Monday, May 9, 2022

Guy Steward: Reflections on Education

I recently retired from school teaching.

It started thirty-five years ago, when, in my late twenties, I got a job in South Auckland taking after-hours music classes. You didn’t need to be trained, just able to play the guitar. I remember the first lesson – a row of kids in front of me wielding guitars of every shape and size, and a row of watching parents behind them. From there, over the years, the contexts and subjects have been many and varied and I eventually ended up in secondary teaching and then pre-tertiary foundation. For the last thirteen years I was blessed to teach in supportive academic environments.

The rewards have included bustling campuses, successful students, engagement with great colleagues and outstanding educationalists, long-standing friendships, and personal character growth. I’ve taught all kinds of students, from excellent to good to average to atrocious. Challenges are there as with anything. But I still recommend it as a career to anyone sensing the call. The rewards come with the challenges and vice versa.

The education environment has been changing though. One of its challenges is the fact that real critical thinking has been overshadowed by “critical theory”, a flow-on from the politicisation of university campuses. John M. Ellis, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of German Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, raised valid points several years back about how political correctness came to take precedence over academic excellence. He described the insidious incursion of exclusively leftist, socialist politics onto American campuses since at least the sixties, resulting in a fanatical fringe of “social justice warriors” – high in radical rhetoric but low in knowledge and understanding and skilled in the shout-down more than the balanced debate – at the extreme end of a large bunch of befuddled thinkers.[1] When this gets translated back into school settings, the more agenda-driven politics in the classroom the fewer essential skills and knowledge learned, as has been noted by others over the years.[2]

Recently a friend of mine in a certain industry was decrying the general lack of integrity there. Thievery, for example, he said, had become rife. It made me think how most of the offenders would have come through our state education system. On a basic level we all see the problems. The spike in school holiday shennanigans from out-of-control teens running amok in shopping centers and the like is one. At the other end is the phenomenon of the rise of a young, zealous communist leader becoming our PM – and that in the 21st century (also unable, I notice, to pronounce her “t’s” properly). Could it reflect at least partly on the education system?

Sound understanding and balanced teaching of political and social reality is sorely needed. Curricula has become constricted by relativist thinking and conformity to political correctness. And the decline, whether pilfering at one level or manipulation and control at the other – aside from the deterioration of family values – is partly a result of the system. And it won’t get any better if ideas like the new and already controversial revisionist history curriculum keep getting pushed.[3]

Education has become overly permeated with ideology. Another example is an email sent to me last year from a US-based “educational” group, partnering with others such as Equal Justice Initiative, Langston League, and ADL Education, inviting me to be part of a “panel discussion on race, equity, and justice” chaired by a “thought leader” who would help me create “Culturally Responsive Teaching” resources to empower my students “to be voices of change”! Not a word about excellence and quality learning. On the surface being a voice of change may sound good but the buzz words (which included “equitable, addressing identity, diversity, bias, discrimination, social justice”) raised red flags. Call me old school but results have always spoken better than expertise in left-wing code-words.

When I attended university, I wanted to know how leftists thought, so doing a few assignments on Marx’s writings gave me some insights which later proved useful when faced with a communism-promoting tutor at Teachers College. No surprise then that after their years at state schools some students go on to similar political activism, e.g., attacking the “middle class” who according to the Communist Manifesto must “be swept out of the way and made impossible”. In many cases, students have been taught ideas which historically have proven to be complete failures and we know that when people leave socialist environments, having had enough of it, they do what every sensible human naturally does – follow their innate instinct to work well, set up a business, look for a nice house, etc.

But put yourself in a teenager’s shoes today. How would you handle the standard line: ‘go to school, get an education, go out and get a job and make your mark in the world’ while things around you get darker and politics more toxic? If it had been in my teen years I would have pushed back, rebelled, the whole nine yards (which I did anyway for several years).

And spare a thought for our young people trudging off in the morning all masked up, hindered from breathing God’s air properly five days a week for no good scientific reason but with plenty of evidence of its harm.[4] All over what in the old days used to be called the ‘common cold’.[5] Then they’re forced to go through another day of “progressive” education. I understand them – faced with another term of it I would have been the same, questioning what it’s all about.

Alternative schooling is desperately needed.

If I could put the solution in a nutshell, my simple plug would be for students to get essential skills, sound reading ability, practical knowledge, truth and common-sense, and get out as soon as possible into hands-on training for whatever they’ve chosen. You can’t argue against well-trodden, proven formulae that produce results. And I’d say most teachers just want to get on with the job without political interference or propaganda and do as good a job as they can. Overseas, some have been reconsidering the long-neglected merits of the classical education approach – the Socratic and the trivium (grammar, formal logic, and rhetoric or expression) which could be adapted to today’s setting.[6] Either way, there needs to be a re-think, even a moratorium on certain topics until relevance is fully proven. And teaching environments must be where hard questions can be asked and answered with balanced discussion and consideration of all sides.

As I said, I managed to avoid much of the more extreme politics. But you couldn’t not be aware of it.

Nonetheless, seeing students picking up sound learning strategies, taking advantage of the best resources available, and growing in knowledge and character, gave me, as it should any teacher, a sense of fulfilment – and good memories.

Part way into my teaching career a friend – an ex-teacher – introduced me to one of Rudyard Kipling’s poems, a simple analytical tool, the consistent application of which I found indispensable. Inviting better results than any critical theory would, it simply went:
I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
Now, there’s something that works!

I take away valuable memories from a worthwhile career.

Guy Steward is a writer and musician (recently retired from teaching English, Art History, and Music).

[1] The Breakdown of Higher Education (2020). For a recent example see

[2] e.g., Chaos in the Classroom by J. M. Wallis (1984); Vying for our Children: the ideological struggle for hearts and minds (2003) by Paul Henderson.

[4] In fact, the science was crystal clear two years ago, so why it’s now the norm must be for other reasons. On Kim Hill  (28 Jan 2020) Dr Chris Smith, consultant virologist at Cambridge University, stated that most commonly used facemasks are cosmetic and “are absolute rubbish and they do absolutely nothing . . . the virus particles are absolutely miniscule compared to the enormous gaps in the fibres in the mask”. Referring to that interview, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield later stated his support of Smith’s words: “you can use a face mask if you like but it is not really any protection”. On 1 March, 2020, the US Surgeon General tweeted that masks were “not effective in preventing general public [sic] from catching [Coronavirus]” and on 4 March 2020 the UK Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty advised the public on Sky News that “wearing a mask if you don’t have infection rarely reduces the risk. . . almost none at all”. In a 60 Minutes interview (8 March 2020) Anthony Fauci stated that in the middle of an outbreak no one needed to wear a mask as “it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is”. More sensible experts such as retired neurosurgeon Russel Blaylock have always discouraged the use of masks. See also:

[5] The Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons Complete Home Medical Guide summed it up: “Colds are caused by the rhinovirus, corona, and scores of other viruses. . .. The same virus can reinfect the same person time and again. . . No vaccine against the common cold may ever exist, mainly because there are so many viruses—more than 100—that cause the condition” (1985, p.430); and from The American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine - “Coronaviruses - Common cold” (1989, p.1051)


Janine said...

Many Kiwis would agree with the sentiments in this article. Instead of learning Maori many of these students might be better doing woodworking, music or cooking. These are skills that could lead to a career opportunity later. Some people are also better with manual tasks and enjoy them more, thus becoming more engaged.

The only way for change to occur is for many like- minded people to vote into power other like- minded people. Once the elected people assume power in New Zealand we don't appear to have any recourse and in the last few years these politicians and city councillors are just doing whatever they want to do. They don't seem to think it's necessary to consult with their constituents.

DeeM said...

A stark summary of the sad state of our education system and how it is failing our young people. Teaching ideology instead of knowledge.

Humans may be the most advanced species on Earth but they can be gobsmackingly stupid sometimes. We're definitely living in one of those times.

Helen Walls said...

Yes! The NZ Ministry of Education have been promulgating ideologically-driven approaches to literacy instruction since the 1990s - and ignoring the empirical evidence about what actually works. The results speak for themselves: Data from the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (2019) indicate that just 35% of Year 8 students were meeting curriculum expectations for writing.

John said...

A timely indictment of a once-admired, world-beating education system. As a teacher myself, I find myself nodding in strong agreement with Guy's trenchant observations. Ideology now permeates almost every aspect of schooling from the classroom to the playing field. Gone are the old-school values. For years now, they have been usurped by left-wing agendas, 'causes', and social justice advocacy. Should we be surprised? After all, this transformation of the purpose of schooling has gone hand in hand with an evisceration of knowledge from the curriculum. Make such an assertion and you will often be met with a derisive "Yes, but whose knowledge?" As if no one can hold an objective view of reality anymore.

Robert Arthur said...

Guy advocates persons teaching, even today. But the challenges are formidable.If a history teacher, instead of working from some standard texts, you will be expected to fabricate your whole individual curriculum, required to incorporate a myriad elusive concepts and tales often with no written basis. More than I could ever hack.

JaneH said...

The main point to the change in education is to "dumb down", thus making generations of people dependent on the government and ignorant to whatever it dictates, without the ability or even willingness to decide for themselves whether or not the government's standpoint/mandate is in their best interests. The results of the Covid pandemic bear this out.

Don said...

After 50 years service teaching in secondary schools I put my faith in the students themselves. There is always a solid core of thinkers who reject indoctrination and independently avoid manipulation. Somehow they seek each other out and form peer groups who learn to "go through the motions" while working towards their own search for truth and reality. The calibre of so many of our students is such that they soon detect false directions and quietly subvert them. Trust the young, they are not easily fooled.