Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Education in the UK and the US

September 9, 2009 · 5 Comments

Last night I went to hear the conductor, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, speak on his life as a composer, conductor, and teacher. I really enjoyed what I heard of his speech, he was a very passionate and witty man, however as an education minor I greatly disagreed with some of what he said. When he got to talking about education he said that educators should not underestimate students and that “people like to be challenged” and that students should not be talked down to because “they are not stupid”. This I agree with students deserve to be challenged because if a teacher set the bar high then they will learn more than if you expect little of them. However, he then goes on to say that he believes that government officials make decisions regarding education so student “remain ignorant in a state of mind where they cannot criticize the government, where they have not got any qualifications”. I feel that at least in America things are FAR more complex than this. There are so many more factors in the quality of education in public schools (Note: I am using public school in the American way). The reason public schools, especially urban public schools, do not do as well as suburban and private schools is because the high quality teachers want to go where they will get paid the most and have the fewest problems. Urban public schools do not pay as much as private schools and often have more disciplinary problems. This and White Flight combine to drag down the public school systems in both the United States and England, it is not simply the government holding down the proletariat.

He later says that he does not understand why schools have stopped teaching Latin and Shakespeare, because he feels that students are fully capable of learning them (however I cannot find the direct quotation in the link). I do not believe that Latin is being taken off school curriculum is because they don’t feel that students are able to learn it, but rather because it has become obsolete. One of the readings that I had in my Kaleidoscope education book (I really wish I had it with me) specifically talked about this issue. The article in the book was an abstract story that told about a caveman-like society, within the story the elders wanted the youngsters to learn about the certain extinct animals and how to kill them rather than teach them how to kill the animals that they would encounter in everyday life. This article, though abstract, is specifically talking about subjects like Latin in the modern education system. How often is an American or British student going to encounter Latin? Now how often are they going to encounter Spanish or French in their lifetimes? Obviously Spanish and French are much more useful than Latin or Ancient Greek, so the school district decides to cut Latin and add a French department. The school district does not do this simply because they do not think the students are capable of learning Latin, as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies suggests, but rather because it is becoming extinct and there are more useful things to be taught.

Overall, I enjoyed Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ speech however I found that he oversimplified many major educational issues that are very important to me. So, I felt it necessary to set the record straight and blog about eduction here and in the US, as we do face many of the very same problems.

If you would like to listen to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ speak on education and his life here is a link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b00mj5xs

Categories: Rebecca
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5 responses so far ↓

  •   Karl // Sep 11th 2009 at 17:03

    Two points I would like to raise. I think the post continues the selective understanding of poor education as an urban phenomenon. Go to rural America and you will find schools equally as bad as many urban schools. Second, I don’t understand how Latin is irrelevant. What are French and Spanish (and English for that matter) except descendants of Latin. Latin opens up vistas for expanding one’s languages, English vocabulary, and the structure of languages. Moreover, if one goes into law, medicine, and the sciences in particular, Latin is indispensable.

  •   becca136 // Sep 11th 2009 at 19:31

    I was mostly focusing on London when I was speaking about urban education, as this course is specific to London. I also come from an urban area and have extensively studied urban education. I am aware that rural areas have similar issues, however that was not the subject of this post. I guess I could have titled this Urban Education in the UK and the US, but I didn’t want to make it that long.
    I was not trying to say that Latin is “irrelevant” I was trying to say that it is extinct. I feel that it is imperative for students to learn a language that is actively used in the world, other than their native language. As the world modernizes it is becoming more and more necessary for individuals to know a foreign language in order to be successful. When a school board is designing a curriculum they have to keep this in mind.

  •   buonacos // Sep 12th 2009 at 08:55

    Although I did not attend the speech, I think that Sir Davies was referring to curriculum (rather than performance levels) when he stated that the government makes it so students “remain ignorant, in a state of mind where they cannot criticize the government.” I’m unfamiliar with the British model of education, but in the United States the state dictates what a student must learn in order to graduate high school. In my home state of NJ for example, we needed to complete 4 English classes, 4 PE classes, 4 Health Education classes, 3 Social Studies (usually 2 American History and 1 World History), 3 Mathematics (usually 2 levels of Algebra and Geometry), 2 Foreign Language classes, and a smattering of electives. Students were not required to take any Government or Civics classes that teach us to understand and participate in the government or politics. The only way students would get this kind of education is if they were to choose to take “Law & Society” as an elective, but who would take that when they can get the same credit for “Cooking” or “Ceramics.” Therefore, the majority of students graduate “in a state of mind where they cannot criticize the government” simply because they do not have the education that would allow them to do so. Whether or not you think this is a deliberate attempt by the State or just a crack in the system depends upon your own levels of optimism and cynicism, but from my experience, I would have to agree with Sir Davies’ statement.

  •   becca136 // Sep 12th 2009 at 10:15

    It was actually pretty unclear whether he was referring to it in the curriculum context or not. I assumed he wasn’t because right before that statement he was talking about the sad state of the present day education system. He also said that he has an issue with the lack of “intellectual curiosity” in both students and in adults today (the Latin and Shakespeare comment didn’t come until much latter). I can see where you are coming from when you say that he might have been talking about curriculum… I am just not sure, I guess only he knows what he meant by it. Interesting thought though Sarah, I hadn’t considered that.

  •   Karl // Sep 22nd 2009 at 05:58

    I think he was quite right. I am amazed with the lack of intensity and the near absence of homework Hayden has had in his school. It seems a lot of spoonfeeding rather than exploring. Is it another problem of teaching to the test? Testing is as bad if not worse here than the “leave all children behind” culture that has developed in the US.

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