The length of this book belies Gilbert's paucity of ideas: (1) the core of education should be a skills-based utilitarianism (chapters 1-5); (2) intelligence is not fixed, and all learning and behaviour is reducible to `electro-chemical combustions in the brain' (chapters 6-16); (3) the traditional school system stifles thought (chapters 17-22); and (4) the teacher must merely `preside over the democratisation of learning' (chapters 23-31). Examining these ideas, we find that they are like all modern educational theory: what's new isn't true, and what's true isn't new.
According to Gilbert, the purpose of education is no longer the transmission of truth, because knowledge `exploded' at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The purpose of education is now, he says, the development of children's `skills, attributes, attitudes and commitments': on this view, teachers have to `train' children to `save the world'. Both points are erroneous. Indeed, the first is self-refuting, for postmodernism affirms the truth of the proposition `there is no truth'; it is impossible in principle, like a square circle. Nor is it even true that knowledge is constantly being rewritten: `even physics, at least at the undergraduate level, is a subject on which the dust has settled', says the distinguished physicist the Revd Dr John Polkinghorne KBE FRS. The postmodernist Bright Young Things and trendies are unable to respond to these fatal objections. As for Gilbert's second point, the recent emphasis on `skills' has not only led, ironically, to a severe national skills shortage, but bred nihilistic barbarians lacking the desire to save even themselves, let alone the world. Conspicuously absent from Gilbert's list of twenty-first century problems (globing warming, etc.) is the leading cause of death between the ages of 15 and 44: suicide.
Gilbert's position on the `malleability' of intelligence also disregards reality. Research by Charles Murray, the leading American social analyst, showed that while intensive pre-school education for disadvantaged children can raise IQ scores in the short term, improvements fall off within three years, because family background (genetics and environment) fixes intelligence to a significant degree. That our natural aptitudes differ is plainly obvious to everyone when we consider athletic ability (despite training, some people will never run as fast as others); however, it is a taboo regarding intellectual ability, because it shows the impossibility of equality of opportunity. T. S. Eliot said the totalitarian dogma of equality of opportunity would require the removal of children from their families at birth, but even that would be insufficient, for opportunities won't be equal at a given moment unless outcomes are.
Another incoherence is Gilbert's assertion (it is not an argument) that all learning and behaviour is reducible to `electro-chemical combustions in the brain', which denies the freedom of the intellect and, therefore, free will. Gilbert says that all our thoughts are just the thoughts we must have given the way the molecular motions in our brains and the rest of the world have happened to play out. This position is called eliminative materialism. It is a vicious circle because, as M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker argue in The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, `the eliminative materialist inevitably saws off the branch on which he is seated'. This is because the theory that says thought is nothing but `electro-chemical combustion' is itself nothing but `electro-chemical combustion'. It renders all our thinking unreliable, which is why all eliminative materialists inevitably have to deny human rationality, including their own; traditional Western philosophy, however, has always maintained that the intellect is immaterial. Many modern people, who have confused materialism with science, baulk at immateriality, but not even the properties of matter are matter.
Like his attempts at philosophy, Gilbert's criticism of the traditional school system and didactic teaching is weak. He says traditional academic teaching is bad because it stifles thought by inculcating on children the accumulated wisdom of Western civilisation and a respect for authority. Consider, however, the following two mathematics examination questions:
Question 4 from the June 2008 Edexcel GCSE Mathematics A (Linear), Foundation tier Paper 2 -calculator permitted: Work out £1.70x5.
Question 10(ii)4 from the 1963 University of London O level Pure Maths Paper 2, Syllabus B - calculator not permitted: A particle moves from rest in a straight line and after t seconds its velocity is (3t2 - 4t) feet per second. Calculate the distance which the particle travels in the interval of time from t = 2 to t = 5.
`Stifled' candidates from 1963 were able to understand that the concept of velocity can be represented by an algebraic expression and that integral calculus is the tool required to solve the problem, whereas training `the transition generation' to `think, not our thoughts, but their own' has clearly retarded their capacity to think at all. They are expected to solve the population explosion in China, but one doubts whether they could find China on the map.
Christopher Ray, the High Master of Manchester Grammar School, has called this dumbing down a `retreat from scholarship'. Its effects are widespread. In 1995, The London Mathematical Society published a report showing that the number of those passing mathematics has fallen and standards have also fallen. The Royal Society of Chemistry concluded its 2008 report by noting the `catastrophic slippage' in educational standards. In English, students now have open-text examinations. Only 61% of those entering teaching by the BEd route in 2009 had two A-levels, despite the debasement of A-levels. Educationalists, too, have been affected, including Gilbert himself, who wants to free children from `the tyranny of syntax' and uses the verb `quote' as a noun on pages 35, 55, 134 and 135 (Google, sadly, didn't teach him the distinction). As standards have fallen, lives have been desolated: in 1969, over 26% of the university population was of working-class origin, more than double that of our nearest rival, Sweden; in addition, 17 out of 21 heads of major civil service departments in the early 1970s were ex-grammar school pupils. Now, however, while pupils in Northern Ireland still benefit from a fully selective school system and outperform pupils from England, 1 in 7 pupils on the Labour government's Gifted and Talented programme in 2008 failed to achieve five A*-C grade GCSEs, and the top reasons for truancy are inappropriate curricula, bad teaching, and poor school ethos.
Finally, Gilbert's idea of the teacher as someone who `presides over the democratisation of learning' shows that he misunderstands the nature of education, which even the etymology of the word attests to. The Latin educare means `to rear or bring up (children or young animals)', and it in turn derives from educere, `to lead forth' or `to lead out of'. Implicit in this is the notion that education should lead children out of their stifling subjectivism, not bolster their self-esteem and subject them to the tyranny of `relevance'. (Indeed, we should remember that the development of the tool at the heart of Gilbert's thesis, the digital computer, was enabled by `irrelevant' Boolean logic.) It is inherently elitist because it focuses on the best that has been thought and said, inherently discriminatory because it distinguishes the best from the rest and maintains that what children are led to is superior to what they are led out of, and inherently undemocratic because the child, whose judgement is juvenile, cannot be an equal partner in it and, paradoxically, can only attain freedom by submitting to the teacher's authority.
Even more striking than the paucity of Gilbert's ideas, then, is the poverty of them. Rather than undermining the teacher's importance, the proliferation of information facilitated by Google thus only intensifies the need for him to convey intrinsically valuable knowledge with insight and discernment.