Teaching ignorance

Andrew Macdonald Powney
6 min readAug 26, 2020


When I started teaching I told a colleague — a chemistry teacher and a miner’s son — that I felt we should be teaching there because we should equip that community for unemployment. It sounds like bleak humour, but I was serious. Teaching the children of the rich could also be an effort to make their idleness meaningful. Neither social pole had middle-class ambition.

Now jobs are falling away. All the jobs ‘created’ between the credit crunch and the COVID recession were short-term, deunionised or ‘gig’. AI and robotics will amplify the work of some — doctors, for instance — but many folk will be replaced, and the third-generation unemployment where I started will spread. Some believe AI will make more free time possible, and that it will be an aristocratic leisure which spreads.

Whichever turn the economy takes, education as conceived by the education industry today will not serve the needs of this generation — or their children. The drive to STEM subjects ignores the erosion of STEM jobs by artificial intelligence. Usually education prepares people for the world of today because it cannot predict tomorrow, but the education industry today is manufacturing a product ill-equipped even for today.

A ‘few’ which is increasingly few in number will get the jobs which are left — and they will be neither the idle rich nor the disadvantaged poor. COVID has accelerated remote working by anyone on the planet where the cost of living is low and salaries can be — and that is not the UK.

So I come back to my idea, more than twenty years ago, that education should be liberal, because (as Edward Gibbon said in his Memoirs) ‘few minds have sufficient resources to support the weight of idleness’. We may move to a universal basic income funded out of taxes on the robots, so that this economy can continue without human beings at work. Something better than drugs and pay-as-you-go infotainment is going to be needed to contain the political anger, the resentment, the frustration and anomie which must grow and fester when human beings do not amount to very much in adulthood and cannot put that fact from their minds.

Preventing us from seeing this and facing up to it are four motes in the eye that match the four groups of stakeholders in our education industry.

1. Parents have been made the consumers of education, and not their children. League tables did that. It is in parents’ interests that the ‘wellbeing’ agenda should grow: ‘all I want is for my child to be happy’. A parent may be prepared to sacrifice what makes a child better off in the long run if that will secure the child’s demands for happiness now. Not all parents are like that — but enough are, to have created a growing problem.

2. It is in the interest of teachers to expand the ‘pastoral curriculum’ (even though the limit of what can be taught pastorally is akin to the value and limit of CBT for mental illness). An increasing number of teachers do not have much ‘academic’ subject knowledge. The constant inspection that should have guaranteed that they did, in fact guarantees conformity to the wellbeing agenda now firmly fixed. Pastoral positions are now the route to promotion as once academic ability was. Being in a ‘pastoral’ role lets me, the teacher, work at something that cannot be measured, and measure my colleagues instead.

3. It is in the interest of managers to allow the wellbeing agenda to drive out the ‘academic’ curriculum. Schools are not about knowledge! It is good for managers if enrichment trips, sport and ‘social’ education reduce the time for what we used to call work; so acutely, that regurgitated knowledge is all there is time for. Less specialism and less depth in the teacher mean more part-time and short-term labour for management. The wellbeing agenda, with enforcement through inspection, makes a controlled workforce.

4. Ironically for a curriculum that promotes skills — as England’s had, until Michael Gove, and as Scotland’s does, under ‘Curriculum For Excellence’ — this means more pressure on kids and more memorising; because the only way to guarantee results in a skills-based exam is to memorise all the possible game-plans prepared and pre-digested by one’s teacher. This is even more time-consuming than learning to think, so the data to be learned must be ‘progressively’ reduced. Some students might think that is in their interest, though many are struck by the hollowness of their decade and more of school.

People in education wring their hands, but it is the way it is because it suits all stakeholders to have things this way. Schools have become hubs for socialisation. Mental ill-health brought on by social isolation was the pretext that politicians used to force children back to school, rather as physical ill-health had been the argument given to keep them home in the first place. But these are arguments making the case for a policy with the economy as its concern. The Alice-in-Wonderland reality is that schools are not about children or knowledge.

If the consumer of education were the child as she will be when grown up and educated, things would not take this shape. She would know she needed to be the captain of her own fate and autonomous in learning. But the child cannot, in advance of her education, be the adult she would have become — had all this not happened in the education industry. That industry is producer-led and the child is not at its centre. The producers claim to speak for the child, yet cui bono? Who benefits?

To distract themselves from that awkward question — which is presented as a question of the ‘philosophy of education’, though it concerns livelihoods — the producer-led education industry has been debating blended learning, the role of computers, and lockdown rules. Teachers could have facilitated, during lockdown, communal computers at social distances for disadvantaged children without good connections; but they didn’t. They could have held exams the same way; they wouldn’t. Before COVID, we wrang our hands at children not being prepared to read in a quick-stimulus, immediate-gratification ‘click’ culture. Now, apps solve that problem but are debated as a problem. It is displacement anxiety.

What apps don’t solve is the bit that matters. You do not need teacher-training in Bloom’s taxonomy to know that first, students must learn basics, then they must practise to remember them, and finally, they can put them into practice for themselves. This is core, reinforcement and extension, and application — in the jargon. Apps let children who have mastered skills produce marvellous independent work, and other apps let them learn the basics in the first place. But apps and remote learning does nothing towards that crucial central phase in which skills are practised and work is criticised, and that is the phase which in Wellbeing World has become fraught with danger for teachers. So this ‘philosophy’ is considered less ‘urgent’, ‘specific’, ‘measurable’, and so on.

No teachers at all are qualified to be fonts of wellbeing. Teachers wish to disguise their general ignorance. Dropping the liberal tradition goes hand in hand with dropping the idea that children have to grow up at all and kills two birds with one stone. Spending time in school in reiterating forms of distress that someone might suffer is more congenial than criticising a child’s work until by degrees they master the liberal tradition of education for themselves. Where pastoral content takes on pseudo-academic shape, in PSHE, teachers do not know how to teach it. Teachers hate PSHE.

People want this chaos to be a mystery, but it isn’t. At the very time when computers are taking everything but the life of the mind from this generation, their ‘facilitators’ keep them trapped in an obsolescent framework of skills and fruitless feelings.



Andrew Macdonald Powney

Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.