SECTION III: BEEBY’S LEGACY
7.3 Origin of the Theory
Beeby developed the concept of educational myths as a way to explain the the merging of new ideas and beliefs about education with contemporary ideas and beliefs. He explained:
For me an educational myth is a statement of a dominant sense of direction whose influence can extend over several decades, while apparently firm targets for education will inevitably change over the years.740
His usage is an implicit critique of the usage of extant histories or policy documents to define what a given society believes about education, as it uses the idea that the mere expression of ideals in such documents does not automatically reflect the general overall attitude to education at that time. Instead it is better understood as a broad description about the desired role and structure of education that does not include specific policy details.
However, I will argue that an examination of his concept reveals some significant limitations that, indirectly, help to explain why the myth of ‘equality of opportunity’ was able to become pervasive yet superficial throughout the half century after his directorship.
Beeby only began to talk and write about educational myths at the beginning of the 1980s. Beeby uses the word ‘myth’ in a specific yet abstract sense, rather than as a pejorative, by embracing the idea that a myth can have a useful explanatory value even if not true, or not able to be tested for truth. Beeby’s usage of ‘myth’ is thus indirectly a discussion of the impact of philosophy on society and thus education
In Renwick’s Moving Targets, Beeby broadly describes what he considers as the four distinct myths which influenced four periods of New Zealand’s development:
Pre-1920 as ‘survival of the fittest’
1920 to 1935 as moving towards ‘progressive education’
1935 to 1965 as moving towards ‘equality of opportunity’, and
1965 to 1984 as moving towards ‘equality of outcomes’741
The trigger for his initial reflection was an invitation to write an introduction for an upcoming book.742 Beeby explained:
[T]he idea of writing about educational myths arose when I was writing an introduction to a book of essays by Bill Renwick, the present Director-General of Education in N.Z. … but I found some difficulty in reconciling the ideas behind
740 Beeby, letter to Harvey McQueen, 21 February 1992
741 Renwick, William (1986). Moving Targets, Six Essays on Educational Policy. Wellington: NZCER. 742 Renwick, William (1986). Moving Targets, Six Essays on Educational Policy. Wellington: NZCER.
my educational policies in 1940-1960 with his (and in some respects my own) in 1980. So I was driven to the concept of great over-arching myths that dominate the tone of thinking about education in each period, and rise and fall over quite long periods, but still linger on in the periods that succeed. My main purpose in the introduction to Renwick’s essays was not to deal with theories about myths or anything else, but to show what a period of history with which he was dealing … looked like at the time to the people who were living through it. I had to have recourse to a thesis of myths to explain what I meant; it was not intended to defend what we had thought or done in my generation, but only to make the policies of the period understandable.743
Although Beeby originally planned a brief introduction, the result was a nearly a chapter in itself. Shortly after completing the introduction, he wrote:
I started the introduction as a couple of pages ... and then found myself so interested that I went on for another 40 or so to look at the same set of events from the other side of a gap of nearly half a century. To my surprise I had to do some more thinking and came up with a view of the history of educational policy that I had never thought of before. I have never taken so long with a bit of writing in my life, but I am glad I did it, and it will play a major part in the later chapters of my bookThe Biography of an Idea of Education.744
Six years later, Beeby expanded on his original sentiments in his Biography, writing:
It was not until 1981 that I was forced to face up to the full implications of my discovery of a common sense of direction in education systems of widely different types. …
This led to a device that I called the educational myth. (The term carried no hint of disparagement; it is journalists and their like who have given a fine term the connotation of ‘mere myth’. Some of the noblest of human achievements are myths created to give a sense of permanence in this world or the next. Every utopia is a myth.) Each generation creates, or simply assumes, its own educational myths and its own unattainable but approachable goals, with at least an appearance of permanence, on which to build its plans for education. No myth can express all the purposes of education, but it provides a criterion by which all other purposes can be judged. …
The myth of equality of opportunity, as we began to understand it better, provided the criterion for judging out success or failure.745
At around the same time, Beeby reflected in private that:
For me, an educational myth is a statement of a dominant sense of direction whose influence can extend over decades, while apparently firm targets for education will inevitably change over the years. Peter Fraser’s much quoted statement in 1939 about equality of opportunity in education was a myth that influenced education in New Zealand for half a century.746
So according to Beeby, an educational myth describes a society’s popularly held attitudes about education, rather than just the aims and expectations found in government policy documents. That is, his ‘dominant sense of direction’ is another way
743 Beeby, letter to B.L.B Kaye, 9 November 1981. 744 Beeby, letter to Ann Orlov, 15 June 1986. 745 Beeby, 1992, pp. 298, 302-303.
of describing a general philosophical position from which a range of specific applied policies can emerge (which need not cohere with each other). His use of ‘sense of direction’ may also be an allusion to the necessary ‘reorientation’ he outlined in his 1939 statement. If so, then for Beeby, a fundamental reorientation may primarily involve changing the destination of an educational journey without necessarily providing any landmarks along the way.
Several decades later, Beeby referred to the limited way that an educational myth can direct change. He wrote:
I find that even in my own specialty of education in N.Z. or any other country, rich or poor, all I can give is a sense of direction, not a straight line, even at that, but a quadrant within which I think change can be progress but outside which I belief [sic] changes are regression. This comes back to my concept of ‘myths’ of educational progress ... I don’t think educational progress can proceed without myths that one follows till they break down and have to be remodelled or replaced.747