Be wary of those who seek to establish a word’s true meaning with reference to its etymology – what a word meant historically is no decisive guide as to what it means today. That said, thinking about where a word comes from can sometimes help reveal the social journey that it has taken, and so, if nothing else, shed light on controversies regarding its current usage.
With this in mind, it is, in my view, worth at least briefly considering the origin of the word ‘professional’. It comes from the Latin verb meaning ‘to declare openly’ and, from the 15th Century, it came to be associated in English with the solemn declaration that one had acquired some kind of specialist knowledge required to earn a living. A ‘profession’ was therefore a paid occupation that required specialist knowledge, rather than one that required ‘mere’ skill. Over time, the term has come to acquire additional, positive associations, flowing perhaps inevitably, from the general high status that workers of this kind have generally been afforded. Workers of various types, including teachers, are therefore often flattered into behaving in a certain way on the grounds that it is the ‘professional’ thing to do, and have themselves sought to defend their rights and privileges with reference to their dignity and status as ‘professionals’. Who wouldn’t, then, aspire to be a professional?
Well, actually, the term is not always positive – the expression ‘professional politician’ is, like its close cousin, ‘career politician’, something of an insult. I suspect that the reason for this is that, for all the knee-jerk contempt with which politicians are treated in our democratic culture, we consider their work to be something of a higher calling. We don’t want politicians to be mere experts – deserving of high salaries thanks principally to their possession of specialist knowledge. We expect something more of them, and the reason for this is an instinctive sense that the assessment of their activity, like the assessment of a person’s life in general, knows no real bounds.
The expert knowledge of a professional is easily circumscribed. We draw a line around it, and accept that what makes a good, say, doctor, is only their knowledge of what is within the circle: anything else is irrelevant to their being good at their job. But we judge our politicians totally, and this means, crucially, that how we judge them is itself a question of political discussion. There is no consensus about what knowledge politicians ought to have, because in a liberal society there is no clear consensus about what they are for. For some, for example, the point of politics is to change the world decisively for the better. For others, its point is to protect the rest of us from the very people who spout such nonsense. It is pretty obvious that these two groups would disagree radically about what true beliefs the ‘good’ politician must hold.
In liberal, modern societies, therefore, politics can thus be said to be an existential occupation, by which I mean that having and arguing for a point of view about what makes a good politician is a core part of a politician’s job. Our hostility to the professional politician, who strives only to ‘know’ about opinion polling, focus groups results and factional interests, and to exploit this knowledge to build themselves a career, is rooted in the sense that such a person disgraces the morally complex and human openness that liberal politics ought to express and advance.
For a while I laboured under the illusion that teaching could be a profession, rather than an occupation – that it was rather like medicine in its infancy. I took as my inspiration the fictional portrayal of a good doctor in the TV western serial ‘Deadwood’, set in the 1870s. This man was kindly, worked hard to help those he could in ways he knew how, but also desperately conscious of how little he understood, of how little he really knew about how the human body worked. He was as a result at times overcome by his powerlessness, as well as his fear that he sometimes may end up doing more harm than good. I felt that this – the mid-nineteenth century doctor – was the model for the early twenty-first century teacher. Doing good, just about, yes, but painfully aware of the limitations of their knowledge, and tragically doomed to be working prior to an exponential improvement in knowledge and understanding that will soon transform their job.
But over time, I have come to realise that teaching is far too much like politics to be like medicine, and that there is not, nor ever could be, some great awakening in professional expertise waiting for us around the corner. In the coming decades, experimental science and advancing technology will certainly furnish us with more technical fixes, and limited improvements in our understanding, of, for example, how the brain learns. As is the good politician, the good teacher is obliged to keep up these findings and make good use of what they can. But for both teacher and politician, this technical know-how cannot ever be definitive of their job. This is because, like a politician’s, a teacher’s work is intimately bound up with the existential questions of how people should behave, of what the point is of human life, and of human society, of human interaction.
So long as we aspire to have a liberal, democratic culture, it will be a responsible teacher’s obligation to have at least considered this debate and how it impacts their practice. While I am suspicious of them in so far as they encourage the mirage of professionalism in teaching, university courses in education are therefore far more important than the current policy fashion suggests. Yes, they are often impractical, partisan, and too often forbiddingly theoretical, but, in so far as they encourage in the occupation a spirit of self-awareness, of self-critique and self-doubt, they play an essential role in protecting our job from the barbarian claims of the professionalizers.
In discussion of teaching, the term ‘ideology’ is often banded around as an insult, usually by the kind of high-achieving teaching celebs who advance the proposition that a teacher is best understood as a professional with expert knowledge of what is typically called ‘instruction’. The culture of this new technocracy is a strange amalgam of the business school and the TV trivia quiz show. Success is racking up points on the board, preferably via perfectly engineered multi-choice quizzes, while any suggestion that teaching might involve political considerations is treated with an embarrassed snigger about the bad old days of the 1970s. ‘Ideological’ concerns about what should go on in class are in this mode cast as a betrayal of reason, the result of a willingness to sacrifice real children on the altar of utopian egalitarianism. The community is urged to dismiss this nonsense in favour of the concrete and practical, brought to them by the safe, and sane, MBA technician waiting in the wings, fresh-faced, freshly dressed, and fresh from her latest TED talk triumph.
But once teaching is understood as, like liberal politics, an existential occupation, and therefore one which should keep some healthy distance from the fixed and limited notion of a profession, it becomes evident that developing and following an ideology is not just an optional add-on in the job, but an inevitable and core function. I stress here that I use the term ‘ideology’ with a general sense: a system of beliefs and aspirations about the fundamental organisation and purpose of human life and human society. Such a system we all possess, though to greater and lesser degrees of consistency and awareness. And, since no teacher can honestly leave their ideological system at the door of the school, it is clear that no school can be free of ideology, and nor should it aspire to be.
Thus, the ambition that teaching should contribute to the building, maintaining and improving of a democratic society will inevitably be central to a democratic and egalitarian teacher’s concerns. Conservative teachers should be welcome to bring their ideas about national cohesion and the value of tradition to the table, and teachers who wish to prioritise the current well-being and flourishing of the young people in their care (in my view, a powerful and underrated argument) must also be free to make their case. Broad and hard-to-define characteristics and values like tolerance, creativity, curiosity and critique should be constantly up for debate, and not closed down with half-baked arguments about the necessity and primacy of ‘knowledge’. The model institution for a school is thus not a corporation, but a parliament. The model school leader is not so much a CEO – fine-tuning a human machine for maximum output – but a parliamentary speaker: a figure of authority, yes, but one whose chief concern is to oversee debate and experiment, ensuring that all takes place in a spirit of reason and mutual respect.
At least two groups of people, I anticipate, will be getting somewhat twitchy about these suggestions. The first is school leaders, who in recent decades have been encouraged in (and rewarded for) creating ever more homogenous schools, ironing out differences and imposing unified ideologies of instruction on their staff. Inspection regimes and quasi-market policy settings place managers under increasing pressure to ‘perform’, which typically means getting good results in high-stakes assessments of various kinds. Undoubtedly, a diversity of views and approaches within a school is not helpful when this is your primary aim. Students are best prepared for rigid assessments when they have practised for them for a long time, and that practice works best when consistent. It is a brave school leader who bucks this trend, and radical reform of exams and assessments is undoubtedly needed. In the meantime, I redirect the wannabe corporate leaders of our schools to the political analogy. History records that, in the short term at least, much can be achieved by abolishing parliaments, but the long-term effects of undermining democratic culture are generally understood to be devastating.
And, naturally, those leaders who consider themselves to be ‘post-ideological’ – putting aside politics and dispute in favour of technocratic achievement – are somewhat muddled about their perceived objectivity. Their embrace of the culture of assessment is ideological. Their complicity in the policy of inter-school competition is ideological. Their validation of the notion of parent choice is ideological. Their preoccupation with the primacy of ‘knowledge’ is ideological. Their hasty commitments to speculative concepts from cognitive science are ideological. Together, these beliefs express a distinct, and obviously political, view about both the role of the school and the teacher, as well as the means by which these roles be best realised. It is a view in which mechanisms of choice and competition are unquestionably superior, and in which children should be encouraged to compete with one another in their willingness to re-perform the beliefs of current authority, as personified in the professional standing at the front of the room.
And I say of this ideology, fair enough. There is nothing wrong with ideology in teaching – you just have to be honest about it. And those of us who oppose the ideas of the new technocrats should practise what we preach, and accept that ideology is never a dirty word in teaching, but an inevitable one.
Many teachers themselves will undoubtedly also feel a little uncomfortable about what I am suggesting. ‘I just want to teach’ would be the typical, and entirely understandable retort – ‘I didn’t sign up to be a politician or an activist’. Claims like these, though, are mostly rooted in a misunderstanding of my argument. I use ‘ideology’ here in the broadest sense, meaning what perhaps might be less controversially described as ‘public ethics’. Put this way, I think most teachers would understand and embrace the notion that, along with their subject interests, they also had an interest in protecting and building on the ethical culture of our society. Most I think would, on reflection, acknowledge that this culture is replete with controversy and contest, so much so, in fact, that it would be simply unethical not to admit, acknowledge, and even celebrate, this contest and controversy. This is what I am suggesting and, while it demands considerable concession on the part of policy makers and management, it is I think a development which most teachers, when fully informed, would be happy to support.
By all means, then, teachers should learn how to hand out essays in the most time-efficient way, how to generate and analyse formative assessment data, and all the rest of that snazzy 21st Century jazz. But when they are talking to a parent on the phone, or participating in staff meetings, or going over with the three difficult boys once more about what exactly it is that is irresponsible in their behaviour, they should teach like a citizen, and that means proudly rejecting any attempt to slur them with the reductive and degrading term ‘professional’. It means happily accepting the fact that their practice is inevitably bound up with the messy human openness of a free society, and so gladly, and openly, ideological.