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I read an absolutely brilliant review for this book here on Dooyoo a few months back. I had no sooner finished reading the review than I had clicked over to Amazon hoping to buy the book, but with a price tag of £13.98 new and used copies going for nearly the same amount - it was out of my price range for a grown up book - only children get anything that dear in our house. But I put it on my wish list, watched and waited until a more reasonably priced used copy was available and when the chance arose to pick one up for less than £3, I jumped at it.
It would be easy to assume that this is a home education book. It isn't. There is only the briefest mention of home education. This book is about problems in the school system, how our schools were failing our children some 40 -50 years ago and a look at whether things have gotten better or worse in the time since. The book is collection of reviews or critiques of books from the 1960's - 1970's criticising the state of education. The first thirteen chapters each focus on a single author and book, with several excerpts from the text, and a summarisation of the text as a whole. In short he has taken the key points thirteen well respected books and condensed them into one short, easy to read text. Having read many of the original texts in their entirety, this was somewhat repetitive for me, but I can say that he captured the spirit of each book quite well, and there were a few authors I was unfamiliar with.
The bulk of the book is the opinion of other writers, but the last four chapters are the authors own opinion, with a fair number of quotes thrown in. I found his opinion reasonably balanced ( considering the fact that this book only sets out to highlight the problems) and well written as he looks at the criticisms levelled against schools decades ago, and then compares them with the present state of education. The comparison is not favourable, but at least corporal punishment is now a thing of the past in British schools. However the author points out many people want to bring it back. The author also discusses the situation in other countries, most notably Africa, where shockingly, not only corporal punishment very common - so, according to the author, is rape of students by teachers, sometimes with parental consent. The teacher simply pays the parents an agreed amount for the freedom to regularly assault children as young as nine years of age. I have no way of knowing if these allegations are true, but I will point out that Clive Harber was the professor of International Education at the University of Birmingham at the time this book was written. I will not criticise him for including this, although it is not relevant to schools in Britain. It is obvious he wants to raise awareness and perhaps in some way prevent these atrocities, but it did not make for pleasant reading, especially as I am powerless to do anything about the situation.
While I did find a few issues less relevant to British education, I found the authors opinion very insightful and well written. He does conclude that while some things have improved others such as testing have grown worse. He feels that school as they are today present a barrier to education, and in many ways I agree with him. I feel that even in the best of state run schools, a child's natural desire to learn is squelched and education becomes something that is done to a child against their will rather than a natural voyage of discovery. I won't go as far as the author in calling for totally self directed learning. I'm afraid my own children would spend plenty of time reading and learning science, but grammar and maths would be abandoned in favour of an in depth study of the PS3 if they were given total freedom of choice in education. But I do very strongly agree that children should be consulted in their own education, they should have some choice of what to learn, and they should not be forced to spend hours confined to a desk when young bodies need to be running, jumping and active.
I did take issue with the author's assertion that terrorism is linked to education however. This may be true in some places, especially where history is taught as means of transmitting hatred, but it is not true in all cases. I know very few terrorists who are highly educated, most left school quite young, at least in Northern Ireland the highly educated are far less likely to turn to terror. And just because some educated people will express very hard line ideals does not mean they will do anything about them. On the other hand, the fellow with no education, no job and no hope of getting one because he can not read and write is a lot more likely to turn terrorism as something that gives him a sense of identity, self worth and perhaps the opportunity to make a few quid - and finally - if you can't make them like you - make them fear you. It is quite true that terrorists in the Glasgow airport attack were well educated - but I can name a lot more who were not. You can not use one isolated case to make such a blanket statement.
My one other criticism of the book is that there really is not a lot in terms of positive solutions. This book tells us quite clearly what is wrong - but gives us very few ideas on how to fix it. To be fair, this is not what the book sets out to do. this only to draw attention to the problems and encourage people to at least think of other ways of doing things, but it does make for slightly depressing reading. I would have liked more emphasis on alternative ways of teaching, and while I love home education, I do not feel that is a viable alternative for all, or even most families. I would love to see a new form of learning centre established, where children learn at their own pace, with encouragement, and some required subjects but also with some choice as to other areas of study. I would like to see completely online courses offered, as has been done very successfully in the USA, offering children a far superior education at a fraction of the cost, but I can not rate the book down because the solutions offered are limited. If the author makes you at least think of trying to find another way of doing things, then I think he has accomplished his goal.
I do hate long lists in reviews, but in this case I do feel a list of authors and books critiqued is relevant. they are as follows:
The School I'd Like - Edward Blishen
Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
Compulsory Mis-Education by Paul Goodman
The Betrayal of Youth - James Hemming
How Children Fail - John Holt
Deschooling Society- Ivan Illich
Life in Classrooms - Philip Jackson
The Little Red Schoolbook - Soren Hansen and Jasper Jensen
Education for Self Reliance - Julius Nyerere
Teaching as a Subversive Activity Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner
School is Dead Everett Reimer
Freedom to Learn - Carl Rogers
Now the big question - do I recommend the book? Yes and no. This is a good book, it is well written and gives you an idea of the material in several other texts which may be enough to encourage you to buy and read these texts. But the scope of this book is limited, and it will not be of a great deal of use to many readers. There is quite a lot of material on the harm done by beating children in school, but I think most of this know that now. The people who I feel should read this book the most are politicians and policy makers. The simple fact is that they will not. Would it help if all of Britain read the book? Perhaps, if enough people were willing to take political action, but again this is not going to happen. I can not recommend this book for teachers, they will already be aware of problems like over testing and overcrowding - they are powerless to change anything discussed in the book. The main customers for this book will be home educators, but by and large, the book is preaching to the converted, there won't be much here you don't already know. I'm still glad to have it, but then I like reading almost anything on education. For the average home educator there are at least 20 books I would recommend above this book.
So who is this book for? If you happen to be in the position of considering several forms of education for your child - if home education or an alternative school such as a Steiner School are things you are actively considering, and you have the ability to choose another form of education, then by all means read this book. If you need convincing that the current system is flawed, or just to seriously consider what type of education would best suit your child, this may be helpful. If you just want some data to convince your spouse or relatives that the local school is not the best option for your child, again this might be a very good choice. Finally if you just enjoy reading anything on home But if you have no choice but to send you child to a state run school, there isn't much point, and while this book does draw serious problems to light, it is only focussing on the negative and may paint a bleaker picture than the reality for your own circumstances. Regardless of the audience, this book needs to be considered for what it is - an account of the problems with the education system, not as a total balanced overview of education. It can be a good resource in developing an informed opinion, but it should not be the only resource.
Finally - these points have been made for over 50 years now. Valid as they are, it seems to me that no one is listening. A few people will seek alternative education for their own child, but nothing is being done improve education for all children. It fills me with despair at times as I see beautiful bright young children with their lives blighted by the fact they can not read - or children who view reading as a torture inflicted on you by schools. I desperately want better for all of these children - not just my own. Naïve as it sounds I believe a better educational system could create a better and kinder world. There are points in this book that need to be heard. But the people with the power to change things will never read this book.
This book is slim dark blue volume, the title in red, in a stencil-style font: Toxic Schooling: How Schools Became Worse.
"That sounds interesting," I thought. "Worse than what?" Worse than in the 1960s and 70s is the answer.
The back cover made things clearer with a quotation:
"We are faced by the paradoxical fact that education has become one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought". Bertrand Russell, 1926
I am always interested when something said such a long time ago could so easily have been said today. The synopsis on the back of the book explains that during the late 19th and early 20th centuries a number of figures, such as Rudolf Steiner and Bertrand Russell were critical of schooling and suggested "more personalised, democratic and humane forms of education as alternatives". The focus on 'personalised' interested me as there has been much talk of 'personalised learning' within education in recent years, and inevitably there has been much debate about what this really means and the practicalities of it. The synopsis goes on to explain that in the 1960s and 1970s there was a fresh wave of debate about the relevance of schooling (as opposed to 'education') and a number of influential texts were published by people such as Paulo Freire, John Holt, and Carl Rogers.
Toxic Schooling sets out to consider a range of texts published in the 1960s and 70s that critiqued schools and the education system. Each chapter takes one text and summarises it using extensive extracts and Harber's own analysis and contextualisation. This makes it a very useful book for anyone interested in the history of education and educational theory. Most of these texts come from a British or American perspective, but Harber argues that the key features of schools- classes, timetables, exams, bureaucracy, teacher control- are relevant in international contexts too. Having analysed the texts he draws out and summarises the main criticisms and the second half of the book considers how much, if anything has changed since the publication of these texts. Not surprisingly, given the title, Harber identifies much that remains relevant and some aspects that he argues are in fact now worse than ever.
Within the introduction to Toxic Schooling, Harber outlines key theories about the relationship between schooling and society. One is the Human Capital theory: the idea that education contributes to the productivity of a society and in turn aids equality of opportunity. Then there is the opposite argument- Reproduction Theory- that says that education merely reproduces things as they are ie poor people remain poor, the rich remain rich and a few people change their status giving the appearance overall of a meritocratic society. The third argument, on which Harber has written a substantial amount in other books, is that schools actively make things worse for individuals and for society as a whole.
Harber argues that the negative features of schooling are global and can show themselves in a myriad of ways. His contention is that people are so accepting of the notion that schools are 'a good thing' that they do not question them, and that pupils, families and society are often blamed for problems when it may well be the institution of school itself that is the problem.
The 13 books discussed have such titles as: The School that I'd like (E. Blishen), Pedagogy of the Oppressed (P. Freire), Compulsory Mis-Education (P. Goodman), The Betrayal of Youth (J. Hemming), How Children Fail (J. Holt), School is Dead (E. Reimer).
The key critiques of these texts are summarised in Chapter 14. These include: schools are authoritarian with pupils playing little part in decision-making, a fixed subject-based official curriculum cannot educate for the present, let alone the future, guven the pace of change in modern life, many children are unhappy and bored at school, schooling is dominated by tests and exams which dictate what is learned, repeated testing causes stress and anxiety, a lot of time in schools is wasted.
Many of these are aspects which are in the realm of public debate as opposed to being the prerogative of teachers and educationalists, so the book is interesting even for those not involved in education.
In the closing chapters Harber discusses whether the criticisms raised by the writers of these texts in the 1960s and 70s are relevant today. Drawing on a wide range of evidence from international organisations, media reports and his own research, Harber makes a compelling case to suggest that they are indeed relevant. The statistics and evidence drawn from international sources make fascinating and in some cases horrifying reading. Examples include the town of Harrold in Texas, where teachers are permitted to carry concealed guns in order to guard against school shootings and schools where pupils are indoctrinated into hating other communities. Critics would argue that Harber, writing in 2009, has ignored many positive changes in schools. Certainly, some aspects have made the headlines in recent years. For instance the introduction of 'personal learning and thinking skills' as a move away from distinct subject-based learning to transferrable skills has been introduced in the UK, but the means of implementing and level of enthusiasm varies. How much this really changes practice would require much more thorough investigation. Harber acknowledges changes, but he is sceptical as to their efficacy.
Whether you agree or not, it is a very interesting and relatively quick read.
At the time of publication Harber was Professor of International Education at the University of Birmingham. He has since retired. The book is published by the Educational Heretics Press, and is 150 pages. There is an extensive list of references, but no index, however the book is short so I don't think this is too much of a problem.