Yet far from being a recent development, this manipulation of the curriculum has been over a century in development, and far from being an unexpected consequence of well-intended practice, politicisation has been a conscious goal of educational theorists.

In 1916, the American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey, known as the father of progressive education, wrote in Democracy and Education: ‘As a society becomes more enlightened, it realizes that it is responsible not to transmit and conserve the whole of its existing achievements, but only such as make for a better future society.’ Dewey is right to note that constructing a curriculum poses the problem of selection. A key task of educators is deciding what ‘to transmit and conserve’. Classical education grounds this problem of selection in the legacy of the past. Its starting point is that children deserve to be taught ‘the best which has been thought and said’. 

For Dewey, this is a problem. He argues, ‘The study of past products will not help us understand the present.’ He orients education within the present by focusing not on knowledge but on children. And rather than preserving the legacy of the past, he sets teachers the task of creating ‘a better future society’. This suggests that education is not an end in itself but a means to an end. Introducing children to the legacy of the past gives them the intellectual grounding to assume responsibility for the world when they, in turn, become adults. Bending education to the needs of ‘a better future society’ denies them this freedom. It assumes the future is to be determined not by a new generation of adults but by present-day teachers. 

Dewey’s work chimed with a political and social elite that was becoming less confident about its own place in the world and, for this reason, it became highly influential in the US and beyond. His ideas were taken up directly by George Counts, author of a once widely read pamphlet, Dare The School Build A New Social Order?, published in 1932. Counts reveals the extent to which education was, even then, being exploited as a solution to social problems. He writes uncritically that, ‘Faced with any difficult problem of life we set our minds at rest sooner or later by the appeal to the school.’ 

Like Dewey, Counts welcomes a focus on the present and sees education’s connection to the past as a problem. Of ‘the existing school’ he writes, ‘Almost everywhere it is in the grip of conservative forces and is serving the cause of perpetuating ideas and institutions suited to an age that is gone.’ Yet Counts rejects Dewey’s notion of ‘child-centred’ education as too vague and individualistic. For an educational movement to call itself progressive, he argues, ‘it must have orientation; it must possess direction.’ This means teachers must ‘become less frightened’ of ‘the bogies of imposition and indoctrination’. In this way, schools become ‘centers for the building, and not merely for the contemplation, of our civilization’.

It would take several decades for such ideas to migrate from the US. Yet by the 1970s sociologists such as Basil Bernstein in the UK and Pierre Bourdieu in France argued that curricular knowledge represented the imposition of elite taste. Bernstein noted: ‘the social experience the child already possesses is valid and significant, and that this social experience should be reflected back to him as being valid and significant.’

The rallying cry of ‘education for democracy’ led to calls for teachers to break ‘the tyranny of subjects’. Uprooted from the past and put in service of the future, education was transformed into an empty vessel ready to be filled by the political concerns of curriculum planners. Writing in 1970, British educators Ken Coates and Richard Silburn argued that education, as the solution to poverty, ‘must start out as training for community action, for self-help and mutual defence.’ 

The Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Friere similarly made the case for education as activism. Freire remains highly influential in western teacher training institutions where new teachers are encouraged to share his scorn for the ‘banking concept’ of education whereby knowledge is ‘deposited’ in children’s minds by an authoritarian teacher to be ‘withdrawn’ at a later date. In his global bestseller Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire makes the case for education as ‘liberation’. Yet rather than liberation through knowledge, Freire’s demand is that students are liberated fromknowledge, especially ‘elite’ knowledge or knowledge from the past. Rather than education, they are to be recruited into political activism.

Over the past five decades, the political goals of teachers have changed. Today, schools across the western world are less focused on poverty, welfare and social class, and more focused on gender, race, identity and social justice. But the politicisation of education is now complete because arguments that schools should break with the past and serve contemporary political goals, began a century ago and were won fifty years ago. It is because education is no longer rooted in the transmission of knowledge that it has been successfully subsumed by politics. 

Rescuing education from political objectives requires us to make the case for teaching as the transmission of knowledge rather than a process of indoctrination. Sadly, many of today’s young teachers, with only their personal experiences of schooling and lessons from politically-charged teacher training institutions to reflect upon, struggle to differentiate between the two. Too many now seem to assume that inculcating a set of beliefs in their pupils, perhaps around climate change, gender identity or anti-racism, is the goal of education. But in the classroom, inculcating beliefs calls on pupils to accept one perspective uncritically rather than to think more deeply and read more widely in the pursuit of truth. In opposition to Counts, we need teachers to become more frightened of the bogie of indoctrination.