The question of education is one of those topics that keeps cropping up in political debate. The other day, walking down the King's Road, I turned into a side street where I had worked many years ago and there I saw a quotation which stopped me in my tracks. The quote is from Plutarch, and read "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled."
In the first half of the twentieth century, a mother approached the philosopher Gabriel Marcel for guidance regarding a school in Switzerland. His response was a glowing endorsement of a school that worked to create a whole man (or woman!), taking into account the "needs of the body and intellectual development", and the acquisition of knowledge through direct experience rather than purely in the classroom.
He explained the difference between the approaches of which he approved and those of which he felt failed the child. On the one hand we have the benefits of "concrete and precise experience" which will teach the child to "see, to observe, to reflect on his own observations". Then there is the other approach, which will result in "the child who has always received all his intellectual information from ready-made sources".
Nowhere in this discussion do we find mention of exam results. Indeed, he is highly critical of an approach that would lead children and youngsters to pass exams purely by regurgitating phrases which meet with the approval of those who fed them those phrases in the first place. Learning to observe, to reflect on one's observations, above all to think (not memorize, but think) - those are the abilities which should be valued.
Of course there are those who would argue against such an approach. There is a danger that the student will not be able to rattle off a series of dates, learn his Latin declensions, or have dutifully studied the novels and plays which make up the set texts for that year, along with the approved interpretation. But will they remember those dates in ten years' time? And how many will be put off Dickens or Shakespeare for life because they were forced, not encouraged, to read them at school - and hated them.
I might as well admit that my first experience of Dickens was a failure. Then, at the library (as valuable a hunting ground for inquisitive minds as nature), I decided to give him one last chance, and chose A Tale of Two Cities. It may be his least typical novel, but I loved it, and finally went back to read all the other great Dickens novels.
Shakespeare, thank goodness, was a success from the start - starting with the play I still call "that Scottish thing". Witches, ghosts, Scottish castles, gruesome murder - how could a child resist? Some of my friends did resist, but most found other works to admire and enjoy.
The point in both cases is that I arrived at each of these through my own choice and was blessed with parents and with teachers who encouraged me to read and to learn wherever my interests took me. Some of my classmates never really warmed to the greats of literature, but they had their own enthusiasms - one became an oceanographer, another was brilliant at botany, and they found fulfillment and did useful work thanks to their enthusiasms. Sadly, not all children are as fortunate in being encouraged by adults to explore the world around them.
One constantly hears of highly successful people who were unsuccessful at school, even of those who left school as soon as possible. Were they failures then? Or was "the system" a failure? Perhaps a more imaginative and flexible approach to education which takes account of each child's abilities, interests and problems could do more to kindle the fire of independent, imaginative thinking. That, I think, would have been Gabriel Marcel's answer.
Good teachers will do their best, often in difficult circumstances, and with pupils who have difficult lives outside of school. Even within a "system", they will do much to help children develop their own enthusiasms. The best teachers are the most admirable of people, who will give the next generation the tools, both mental and physical, to build a better future for themselves and for their world.
Of course, there are dangers to the establishment with independent thought. After all, wasn't it a young boy, looking with his own eyes rather than seeing what he was told to see, who pointed out that the Emperor's new clothes were not what they purported to be?