The False Wars

‘In war, truth is the first casualty.’ – Aeschylus

The phrase ‘premature ultimates’ coined by the British literary theorist I.A. Richards describes those conversation stoppers that, ‘bring investigation to a dead end too suddenly.’ In education, this often takes the form of polarities, where there is a seemingly automatic taking of sides on educational issues based on whether one considers themselves to be progressive or traditional. Each side takes an ideological stand and the investigation grinds to a halt. No one wants to concede anything, dialogue breaks down and any thoughtful discussion is lost.

This false progressive vs. traditional dichotomy often strangely associated with politics (progressive = liberal, traditional = conservative) has played out in several educational ‘wars’, most notably in reading and math. In the reading wars, phonics was viewed as a right-wing suppression that deprives reading of its naturalness and destroys a love of literature in children, while whole language was attacked as a left-wing abandonment of the responsibility of teachers and parents to teach kids to read properly. The math wars, which started in the late 1980s, are still being fought, with the latest contention being over the standardized testing of times tables in the UK. Some wonder if these wars exist at all. Maybe it’s all just a front to sell textbooks, employ professors of education and provide a speaking tour for educational experts. The old Hegelian dialectic of problem-reaction-solution. To assume otherwise would be naive.

The wars of education, dividing issues into two camps, leaves little room for progress. Educators and policymakers are so busy getting dug in, they don’t stop to listen to the other side. This results in an echo chamber of ideologies which are self-perpetuating. It’s the same old, same old. Assumptions are not challenged and common sense is often ignored. Perhaps the solution to much of what ails education can be found in this: pragmatic changes in the structure of the ruling ideas.

Those involved often fail to find common ground and much like real wars, the fighting just continues on. Both are related to power, control and exploitation. Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for only 268 of them, or just 8 percent. Of the past 150 years of modern education, educators have been at peace for very few of them.

It is time to end the education wars.

2 thoughts on “The False Wars

  1. These battles aren’t phony when real issues are being debated that affect children’s lives. How is it phony to press for systematic phonics, as the best method to enable the largest number of children to read fluently? What’s fake about pointing out that a child centred philosophy derived from Romanticism means that most educators are opposed to systematic phonics because it is too artificial, and they are committed to naturalistic methods whose logical conclusion is the abolition of all formal, teacher led instruction — in fact, the abolition of schools?

    There is nothing phony about fighting a battle against crippling ideas that have blighted the lives of millions, and continue to do so. Because of the dominance of progressive ideology, I learnt very little at school. Why shouldn’t I consider that a shocking waste, and want better for my pupils, and my own children? What’s phony about that?


  2. And a completely false dichotomy that is detached from teaching practice. No teacher is completely progressive or back to basics. The question is where along the continuum between these imaginary opposite poled does your practice fall and, more importantly, what is most effective for the students who happen to be sitting in front of you. Fighting wars is for “Armchair Educators” who don’t venture inside classrooms. We’re too busy teaching for that nonsense.


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