Artillery Row Books

The brave new world of Swedish education

What is “post-truth” schooling?

“Don’t teach kids what to think, teach them how to think.” There is some truth to this. Any decent teacher knows that if a student arrives at an answer by themselves, instead of simply being given it, there is a better chance they’ll remember it. Students have the right to develop their own opinions, and should be offered tools to aid critical thinking.

But is this warm, cuddly mantra as profound as it appears? In their new book Dumbing Down, economist Magnus Henrekson and political scientist Johan Wennström assess the decline of Swedish education in the context of its starry-eyed departure from classical knowledge to the realms of “post-truth” schooling.

Dumbing Down: The Crisis of Quality and Equity in a Once-Great School System — and How to Reverse the Trend, Magnus Henrekson and Johan Wennström (Palgrave Macmillan, £42)

Many of the problems Henrekson and Wennström diagnose will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the British education system. Grade inflation has masked declining standards, which, in Sweden, manifested themselves with a Wil E. Coyote-esque fall down the PISA rankings. Teachers are depressed by excess work and micromanagement.

Teachers also face abuse and intimidation by their students. In Britain, a startling 10 per cent of teachers report being physically assaulted. In Sweden, meanwhile, the problem is only getting worse. According to Henrekson and Wennström, incidents of physical abuse rose by almost 100 per cent between 2014 and 2018.

Where are the parents? Well, they aren’t much better. “According to the Swedish Teachers’ Union,” we learn, “70 per cent of teachers have been pressured by parents to make changes to their teaching or award a better grade to an individual student, and more than half (54 per cent) have been threatened with reprisals for not complying with the parents’ demands.”

You have to feel for teachers. Credentialism has magnified their educational responsibilities while changing family structures and dynamics have expanded them into the realms of the pastoral. With great responsibility comes great oversight. No wonder teachers are “one of the least satisfied groups in the Swedish labor market”. It is the same in Britain.

Critics of classical education let down the poorest students the most

But what about this “post-truth” business? Henrekson and Wennström explain that in the aftermath of World War Two, the classical view of education — with its emphasis on grounding studies in an established body of knowledge — was considered authoritarian and anti-democratic. A social constructivist tendency developed. “What was deemed most important in schools,” the authors write, “was facilitating ‘knowledge-creating’ (kunskapande), which appears to be a term for the idea of students as participants in a collaborative enterprise of constructing knowledge.” Doesn’t it sound wonderful!

To be sure, knowledge itself is not enough for education. If I had a pound for every time one of my English language students has complained that their history lessons involve learning names and dates without being offered the slightest reason to care about them, I could purchase a gold boat. That World War Two began in 1939 and ended in 1945 is indisputable but why anyone should be interested requires more creative explanation.

Yet enlivening the pursuit of knowledge is quite different from casting doubt on its value. As Henrekson and Wennström point out, a solid base of knowledge is a precondition of critical thought. “Problem solving and critical thinking,” they show, “have…proven to require large amounts of domain-specific knowledge.” One can hardly become a creative, pioneering architect without knowledge of how buildings are constructed and maintained. Or a creative, pioneering poet without knowledge of your predecessors. T.S. Eliot did not wake up one morning with the idea for The Waste Land.

For all their pretensions to being democratic, critics of classical education let down the poorest students the most, according to Henrekson and Wennström, because they tend to be those “whose homes, figuratively speaking, lack an intellectual piano”. As the left-wing commentator Freddie deBoer observed in a recent article, “Rich parents can always send their kids to private schools that will teach advanced material, or they can send their kids to the public schools and supplement their learning there with for-profit classes or tutoring.”

It was surprising to me that Henrekson and Wennström’s impressively detailed book neglected the effects of immigration on Swedish schools. Sweden has, in recent decades, undergone an extraordinary demographic transformation. As of 2020, a quarter of Swedish residents had a foreign background. In 2015, research by Dr Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren suggested that “the change in pupil demographics due to immigration explains almost a third of the average decline between 2000 and 2012: 19 per cent in mathematical literacy, 28 per cent in reading literacy, and 41 per cent in scientific literacy”. One imagines that a decline in classical education could be especially damaging for students who come from nations with limited education systems, particularly when they have a limited knowledge of the native tongue.

Still, Henrekson and Wennström’s book is an admirable, sobering achievement. How, at a time when knowledge has never been so extensive and accessible, are we failing to encourage and express it? Perhaps it is in part because we are intimidated by the magnitude of the achievements of our predecessors and devalue them as a means of elevating ourselves. It is hard to think of a worse model of thought to pass down to our children.

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