Why ‘To make people Cleverer’ just CAN’T suffice as the answer to “the most annoying question in education”

When Andrew Old wrote this post in December, I scan read it on my phone and thought “maybe he’s onto something after all”. He was irritated that yet again the British government was needing to inquire into “The purpose… of education in England” – as this question seems both to go round forever, whilst for him the answer should be simple and screamingly obvious:

The purpose of education is to make children cleverer.

That’s it.

Now, I like a huge amount of what Andrew stands for, but I really think this is an area which undermines him, and by association, other areas which I think he is right on.

Quite a bit of his post and the comments that followed involved defining what he meant by ‘clever’. He means intellectually capable, and I have no great difficulty with spotting this shorthand, though others did, and I can see why. He seemed to think that as a general concept in society this label could only really mean ‘intellectual ability’, but I think it’s also worth pointing out that people also have the general concept of wisdom – surely another intellectual capability? – and they might well choose to commonly distinguish that from cleverness. (Was it just my grandma who used to tilt at “the person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”?). I believe that being intellectually capable should imply wisdom as well, but maybe we lack a simple adjective in English to say all this in one word, so I’m not going to quibble with ‘cleverness’ just for that.

However… beyond this I think Andrew’s argument does crumble as an attempt to end all discussion of the matter, and in this post I’m going to try to be utterly clear as to why his most recent arguments just don’t stack-up to being a sustainable vision for what the purpose of education is or should be.

In my first ever blog post last year I pointed out that the aims of education are ultimately tied to the aims of the species – multitudinous and at root, a matter of personal sentimental preference, with no group having a pre-eminent right to decide. We educate for the reasons that we as a race want to educate. I still stand by all that, however here I’m presenting a new set of perspectives:

1) You just CAN’T draw an analogy between medicine and education

The purpose of education should be no more contentious than the purpose of medicine. The purpose of the former is to make people smarter, the purpose of the latter is to make them well.

So, would I be correct then to call medical doctors ‘doctors of the body’ and teachers ‘doctors of the mind’? I’m sure that Andrew would want to draw some kind of distinction here between the ‘mind’ and the ‘intellect’. I suspect that the use of the word ‘doctors’ would also ring alarm bells.

Doctors, hospitals and the general medical structures around the world are only analogous to the LEARNING SUPPORT sections of education. You just can’t avoid the ‘deficit model’ when talking about hospitals as being about ‘wellness’. We don’t send children to hospitals for years on end to get them up to a sufficient level of ‘wellness’ – we assume they are born ‘well’ and only need health care if that goes wrong.

Physical wellness is the default state maintained naturally by human organisms drawing on the resources they require growing up within their indigenous environment. Could we not indeed say the same about human intelligence? Why do we need schools for this?

Of course there are educators who do tend to see children in this light, and say that they are born perfectly clever enough and don’t need anything from an education system other than to get out of their way as they learn the way they will naturally do, and perhaps ‘fix deficits’ if they go wrong. I didn’t believe though that Andrew was a fan of Rousseau.

Ultimately, schools in ‘cleverness’ are more akin to fitness gyms and health clubs – providing a luxurious excess in what ‘healthiness’ can mean. Humans will happily adapt to the world they find themselves in and develop their intellect to survive. Perhaps schooling children in ‘cleverness’ is just a fetish of the evolving human intellect. Or is there a purpose to it…?

If we are indeed going to give over whole school days to making children ‘cleverer’ for the sake of making them cleverer, couldn’t it indeed be argued that ‘healthiness’ is as valuable in its own right as ‘cleverness’? Indeed, how about the following as a new model for childhood: Mornings they go to government sponsored ‘schools’ to be made ‘cleverer’. In the afternoon they go to government sponsored ‘fitness centres’ to be made ‘fitter & healthier’. If they show serious deficits in cleverness they go to learning support, if they show serious deficits in health and fitness they go to doctors and hospitals.

What makes ‘cleverness’ so valued over ‘fitness’…?

And this gets me on to my next point:

2)  Cleverness as its own end is just a value preference, like any other, ready to be imposed on others (– or correct me on this and point out its utility)

Now, I personally haven’t got a problem with the fact that we can’t escape from imposing our value judgements on other people; it is simply inevitable and just one part of the paradox of human existence. I do personally believe it’s good to try to minimise these things as best we can – but we can’t escape the fact, and so we should embrace the inevitable, if disconcerting, fuzziness in moral certainty, and the cognitive dissonance regarding our contrary actions. We need to just make the best job we can of the flawed realities of human existence. It irritates me when I see a position which thinks we can short-circuit this, and I’m sorry Andrew, but the ‘To make people cleverer’ position is one of them.

You see, we have sunk into arguments here between instrumentalism vs idealism, and paternalism vs libertarianism.

Very simply, instrumentalist approaches regard education as being valuable because it is USEFUL – either for productivity, citizenship or personal happiness, whereas an idealist approach might say that education is a metaphysically valuable end in itself. The ‘simply to make people cleverer’ position is either an idealist approach because it is saying that it is an intrinsic good to be ‘clever’, or else it is an ‘unquestioning cog in the instrumentalist machine’ approach, whereby it is not our position to question why we might want children to be clever. That’s just the job we have. And by ‘our position’ – I’m not just meaning humble teachers, teaching what the priority setters tell us to teach. Andrew would have it that the government keep their blinkers on as well – that none of us should question why we make people cleverer. It is just a gift without presumption.

I’m really not sure which one of these positions is most comfortable with Andrew’s socialism, though surely his Labour membership must make him more sympathetic to paternalism over libertarianism? Social responsibility vs allowing an ideology of freedom to really run its course?

Paternalism says that you’re better off if we guide and constrain your choices, and libertarianism says you’re better off if we don’t. (See American gun-control debates as a great example of this distinction).

The goal of simply making people cleverer without any presumption for what might be the point of it SURELY must be a libertarian approach, but without caveats, libertarianism is just as philosophically compromised as paternalism. Why?

Paternalist approaches are ultimately flawed by subjective judgements – our recommendations to people always arise from OUR personal values rather than timeless realities. For example, most reasonable people eventually start to question the legitimacy of their own pronouncements to their older teenagers and would find themselves saying (in the spirit of libertarianism)…

“Who am I to tell you…

  • … not to see that girl (it’s your life)?
  • … not to get a tattoo (it’s your life)?
  • … that you would be better off saving your money? (it’s your life) ?
  • … that you’d be better off staying at school (it’s your life) ?
  • … that you’d be better off not travelling to Syria at present to join a charity mission (it’s your life)?
  • … that you’d be better off not travelling to Syria at present to join a crusading group of rebel fighters (it’s your life)?
  • … that you’d be better off not drowning your sorrows in drink and drugs (it’s your life)?
  • … that you’d be better off not ending it all now… (it’s your life)?”

Most of us (I imagine) reach some limit, somewhere along that list, where we say ‘sorry I can’t just stand back and be neutral here – I’m a human being’.

The strange irony inherent in the Libertarian position – that “we think it’s better for you if we don’t tell you what’s better for you” – is commonly moderated by two constraints: Firstly – we’re happy for you to be as free as you like just so long as you don’t impinge on other people’s freedoms. Secondly – although in practice libertarianism may seem like a flawed position, if you try, even slightly, to take a stance regarding what is right for others, then you open the door to the chaos of competing subjective judgements… So you’re better off trying to remain as separate as possible.

In education then, can we ever really say that we personally have no agenda regarding what is in the best interests of the children we teach? The very act of choosing what to teach makes this inevitable, and as I’ve said earlier, libertarianism ultimately inflicts the outcomes of our choices on children as much as paternalism, simply by virtue of us declining to play a role.

3)  The ‘Intellectual domain’ is a leaky sieve concept – ‘cleverness’, as a clearly agreed-on shared idea, is an illusion

Now I accept that saying education is to make people smarter does not end all discussion. We still have to debate what a healthy intellect looks like. There is still room for debate over the role of knowledge, of the best types of thought, or the usefulness of exams. But these discussions elaborate the purpose of education, they don’t define it.

The whole ‘to make children cleverer’ position assumes we have a clearly defined outline of what this means. We don’t. Andrew tries to draw the distinction between the limited cleverness that IQ tests measure, and the common sense idea of cleverness which people understand. But common sense ideas just don’t know where to stop. If cleverness can’t be demonstrated beyond the mind of the beholder, does it have value? Does ‘clever behaviour’ of any kind not imply an intellectual aspect at some point?

  • If a child learns how to avoid upsetting another child, are they not now cleverer?
  • If a child learns how to pursue goals which make use of and benefit the whole team, are they not now cleverer?
  • If a child learns how to deal with success and failure and treat those two imposters just the same, are they not now cleverer?
  • If a child learns how to ride a bike, or swerve a kick, or to act a role, or to enjoy the present moment, are they not now cleverer?
  • If a child learns how to trick others, to fake an illness, to deal with boredom, to know when to speak-up and when not to, to recite details about the 6 wives of Henry XIII… are they not now cleverer?

Do not all aspects of these things involve knowledge of an intellectual kind? Where does learning to do something which bypasses the intellect , and therefore doesn’t make people cleverer, start?

Howard Gardner’s attempts to distinguish multiple forms of intelligence have been sniffily dismissed by traditionalists as having no real basis in neurology, but what basis DO we have for distinguishing the intellectual realm as discrete from any other realm?

Ultimately, if we eschew all instrumentalist notions of the aim of education, do we not therefore open the door to ANYTHING being an equally valid ingredient to a curriculum? – Everything making a person cleverer in some way and being worthwhile ‘as an end in itself’?

4) The Solution: Differentiation of Aims

I think we should just embrace an openly paternalistic and instrumentalist model of educational ends and work out the details of what those ends should best be for our nations, our communities and our classrooms. Here’s the thing, we don’t struggle too much to say that parents should make certain decisions for children. We have an acceptance that the extra knowledge and experience that they have gives them a relative wisdom regarding what might be best for the child. We know it’s not perfect, but it seems to work better than letting all children make all decisions for themselves.

A common phrase used in trying to orientate ourselves towards a libertarian ideal of education is the value of passing-on to new generations “the best that has been thought and done”. The inherent notion here is that society as a whole has a level of wisdom which individuals don’t, and that it would be a mistake to expect individuals to have to re-discover this all for themselves, or at the very least that we would in some way miss out if these things were lost. The value being in this being what exactly? What’s not instrumental or paternalistic in this?

I think we can’t escape from making decisions as society and as teachers regarding what the aims of education would best be for DIFFERENT people (even if subtly). Let’s play the game here of appealing to that reasonable ‘man on the Clapham Omnibus’:

Should, in all honesty, our schooling aims for all of the following boys simply be the same?

  • The son of the billionaire who knows he’ll never have to work
  • The son of a successful criminal who knows he never wants to work
  • The son of the intensely driven professionals, who believes that life will end if he doesn’t get to Oxbridge
  • The son of the labourer without any ambition to ever move away.
  • The son of the traveller without any expectation of ever staying
  • The physically disabled boy with an astonishing intellect
  • The physically athletic boy with limited reasoning skills

Not only might we teach these boys in a different way, might we not also view what might be the best education for them to be different? Try to avoid instinctively taking a side regarding whether you should go with and make the best of their situation, or whether you should perhaps help them to transcend their situation and have a different life. Are you flawed because you have a preferred perspective on what they might need, or are you just fulfilling your destiny as a human animal in human society?

My own solution to all this is the following:

  • Accept that we can’t avoid inflicting our values and judgements on new generations regarding what we think they should value.
  • Accept that, actually, being part of the same species and having to go through the same developmental stages on the same planet, what we have discovered to be useful for ourselves is also likely to have SOME usefulness to others in how they make the best of their own lives, and that, therefore, our best attempts at instrumental goals will benefit the success of the species as a whole.
  • Accept that we can’t – in any way which isn’t purely arbitrary – draw a clear distinction between ‘schooling to make children cleverer’ and wider education.
  • Engage with others in trying to define what might be the broadest instrumental ends of education which we ourselves have benefitted from (or would have liked to have benefited from) in our own lives, and which are relevant to our schools and communities.
  • Try to boil these ends down to the simplest, most encompassing definition of educational aims.

So here’s one I made earlier:

The aim of education is to prepare children for…

  • The World of Necessity (what they will likely have to deal with at some point)
  • The World of Opportunity (what they might wish to engage with if they get a chance)
  • The World of Experience (finding value in what comes their way… pleasure, meaning, whatever – for this is the magic dust which makes the whole damn ‘life’ thing worthwhile in the first place.)

Couldn’t every community adopt this and flesh it out as works best for them?

…And if we DO wish to maintain an idealist notion that an educated mind is an end in itself, is this not just another aspect of The World of Experience…?


7 thoughts on “Why ‘To make people Cleverer’ just CAN’T suffice as the answer to “the most annoying question in education”

  1. Yes – but you’re far too tolerant of pluralism ever to succeed here. I suppose there is a reason for this – the nature of education is such that if we don’t draw boundaries around it – however arbitrary – then the thing dissolves into an amorphous mess of ‘whatever you want’. Personally, I am quite happy with your multiple definitions – but we all know that that makes it far too easy for teachers to justify doing whatever they want – and that in turn makes it difficult to hold them to account. It also makes it far too difficult to tell who is Succeeding – and who we are therefore going to allow to be One Of Us and who not. And as we well know, the British educational (let alone political) system cannot cope with such subtleties and uncertainties.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you TP – as ever I appreciate the subtle and perceptive quality of your thoughts. I don’t know who else would have written such a comment.

      You are right that there is an ultimate truth here: As much as I might point to flaws in a particular anchor point of ‘certainty’, without having such anchor points, chaos is sure to ensue, and however flawed any anchor point might be, it is arguably better than having none.
      Apparently the American political addiction to the religious right is a deliberate strategy by the ‘intelligentsia’ to adapt to this reality, and I’m sure that there are many people from many countries around the world who have mourned the passing of their dictatorships for this reason.

      I do also acknowledge that this post seems to be nothing more than a ‘demolition job’, and I know instinctively that I wouldn’t do such a thing without also knowing that I sense the possibility within myself of presenting a more constructive way forward (he hopes!). Perhaps all of us ultimately need to throw our weight behind either one crude generalisation or another, but I’m determined that my next post on this matter (and there will be one more) will attempt to present a model which just possibility can ‘square the circle’ (a favourite phrase of mine) for the ORDINARY member of the public on this.

      Perhaps I won’t be able to quite achieve this and I am ‘intelligent’… ‘perceptive’… ‘realistic’ enough to know that your warnings might be absolutely spot-on, and this just isn’t possible! If that is the case then I apologise to Andrew, but I’d still wish to fervently find a richer, broader, more universally digestible way of presenting the ‘cleverer’ argument if that really is the only recourse. It’s just too blunt and reactionary to not result in back-swings the other way eventually – even if it somehow came to hold the middle ground. And I would still see it as a pragmatic compromise ultimately… so instrumentalism would still be winning out (in the background!)

      Maybe I need to casually meet-up with Andrew and probe his deeper agenda to really know where to go with this…


  2. Thanks! Not been invited to one for a while – and not sure I will be following the comment I just left on Andrew’s most recent blog! All in the pursuit of perfection… 🙂


  3. Okay, that’s quite a long blogpost, and I think there are points that would benefit from being discussed in isolation.

    Firstly, I don’t think it is a disadvantage to move away from discussing instrumentalism. It’s a bit of a dead end really. We can put our intellect to particular purposes, just as we can put our health or strength to particular purposes, but that doesn’t mean that we value them only for those purposes. To move away from that discussion is not a shortcut, it is an advantage.

    Secondly, the gym could be a good metaphor for training the mind, but that doesn’t mean the medical analogy is useless. Ignorance can be more like being unwell than being unfit. You might say that this is limited to the case of “learning support” but that’s not an easy line to draw. And even in medicine, good health is not always measured in absolute terms but according to society’s expectations.

    The rest seems to come down to discussion of what cleverness is (or more relevantly what “cleverer” is). I am using it to mean intellectual capability, so if somebody wants to use it another way that is a matter of semantics. This still allows for debate, but the point I am getting at is that the debate over what is or is not clever(er), is not something where we can simply invent answers the same way curriculum planners invent expansive lists of aims for schools. It is something tied to attitudes in our culture. I am not claiming we have “a clearly defined outline of what this means”, or that nothing can be debated, just that there are some answers that are already ruled out and we really don’t need an elaborate schema to answer the question.


    • Thank you very much Andrew – I appreciate your time and the thoughtfulness of your response. I’m going to continue wrestling sincerely with the ideas you present, and I think it would be disingenuous to go into a ‘yes, but’. – There is nothing that I can truly debate in what you’ve just said without it being a quibble, and I’ve moaned enough on your own blogs in the past few days.

      As I said to IJ above, I think I’m working towards a more complete model of my thoughts regarding how this fits together, but who knows, I may find myself exactly where you are. If I do come up with an alternative, then I don’t think there would be any people better to critique it than the two of you.


  4. Pingback: SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 2 – The struggle with EDUCATIONAL PURPOSE | Stepping Back a Little

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