The very idea of having any sort of curriculum or plan of studies is anathema for autonomous educators. It is seen as robbing the whole educational process of all spontaneity and joy. After all, formal qualifications and university are not the be-all and end-all of education are they? All this is true enough as far as it goes. I want to think a little about the advantages of working to a very broad curriculum and looking at the advantages of this quite apart from gaining GCSEs or A levels or passing this or that test.
In order to illustrate the points I am making, I shall restrict what I am saying to science, although most of it is equally applicable to history, geography, music, English or any other subject. To begin with I want to consider three topics that many people discuss passionately and which regularly crop up in the newspapers and on the television; GM foods, Global warming and renewable energy.
Let us begin with GM foods, something about which many people feel very strongly. Here is a simple question. What is a gene? In other words, before we even start to discuss genetically modified foods, it is necessary to be able to give a succinct answer to the question, "What do we mean by a gene?" Shockingly, almost all the people to whom I have spoken about this, despite having extremely strong views on the subject of GM foods and genetic engineering, are completely unable to explain what a gene is! they thus fall at the first fence, as it were. To be brutally frank, they have no right to hold any sort of opinion on anything to do with genetics at all. Asking very basic questions about the Greenhouse Effect similarly demonstrates an appalling level of ignorance about this subject, with many people convinced that the Greenhouse Effect is a bad thing in itself, rather than being a vital mechanism which make the Earth habitable. Renewable energy? Try asking anybody who has an opinion about this, to explain how a nuclear power station works and to outline the advantages and disadvantages of this method of generating electricity.
None of this is meant to be any sort of argument in favour of traditional schooling. Indeed, almost all those of whom I have asked the above questions attended school and emerged at the end of the process deficient in many important areas. It is however a powerful argument in favour of some species of systematic instruction of children and young people. Without a rudimentary knowledge of genetics, electricity generation and the electromagnetic spectrum, nobody will be able to talk intelligently or even understand some of the most important problems facing the world today.
It is of course perfectly possible for a young person to read up on genetics and study science without being directed to do so. In other words, autonomous education is certainly not impossible. Without some sort of structure though, it would be very difficult for a child to know where to begin. The field of human knowledge is so vast, that the possibility of simply stumbling across the relevant facts about genetics and climatology by chance are vanishingly small. What of those also, whose interests lie not in science but in the arts and humanities? They may be so busy reading about Shakespeare and philosophy that they will just not get round to finding out about the re-emission of electromagnetic energy as infra red radiation and the role of CO2 and water vapour in preventing the escape into space of these rays. If they do not study this, they will never know what all the fuss about global warming amounts to.
What I am saying is that in order to take part in political debate in this country, to understand the news, hold a conversation on the subject of the environment or even read many popular books, it is vital to have a certain amount of background information. Without these basic facts, the world simply does not make sense. All that we would be able to do if we lacked this foundation of knowledge, would be to parrot the views of others or to repeat slogans such as "Nuclear Power, No Thanks!" or "Save the Polar Bears!". Without knowing what a gene actually is, the only honest option would be to remain silent while others were agonising over the implications of human cloning or genetic engineering. We would certainly not be able to express any preference for or against the cultivation of GM crops in the UK.
We cannot realistically expect children to devise their own curriculum. How could they know which aspects of science will be crucial to understanding the modern world and which all but irrelevant? At the very least, they will need a rough plan to which they can work. There is no particular reason why they need to cover World Way II when they are this age or that, or to study the Periodic Table only when they reach their fourteenth birthday. But they do need to be told what they need to know by the time they reach sixteen or seventeen. If we fail to do that, we are short changing them and leaving them liable to be left behind in the world. They will certainly not become full citizens, able to take an intelligent interest in the serious issues of the day.