach. Specifically, traditional education tries to justify present irrelevance, drudgery and misery in the name of future reward and reinforces that philosophy by making readiness to work hard at things we don’t like as “a sign of character”. Worthy and good children – we are told – do as their teachers tell them whether they like it or not, work hard despite finding their study tedious and irrelevant, but in so doing demonstrate obedience, willingness to “do whatever it takes” to succeed, and so some of the characteristics supposedly possessed by mature adult citizens. The fundamental characteristic of this approach is that it believes we should put off enjoyment today for the sake of enjoyment tomorrow. But this leaves us with no experience of enjoying today, so how can we expect to know how to enjoy tomorrow?

The system as practised manifestly doesn’t work: all we succeed in doing is producing well-qualified adults who have rejected lifelong learning because they have come to hate education, and who are as unhappy in their adult lives under the cosh of employment as they were as children under the cosh of education. And the reason for this is easy to see, despite the fact that we haven’t generally ever seen it: this whole thing is the wrong way round.

This is what the Gu Ailing story illustrates: first, find out for yourself what you like doing, what fills you with enthusiasm, what makes you want to do it again and again, and don’t let other people tell you what that ought to be; second, discover that your enthusiasm for it will lead you naturally to work hard at it because it doesn’t seem like hard work at all, because you enjoy it so much, and yes, that may involve making enormous sacrifices in pursuit of your dreams, but they won’t really seem like sacrifices because they will involve doing what you love; third take whatever success comes your way as a bonus because the journey you have already undertaken is its own reward. And that means that even if you don’t get into Stanford or win Olympic gold medals – we can’t all do that – it doesn’t reduce the enjoyment you have in life. Nor is there anything to

say that our life-defining interests and passions will not change: they probably should as we navigate the path we choose to follow over a lifetime; but interests will always drive effort, and effort should therefore be self-rewarding.



Don’t aim for a predetermined outcome: aim to discover what is immediately rewarding and self-reinforcing, what you want naturally to do again and again because it resonates with who you are; then allow that kind of activity and learning to define the outcome that will for you be optimal. It is a mistake to think “This is where I want to get, this is what I want to be, so how can I get there?” How do you know where you want to get if you will be someone else when you get there?

Someone will say “Yes, but what is to stop children from playing in ways that are unproductive, frivolous, enjoyable but not fruitful?” There are many answers to this at different levels: first, are we really sure that what absorbs a child is unproductive, frivolous and not fruitful; second, have we taught children how to play in more and more sophisticated ways so that as they grow older and more competent they can discover the possibilities of ever-more-complex playing and exploring; third, if the objection is that parents are sceptical of this approach, have we educated parents in the damaging effects of the traditional methods – methods they probably endured themselves and which are as a result responsible for their own unhappiness, although of course we can’t say that – and shown and persuaded them that engaged, enjoyable play that produces happy, enthusiastic children who have discovered what interests them in life is far more efficient and effective as a means of human development than the traditional “carrot and stick”?

Fruitful, rich, purposive experience is more educational than frivolous experience; so the task of those who create and lead schools in partnership with parents is to surround children with the richest possible environment of purposive, fruitful experiences out of which they can discover their particular interests (which are not, initially at least, necessarily their strengths) and eventually invent and explore new interests uniquely suited to themselves.

A number of additional observations and objections should be acknowledged.

Someone may say that the view of traditional education advanced here is no longer legitimate, and for the more able and wealthier and more naturally gifted who find their ways into enlightened schools that may well be true. I hope that it is. But for the less able, the socially disadvantaged, those without access to schools run on these principles, it remains the case that the deficiencies of education are papered-over with the spurious claim that it is necessary to endure discomfort and misery today for the sake of future compensating rewards. Some teachers explicitly say this to their students, adding that they might as well get used to the idea because that’s how life works.

Which raises the second observation: that the very things that make education unsatisfactory for so many children are regarded as necessary inductions into the realities of a life where for far too many people employment has to be endured rather than enjoyed as a means of earning some sort of living. It will be pointed out that it is only for the rich that the option to choose their occupation so that it optimises their enjoyment of life arises, and that for the vast majority no such opportunities arise because their choices are so limited.

Even if we accept that this is true, there are elements of self-fulfilling prophecy about it: the world trains us to want things that only compliance with its norms will supply; were we to refuse to accept its assumptions and assurances about what makes for a happy and fulfilled existence, we might find ourselves less under the control of its economic necessities.

Our interests and passions have a further benefit: they encourage wholehearted involvement and so help us to avoid the kind of reluctance to embrace the possibilities of life that easily become another kind of self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling vicious circle of dissatisfactions. Our contemporary interest in “work-life balance” arises from acceptance of the notion that work and life are in conflict, which is only true when we are not working at things that matter to us and resonate in us. Only find things that we want to do for their own sake – the Gu Ailing Principle – and the question of work-life balance just doesn’t arise. As a former colleague of mine used to put it, “I consider myself the most fortunate of men because I am paid well to do something that I would happily do for nothing”. Or as the Chinese sometimes put it, “Life is work; work is life”.

Which rather suggests a criterion by which to assess life, work and learning:


Would you continue to do this for nothing if it promised to furnish you with no greater reward than is to be had from doing it?


If the answer is “No!”, then you are probably in the wrong work and living the wrong life.

Yes, there will be countless people for whom this will seem like a criterion born of insufferable complacency based upon lives of established luxury that refuse to take note of the miserable existences that many are forced to endure by their political, social, economic, health or educational circumstances. But if more people, even those who appear to live under the cosh of such supposed economic and other necessities, were to embrace this kind of criterion, it would force fundamental changes to the world.