Education and Culture · Education and Politics

The sacred and the profane

Finally, I have done it. Done what, you may ask (presuming there is a “you” out there). A blog with no content is not much of an achievement. True but I have definitely done something, I suppose I have “seen the light”, got the point. Blogs have been creeping up on me. They seem to have influence; people read them, so here it is, education: the sacred and the profane.

So first things first, what inspired the blog? Well other bloggers primarily, I started to read, David Didau,  Andrew Old, Alex Quigley, Joe Kirby and frankly I don’t agree with quite a lot of what they say.  However I love what they are doing, writing seriously about teaching, using evidence and giving practical examples. This is the starting point for the profession of teaching. I maybe courting controversy but I think that if teaching is to be considered a profession then teachers need to up their game considerably. All of us; me included. That is not to vindicate policymakers, who often, contribute little more to the profession than chaos, confusion, and personal opinion.

So, why call it the sacred and the profane? I pinched it from Durkheim and mangled it beyond comprehension, but where is the relevance? I suppose there are two points; firstly, teaching is a social activity and as such, it can often defy the mundane. There is the element of the sacred about it (maybe not on a winter Monday with the group from hell but it has its moments). It is a post empirical activity.

More importantly, I started to notice some time ago that the discourse of education had developed into two distinct strands. The first, largely used by policy makers imbues education with the air of the mystical. Talking heads engage in debate about a subject (any subject) that would progress towards its inexorable conclusion; what we need is more education they would say, on the issue, the subject at hand whatever that maybe.

Education seemed to be no longer “a thing in itself”, but the answer to the question, the good news. Of course policy wonks and talking heads “holding forth”, is not really an issue. What really bothered me was when educationalists started to do it and even teachers themselves. Managers in schools and colleges started to act as though they believed education had some mystical powers. Some teachers seemed to be of the opinion there were no problems only solutions, or rather “education”.

Of course, this has always been the case to some extent. Prior to its deification education was seen as a vocation. Teachers should endure anything and everything for low pay and low status for the love of it. The sacred therefore exists at all levels of education. This is juxtaposed with the profane, the practice of teaching, learning and assessment (as it is currently known).

The profane is the ordinariness, of classroom practice. If the sacred provides all the solutions, the profane encounters all the problems. It seemed that the practice of teaching was increasingly being seen as the primary problem of education. In effect, education had all the answers as long as education was not teaching and learning.

This was embedded into the collective consciousness of the education system by the then OFSTED chief David Bell. Bell seemed to think that education was a process that could exist external to the practice of teaching and learning. For policymakers, worshipping at the alter of “education, education and education”, if the problems of practice could be contained within the classroom then policy discourse could avoid being besmirched by the profane.  Of course, then Gove and Wilshaw came along with their own brand of the sacred and the profane. They engage in the “civil rights movement of our time” whilst teachers remain the “enemies of promise”.

So, here we are a collective consciousness without a soul. If others are engaged in a battle for professional autonomy then so should I. Teaching will always be independent of the individual, based on communal activity and ritual. Evoking emotional responses of belonging and awe in the believer but it is a profession and not a vehicle for policy to promise much and deliver little. The sacred resides within educational practice and not the rhetoric of a policy priesthood.

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