What septic tanks and education have in common

I’ve spent three-quarters of my life being educated and the last two years educating others.

Since I began school at the age of four, I’ve associated education with evaluation.

First it was stickers and stars and rubber stamps. These evolved into report cards with little boxes beside the words: poor, fair, good, very good and excellent. Next came the letters of the alphabet: A, B and C. Then fractions and percentages arrived and after that, points. At university, marks were converted into classes and you could be first, second or third.

Compulsory education – like the septic tank- originated in the nineteenth century. While both aged tolerably well, of late they have begun to fail us.

image source: insectapedia.com


After all, as Ken Robinson, an educational theorist points out, the current system of education was conceived in the intellectual era of the enlightenment and the economic context of the industrial revolution.

Like the septic tank, it has failed to keep up with the times, often producing impenetrable sludge before practical distillation.

(If you need proof, try understanding what on earth academics writing in humanities journals are trying to say).

It’s not that our education is of poor quality. It’s not that we have bad teachers, or unmotivated students. They never help but they’re neither unique to this period nor the cause of the problem.

The real issue is that we haven’t decided whether education is a journey focussed on itself or on its destination.

Let me explain.

Up to recently, education was a means to an end. You walked out of school and into the workplace. If you went to university and got a first class degree, you got a first class job.

Now things have changed. We have too many people educated in areas with too few jobs.

The difficulty is that we still believe that the higher your educational level, the loftier your career expectations should be.

Of course it’s a prospect that many are failing to realise.

Now, if you get a first class degree, you take your place among all the others and compete for any old job.

It’s a case of social progress outrunning institutional reform.

You could see the situation as a social leveler. Now unemployment is for everybody, not just the least privileged.

Some students spend twenty years collecting stamps and stars and letters and numbers.

And then they find that the numbers don’t add up to a job.

Their experience calls into question the very purpose of evaluation.

The transition from pupil to teacher has taught me that evaluating students is rather arbitrary. It doesn’t measure very much at all.

But we’re hooked on comparison. We get frustrated if our own evaluation can’t be backed up by a standard measurement. If we think we’re better than the person next to us, we want it neatly before us in percentage form.

I guarantee that in a secret ballot, students wouldn’t vote out tests and exams.

Science backs it up. Research has shown that the pleasure circuits are activated in advance of finding out a result.

We thrive in conditions of uncertainty.

Waiting for a test result is like waiting to see if you have won in Poker. Ultimately neither tells you how well you have played or how much you have learnt, but rather how well you have performed relative to others.

It’s time we took a step back though.

The right to education is one of the great privileges of our age. While its original and most important purpose-to lay the foundations for economic subsistence- has been eroded by the unprecedented pace of progressive reform relative to growth in employment opportunities-we must take time to remember what has been so long neglected: the timeless, immeasurable pleasure of learning for its own sake.

Could it be that indulging ourselves in constant measurement against others is doing us more harm than good?

Andrew Bird, an American folk singer condenses the possibility beautifully in the song “Measuring Cups” which opens:

Get out your measuring cups and we’ll play a new game. Come to the front of the class and we’ll measure your brain. We’ll give you a complex and we’ll give it a name.

This generation, more intensely than any other before it, has experienced education as a closed system of incessant measurement.

For many that measurement has not amounted to more than restlessness and disillusion.

Learning for its own sake has been forgotten amidst the obsession with making ‘it’ which means ‘making money’.

If teaching has taught me one thing, it’s that the responsibility to evaluate is nothing compared with the possibility to inspire. My job is to encourage before it is to instruct.

Pupils are not watering cans: we can’t fill them up without their consent. They must want to learn, not in order to get a good job or to become rich or to sound clever, but because, as Merlin in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King reminds us, “it is the only thing that never fails”.

I have the following words pinned to my bedroom wall:

“You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then, to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the Mind can never exhaust never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you”.

Equipped with this original joy of learning, and a quieter, more humble confidence, our young people may be more inspired to carve an independent niche on the side-lines rather than enter the desperate rat-race of out-performance.

Let’s make our recovery less sludgy than a septic tank. In remembering why education matters for its own sake, we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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