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Wasted: Why Education Isn't Educating

Furedi, Frank
Continuum, London
2009
9781847064165 (hb)

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Cover of book For parents and teachers agonising over why present day education in Britain is not meeting their expectations, Professor Frank Furedi offers explanations drawing from his long years of teaching and writing about the sociology of knowledge. To Furedi the picture appears chaotic as if those involved in policy and practice either lose the plot or end up at one of two extremes regarding how much authority parents and teachers should retain over youngsters' education. The seven chapters of the book offer many examples to illustrate how those entrusted with educating young people appear to be in a state of constant confusion and controversy. This has to do with losing the sense of balance and proportion when it comes to deciding how much authority is desirable in our schools at present. While some cast parents as the villain in the drama, others assign them the role of the saviours of education. The author notes that far too many teachers adopt the attitude that the parent is the enemy, alledging that those children who behave badly at school are mirroring the behaviour of their parents.

The author is mindful that too often parents adopt the role of their child's advocate and regard a teacher's criticism of their child as a slight on themselves. Instead of reinforcing and supporting the teacher's authority, parents inadvertently undermine it, hence contributing to an erosion of the authority of all adults. On the other hand, there are educators, who while dismissive of parental competence, understand that they cannot challenge parental authority too overtly without provoking a potentially damaging conflict [p.98]. The flip-side of the demotion of adult authority is the inflation of the authority of the child [p.83]. In contemporary times, child-centred rhetoric serves to legitimize, and, indirectly reinforce the loss of an open exercise of the teacher's authority in the classroom [p.85]. Hence some zealous teachers incite children to chastise their parents. 'The parents are infantalized 'naughty parents' and brought up short by their morally superior youngsters who 'teach' them a lesson' [p.109].

Right from the outset Furedi makes his views clear on the debate. He considers that education, 'in the first instance is about the exercise of adult responsibility' [p.2]. Yet he admits that adult responsibility can come across as a meaningless platitude if adults in general are reluctant or confused about giving guidance to the younger generation, he notes: 'Today, adults have become estranged from the task of taking responsibility from the younger generation' [p.3].

Furedi draws attention to a negative view of adult authority that indirectly leads to a disturbing loss of belief in the capacity of the children to engage with challenging experiences. He argues that the assumption that children need constant motivation has encouraged the institutionalisation of a pedagogy that tends to infantilise them. Such tendency could discourage in children the development of resilience and capacity to cope, warns the author, adding: 'children have become de-educated from being able to deal with difficult circumstances; to a considerable extent, children have been socialized to perceive pressure as a marker for a disease' [p.15]. The book warns that children 'fed on a diet of empty praise, who are rarely challenged and even more rarely forced to confront their failures are poorly prepared to tackle the tests of life' [p.15]. The book argues that a significant portion of the resources is wasted when society loses sight of the importance of young people's education as an intrinsically worthwhile activity: 'Wasted opportunities, wasted potential and wasted youth are symptomatic of adult society's inability to give meaning to its authority and education' [p.20]. This book is intended as a clarion call for a balanced approach to education by drawing attention to the costs and consequences of departing from the conventional norms of teaching and altering the dynamics of the mentor-pupil equation in today's classroom settings. Noting how ideas about adult responsibility tend to be expressed in a one-sided negative manner in relation to the question of education, the book warns that the current trend to distance education from past practices in exchange for relevant knowledge of the present irresponsibly deprives young people of the foundation they need.

Najam Abbas
Institute of Ismaili Studies, London