Lean Education

Culture, science, crafts, play, friendship and the ecology provide the medium in terms of which an individual fulfils his or her potential as a person, and a group fulfils its potential as a community.

Education is that part of the life of a community that contributes to those ends.


Community practice

The starting point is early education in the fundamental skill of belonging to a community, and here is a teacher with something to say about this. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre makes a connection (introduced in Practice) between complementary forms of learning—between (a) acquiring a demanding skill and (b) embracing the virtues of community. Imagine for a moment that you are becoming accomplished in a practice—that is, a skill (especially a manual skill, but some non-manual skills have this quality too)—which requires deep commitment and reflection, and intense and accurate feedback to scotch the delusion that you are better than you are. Learning such a skill builds and reinforces three qualities which extend beyond those which are specific to the skill itself. First, truthfulness: it will be necessary to sustain a truthful relationship with the people from whose example or teaching you are learning. Secondly, fairness: you will need to be fair in your judgment of yourself and others in the performance of the skill. And thirdly, courage: you will need to have the courage from time to time to attempt something beyond your present capacity, and to persist despite criticism.L56

It follows from MacIntyre’s argument that the task of teaching children how to be responsible members of a community is about teaching them to be interested in something—leading on to being good at it. The accomplishment soaks into their lives; they grow to value the community that teaches them. These skills are, in essence, the skills of citizenship; that is to say, a by-product of learning skills is learning citizenship. It is the rapid and unambiguous feedback from manual skills that makes them effective. Intellectual skills are not always so reliable in this way: you can use your intellect to conceal your errors. The teaching that comes from manual skills, on the other hand, is clear and hard to misread. And, as the philosopher-mechanic Matthew Crawford points out, it comes in a sequence of trial and error, mutual aid and occasional inspiration:

You break things, and learn something new by taking them apart and talking it through. Here work and leisure both take their bearings from something basically human: rational activity, in association with others. . . . To place oneself at the service of this master is to enter into community and . . . to open oneself to being schooled by one’s elders. This is solidarity.L57

Too old to learn to make a wheel?
Not for your brain, but for your body . . .

With the idea that I was going to learn everything from the beginning I put myself eagerly to boys’ jobs, not at all dreaming that, at over twenty, the nerves and muscles are no longer able to put on the cell-growths, and so acquire the habits of perceiving and doing which should have begun at fifteen. Could not Intellect achieve it? In fact, Intellect made but a fumbling imitation of real knowledge, yet hardly deigned to recognise how clumsy in fact it was. Beginning so late in life, I know now that I could never have earned my keep as a skilled workman. But with the ambition to begin at the beginning, I set myself to act as boy to any of the men who might want a boy’s help.

And now,—how dare I go on to describe that swinging drive of the wheelwright’s action fixing the spokes into the stock? He picks up one in one hand, and, with sledgehammer in the other, lightly taps the spoke into its own mortice. Then he steps back, glancing behind him belike to see that the coast is clear; and, testing the distance with another light tap (a two-handed tap this time) suddenly, with a leap, he swings the sledge round full circle with both hands, and brings it down right on top of the spoke—bang. Another blow or so, and the spoke is far enough into the mortice to be gauged. Is it leaning forward a little too much, or not quite enough? It can be corrected, with batterings properly planted on front or back or top, and accordingly the wheelwright aims his sledge, swinging it round tremendously again and again, until the spoke is indeed “driven” into the stock. It is battered over on the top, but the oak stands firm in the mortice, to stay for years.

For an hour or so, until all the spokes had been driven into a wheel, this sledge-hammer work went on, tremendous. A wheelwright driving spokes, though not necessarily a very strong man, was able, with knack, to strike more powerful blows, and many of them too, in succession. With one hand close under the head he gave the sledge a great fling, then slipped the same hand down the handle, to help the other hand, hold it in and guide it truly round its circle. By the time it reached the spoke the sledge had got an impetus. With the momentum of a stone from a sling, it was so to speak hurled down on its mark, terrific.

~ George Sturt, The Wheelwright’s Shop, 1923.L59


Practical education, then, will be recognised as a critical accomplishment, and teaching it will be a core responsibility of the community. “The boy is in a school here”, writes William Cobbett, “and an excellent school too: the school of useful labour.”58 And learning-by-doing will start young. The workplace and its apprenticeships will be recognised as integral to the community as a learning establishment. The difference between getting-by at a manual skill and being good it turns, not least, on how old the person was when he or she started to learn it. This is illustrated by the lament of a dairy farmer, the late Dinah Williams (founder of Rachel’s Dairy), who told the author how difficult it was to get people to do the milking morning and evening, day after day. The job is cold, wet, noisy and repetitive; it requires patience and acquaintance with each cow—enough to notice if a behavioural change signifies a problem. “Only the members of our own family seem to be able to stick it”, she said, “but they have been doing it since they were children. We get graduates from the agricultural college, and they can manage the job all right, but they never learn to enjoy it, and then they leave” (see “Start Young” sidebar above).

In the Lean Economy, hand-skills will be at least as valued as brain-skills. There will be no presumption that manual work is a sign of failure to ascend the ladder of equal opportunity. The association between skills and community virtues is critical, and Sybil Marshall, in her classic An Experiment in Education, showed how, in the case of young children, it can be achieved effectively and economically. At Kingston Primary School in Cambridgeshire, where she was head (and often the only) teacher (1942–1960), the acquisition of learning was almost immediately translated into early community leadership. The essence of her method, and one of the reasons for its cost-effectiveness, is that, for much of the learning time, the child is either being mentored by another, slightly older, child, or is teaching himself or herself—working on a task which bears some relation to what he or she understands already, but which brings new experience and learning. Pull (rule 4 of lean thinking) is not a sufficient condition for learning—some things (learning poetry, a musical instrument or Latin, for instance) have to be based at least in part on learning by heart or the sheer hard slog of repetition—but it is a necessary condition: inquiry, aka “problem-based learning” makes the mind want the information before getting it (Rote). It is the difference between a man in your living room who is there because you have invited him to dinner, and one who is there uninvited, having just forced his way through the window, or come to sell dusters in which you have no particular interest. The invited guest is likely to be around longer.L60

The proof of the method at Kingston Primary came in the results, with well-developed reading and writing skills at the age of five and, by eleven, accomplishment in all the primary subjects, along with a confidence in such basics of community practice as cooperation, persistence and reflection.

To get such results, the teaching has to be inspiring and confident, and if it is, it can build on its success, since much of the education day consists of time in which the children are doing-it-themselves in a range of activities—as distinct from passivities—such as reading. If children are trusted and motivated to the point of being capable of focused enquiry, their learning becomes part of their relationship with the place—not only its schools but also its households and churches. To be a child in a local community is to learn from the community intensively. If that sounds an ideal, it only tells us how far the social capital of the market economy has declined and fragmented.

As it happens, Marshall’s approach to education has an unfortunate history; parodied and renamed “progressive education”, it led to some spectacular and damaging failures, with (as she writes with horror) “the teacher abdicating the professional position of someone whose function is to teach”.L61 But schools can’t do it on their own; it is a method which probably only works in classes consisting mainly of children already familiar with some sense of orderly behaviour, aware of the possibility of listening, used to the idea of active play, feeling some sense of affinity with a teacher that can (and is allowed to) inspire, and having some knowledge of the local area on which they can draw for ideas and inspiration. Primary education under the leadership of Marshall invited its participants to apply their imagination—to show that home has its stories to tell, to give stories a home. It established the questions, the focused interest, the engagement, and enabled the children to explore and invent within that space. That is, it was lean (see “Home Ground” sidebar below).


From narrative truth to local intelligence

. . . it was just as illuminating to watch the child struggling to keep up with the adult, trying desperately to follow the adult’s instruction on some abstract theme, and falling back on a bit on his own concrete experience to fill the gaps when his understanding failed. I cannot resist one example. A friend of mine, a head teacher at a small village school, had been telling her children about the guardian angels and, on her own confession, had been laying it on a bit thick.

“Wherever you are,” she had said, “you need never be afraid. In the dark, just as in the daylight, when mummy’s there, or when she’s not, your angel is always there, looking after you.”

It so happened that down in front of her there sat a little boy who lived at a very outlying and lonely farm called Alicky Farm. When she stopped, he said, wonderingly, “Are we got angels down at Alicky, then?”

The teacher thought that here she saw a good chance of pushing home the point of her lesson.

“Yes,” she said, “even down at Alicky, if you are all alone and even in the dark, you needn’t be afraid, because you have an angel there, always looking after you.”

The child waited patiently and politely till she had finished, and then dropped his innocent bombshell.

“Well,” he said, “I reckon that ol’ angel’s a-wasting his time, ’cos we don’t need him. You see, we’ve got a good dog.”

~ Sybil Marshall, An Experiment in Education, 1963.


Community learning

Richard Hoggart quotes a former Conservative Education Minister who enjoyed a standing ovation at a party conference:

We’ve taken money from the people who write about ancient Egyptian scripts and the pre-nuptial habits of the Upper Volta valley.L62

Hoggart spits: “That’s as easy as tickling a dog’s stomach.” But why does a society—the Lean Economy included—need scholarship?

Well, first of all, our society needs brilliance, and in the future of the Lean Economy, the need for it will be especially intense. Brilliance is a public good, and one of the awesome insanities of the market economy has been the treatment of highly-developed intelligence as a private perk, the target for envy, grounds for indignation and proof of injustice. Interventions that dampen brilliance in the name of ideology will lose their shine. At the heart of self-reliance will be the Lean Economy’s ability to grow its own minds.

Secondly, scholarship keeps our culture alive; if it does not exist in the minds of successive generations, it does not exist at all. It may be stored in books, or on the internet, but without thriving higher education to sustain the desire to read them and the ability to understand them, the knowledge will fade. Higher learning is the anatomy and grammar of our condition. Without it, we are left reaching for the instructions, for the self-evident, for the terminal certainties of fundamentalism.

The historian, Keith Thomas, takes up the case:

. . . [scholarship] makes an essential contribution to contemporary needs. No assessment of human limits and potentialities can be informed if it does not take account of previous experience. By studying books, manuscripts and works of art, digging up sites and writing commentaries and histories, scholars resist the annihilation of what has gone before. Without their work, the past would survive only in the most selective and mythical form. By reminding us that there are other ways of living and thinking the learned contribute a crucial element to our self-awareness.

. . . the life of learning still has an exemplary morality to offer. Where else, save in other forms of academic inquiry, can we find the same scrupulous concern for truth, the same requirement that all propositions which are not self-evidently true should be documented, the same conviction that getting things right is more important than a quick fix, the same acceptance of the complexity of things. . . ?L63

In summary:

We need scholars to resist the annihilation of our intellectual inheritance.L64

Scholarship sounds remote, but it is actually about the culture and the arts that are core conditions and properties of living in a society, as distinct from living in a place that has the misfortune of being infested with people. In a pre-literate society, education was recognised as a matter of searing importance, since the minds of the people were the information storage system for the whole of its inheritance of knowledge and collective reflection. Their way of life was to a large degree centred around teaching, and the personal loyalties that produced. To be an adult was to be a teacher. Myth, such as the Greek Homeric tradition, now studied by the exceptional, was learned, like a language, by total immersion—part of the texture of stories told and lived, and integral to their lives. “Higher learning” is in this sense like learning a mother tongue.

Scholarship underpins and desentimentalises our awareness and love of the culture we live in. It has good humour; it is talkative and companionable; it brings shared insights. It lifts the spirits. It is the habitat of the stories and arts without which imagination dies. And it can come free (or almost free). There are these qualities in the Workers’ Educational Association in the United Kingdom. Albert Mansbridge, who founded the Association in 1903, wrote of education as

. . . pure wonder and enjoyment, ultimately of the spirit [and] perceived by the spirit only, reaching out to higher things, music and song [and revealing] the secrets of life. To anyone who has seen groups of men and women reading in a college garden or has heard their songs across the quadrangle, it is obvious that the Association has found the deep harmonies in the national life.L65

The failure of the market economy will be accompanied by a collapse of university funding. The extinction of higher learning will be prevented only if a degree of social and economic order remains in which centres of scholarship can be sustained by varied forms of reciprocity, supplemented with whatever funding is available, if any. They will set standards and contribute to the science, philosophy and poetry of the post-industrial world.

Localities were once rich with their own scholarship. No, that’s not romantic nostalgia. Some were not, of course. And those that were, weren’t all world class. But they made it happen. In Horwich, a small engineering town in Lancashire—and by no means exceptional in this—a series of papers was presented to the Literary Society in the 1920s by Mr. David Gibson, director of the local locomotive works. It was the Mechanics’ Institute’s building during the day, but in the evening the riveters and boiler-makers of locomotive-building would wash and come out to discuss literature and to make music. Mr. Gibson gave song-recitals, and his papers surveyed the prose and poetry of major writers in English from Shakespeare to his own day, with special reference to his hero, Thomas Carlyle. Poetry, he suggested,

teaches us to see beauty all around us. We see it in Horwich. We see it in the windswept streets with the old smoke-blackened houses with their decent fronts, on a clear east-windy day. We see it when we look down on the Blackrod and Horwich valley, with its houses and factories, the gleams of water in the lodges. We may even find this beauty and the poetic interpretation of it in some of our big stately locomotives . . .L66

These papers were among many given at the time by members of the society. The honorary “University of Horwich” needed no government funding.

Research in technology and the sciences will happen if there is the money for it. But there may not be. That could take the sciences towards an emphasis on teaching—conserving what we already know. And the only useful technologies to conserve will be those that can be supported on a local scale, using local resources, supported by the community (Appropriate Technology, Lean Energy).L67

Will that make society less aware of science? Maybe not. It could make us more aware of technology, of practical action that we can take for ourselves. But for most of us, the sciences themselves are remote from our knowledge and competence. As Douglas Adams noted of his space-travelling hero, Arthur Dent, “Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it.”L68 That is to say, we are not scientists. The supergizmos required to keep our oversize civilisation alive are not evidence that we are clever. Aristotle, Shakespeare and Darwin were no less clever because they didn’t know about semiconductors; they just lived in a civilisation that had not yet got itself into such a pickle that it could not get by without them.


Educating friendship

You have to wonder at the idea that the purpose of education is to enable a nation to compete in international trade. Economics is not the only value. If the intention is to provide serried ranks of dutiful contestants on a short fuse, alone and bewildered, with a high degree of accomplishment in the art of bluffing their way through, modern education is making good progress. But it is time, now, for a change of course.

To claim that there is a need to educate people for the task of being nice will undoubtedly invite a derisive critique: you can’t educate people for niceness; they either are, or they aren’t; anyway what is “nice” in your opinion? Probably no more than a dreary tendency to agree with you. Well, none of that is true—those are fallacies arising from lack of practice in having to think through what “nice” means. In the mobile market state, you don’t have to worry very much about whether people are nice or not because, if not, you can usually get away from them. But sometimes you can’t. If you are living in a leasehold flat in London, with neighbours that must cooperate to make it work, you find out what “nice” means. It means the natural inclination to cooperate rather than a suspicious and resentful determination to destroy the enterprise and distribute misery.

Local lean economies will depend, unconditionally, on that cooperation, and it will be vulnerable to wrecking strategies. Some guidelines on what to do about this, and where to turn for advice, are suggested in Community, but here the question is whether education has a contribution to make. Well, it has: personality is made by inheritance, family, friends, play, culture—and education. In fact, the desire to cooperate is not unteachable—and starred academic distinction is of little value if it is simply going to make you better at causing trouble. Just being aware of neighbourliness—okay, niceness—as being a critical, central value would, if thought through, change the orientation of society and what it educates for. This is more than the familiar aim of teaching a sense of responsibility and duty, though these undoubtedly help; it is the gift of wanting to make cooperation work, acknowledging collective accomplishment and the friendships that are sustained by it as the purpose and point of being a person.

Education can’t do this on its own. But nothing else can, either, if education walks away from it. How education might teach us to want to look each other in the eye, to listen, to want to cooperate, takes us to the heart of lean thinking: if this comfort—this fit between us and our community—is acknowledged as the core value that it is, teaching of all kinds, formal and informal, will discover ways to do it. This is lean thinking doing what it is designed to do—inventing solutions. And in fact, a recognition of how crucial it is may not be so far away. Here, for example, is the philosopher Martha Nussbaum making the case for education committed to the care and cultivation of . . .

. . . the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have [and to] activate and refine the capacity to see the world through another person’s eyes, a capacity that children develop through imaginative play.L69

So play is in there—and the Dictionary entry explores some of the ways in which that works. Dance, itself a form of play, is there, too: one thing that we can be sure about with respect to pre-nuptial habits in the Upper Volta valley is that they would have involved dance. And the form of dance—its use or rejection of rules and formality, its basis in individual or collective expression—reflects with surefooted accuracy the nature of the society it lives in.

So music is there, too. Music is education. It deletes the distinction between education and higher education. It is a practice; it teaches maths, reading, reciprocity and cooperation, emotional intelligence, imagination, languages, discernment, accuracy, encounter, enthusiasm, friendship, judgment, shared grammar; it calls on tradition and it trains the memory; it provides interim answers to questions about the meaning of life and the use of time; it is integrated into other crucial community-building practices such as carnival, religion, ritual and social capital—that is, directly or indirectly, into the whole corpus of culture. It is an intense bond within one’s own culture, and a bridge to others. It forms networks. It educates friendship.

And educating friendship is what friends do—not least, at home. In our own time, home education is one of the most successful, as well as the least-cost, forms of education. The Lean Economy will apply the principle of home education in its community setting. Minds will be (as Wendell Berry describes it) made “competent in all their concerns”, shaped . . .

. . . by a passion for excellence and order that is handed down to young people by older people whom they respect and love.L70

Home education will be a point of reference, a centre of competence in local lean economies. That does not mean that every child will do his or her learning at home. It will mean that homes are recognised as their primary centres of learning—and it is homes that take the initiative in delegating teaching to primary and secondary schools, to apprenticeships, to work experience, to freedom, to churches, universities, storytellers and bell-ringers, to the whole range of learning and cross-generation conversation available to the place.L71

This diversity is friendship’s habitat. The peer-group of competitive 15-year-olds can be one of the loneliest places on Earth; a society that relies on it to transmit its culture and the skill of acute and benevolent attention to the unexpected is making a logical error. Lean education will not be without its awards and qualifications—they are rites of passage and useful when someone who claims to be good with animals is operating on your sheep—but, as an index of whether a person is bringing connectedness or mayhem, they are unhelpful. Local lean communities will look for, and provide, other qualities which cannot be expressed in simple reductionist grades.

At the heart of this is pull. It does not say “this is the way to do it”. It empowers households and communities to work out what they want and how to do it. That “how” will be radically constrained by the minimal financial resources available to the Lean Economy. Small-scale places of learning—some of them called secondary schools—will form and reform, for good reasons and bad, learning and teaching as they go, with intense focus on intention—on what they are there to do, for now. There will be the variety and the disorder of a rich ecology—that is, the harmonic order, the sheer joy of being there, of being part of the common purpose.


Related entries:

Rote, Ecology: Farmers and Hunters, Economism.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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