Classics and Not Hog-Wash
‘To have masters in village schools/ To teach ‘em classics and not hog-wash’
(Ezra Pound, Cantos, XCIX)
In introducing the detailed subject handbooks produced by his Core Knowledge Foundation, E.D. Hirsch warns us to be sceptical about curricular documents which do not focus on content, but which high-light such aims as ‘analysing patterns, and data’, ‘working co-operatively in groups’, ‘thinking critically’ and ‘learning to learn’. These documents are typically, but not exclusively, produced by governments and bureaucracies, national, international and local, and the education ‘experts’, usually in university faculties of education, which the official bodies tend to draw on. To take a typical example, as recently as April 2013 a group of science educators, representing the (US) National Research Council, the National Science Teachers’ Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science recommended that fewer topics than previously should be taught in school, with less rote learning and more critical thinking. And even kindergarten pupils will have to ‘construct an argument supported by evidence to show how plants and animals (including humans) can change the environment to meet their needs.’
When it comes to content, in the type of education Hirsch is criticising, in which what he calls core knowledge is either absent or diminished, the emphasis will be on often disconnected, and seemingly randomly chosen topics (dinosaurs, the Aztecs, African drumming, gamelan music, native American art and a decontextualised approach to the European dictators all seem particular favourites for some reason).
There will be literature, but the stress will be on the modern, the undemanding, the fashionable, the demotic, the politically slanted, with interpretations often driven by feminist and post-colonial perspectives. In treatments of the arts and music there will be a promiscuous mixing of genres, media and ambition, creating the impression that there are no judgements of quality to be made in aesthetic matters or any significant tradition to be passed on. History will be based on disconnected topics, often reflecting current ideological preconceptions in both manner and selection. In science environmental and political concerns, often anti-business and almost inevitably superficially treated, will edge out some of the harder elements of basic science (which, for those interested, will now have to be introduced in university courses). Religion, to the extent that it features at all, will be short on doctrine and dogma (particularly Christian dogma), and long on low-level comparisons of religious buildings and rituals, and discussions of values, undertaken in a relativistic spirit (so-called values clarification).
What will not be found will be the literature of Greece and Rome, the basis of Western culture for two millennia, or indeed serious attention to any reasonable selection of pre-20th century literature, English or otherwise (modern languages being almost entirely devoted to learning the language in question by direct methods, without benefit of grammatical instruction). Nor will there be a disinterested or historically continuous immersion in the masterpieces of western art and music. Systematic approaches to science and physical geography will be eroded in favour of modish political and ethical discussions, as will any attempt at a steady narrative history of one’s country.
Anyone familiar with contemporary schooling, or indeed the academy, will recognise the trends I am referring to, and could no doubt multiply examples of the sort of thing I have in mind, the most empty of which is perhaps the (major) US university which has recently prescribed ‘Diversity’ as one of four ‘fields of enquiry’ for its undergraduates.
Against the tendencies I am describing, one could begin by repeating two points made by Hirsch himself, first that they are fundamentally undemocratic and unfair and secondly that they erode any sense of a common cultural or political inheritance among pupils who, whatever their background or ethnicity, are all living in the same country. These approaches are unfair and undemocratic because they will inevitably favour, if only by default, those pupils whose parents can supply either at home or in independent schools the culture, knowledge and experiences which will be lacking in the schools dominated by the approaches I am describing (often the state schools the majority of the population have to attend). And far from solving problems arising from cultural and ethnic diversity, the bitty and fragmented problem-solving approach, for all its talk of critical thinking, will make their solution virtually impossible by failing to provide the basis for a common understanding of who and where we are, and how we might live together, diversity within a fundamental unity.
Because they illustrate the language and ideology which informs the sort of curricular thinking I am criticising, as well as the language typically to be found in such documents, I will now turn to some official definitions of the point of education from the governments in the four jurisdictions in the United Kingdom (that is, England, Scotland, Wales and Ulster (or Northern Ireland)).
In 2011 the Scottish Executive published its ‘Curriculum for Excellence’, outlining a number of ‘capacities’ which schooling was supposed to produce. These included young people who were open to new thinking, who could think creatively and independently, who could learn independently and as part of a group and who could apply critical thinking in new contexts. There was nothing in this statement of capacities about the content or substance of the curriculum which was to supposed to produce these results, even in broad, general terms. There were, though, the by now standard references to healthy life styles and emotional well-being, as well as a requirement for young people to develop ‘secure values and beliefs’, secure, note, not correct. And in 2000 the Scottish Executive had also insisted that in schooling due regard be taken to the views of young people in the taking of decisions which affect them.
A very similar approach was taken in Ulster, with its ‘Curriculum Aims and Objectives’ from 2007. There are also mentions of the inculcation of awareness of global and local imbalances in the world around us, as well as an understanding, unspecified, of some of pupils’ own and others’ cultural understanding. Why some, one wonders, which others, and what aspects of cultural understanding.
In England, since 2000 the National Curriculum is supposed to ‘provide opportunities for all pupils to learn and achieve’. Those who thought that ‘learn’ and ‘achieve’ were transitive verbs will have learned something here, but not, I think, much else, and this in a document which was supposed to answer concerns about lack of clarity in this area. Of course, everything hangs on what pupils are supposed to learn and achieve. But we are given no help here with the 2004 governmental initiative known tendentiously as Every Child Matters: ‘Be healthy. Stay safe. Enjoy and achieve. Make a positive contribution. Achieve economic well-being.’ It will be noted that acquiring worthwhile knowledge or becoming acquainted with their cultural inheritance are not among five things which matter to children in their development.
In its statement of curricular aims from 2009 the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority, as the English curriculum quango was then known, envisaged the results of schooling producing young people who are motivated to ‘achieve the best they can’, who are ‘successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve’, who ‘have enquiring minds and think for themselves’, who ‘know about big ideas and events that shape our world’, who appreciate the benefits of diversity (but not, note the disbenefits, for all the talk of critical thinking and thinking for themselves), and who are ready to ‘change things for the better’. Why, one wonders, do we need a Curriculum Development Authority anyway, the very notion of curricular development being questionable, redolent of instruments of social engineering? In fact, and rather against trends elsewhere in Britain and indeed in agencies such as UNESCO, professing to speak on behalf of the whole world, the QCDA has now been abolished and the curriculum for England has been re-written under a secretary of state for education close in mind and spirit to E.D.Hirsch, a point to which I shall return.
But not in Wales, which has managed to out-do even the unlamented QCDA in vapidity. The Welsh Assembly, in its ‘The Learning Country 2: Delivering the Promise’, 2006, has as its first of seven educational aims the emergence of young people who have ‘a flying start in life’, as well as ensuring (!) that all children in Wales ‘have a safe home and a community which supports physical and emotional well-being’, and their ‘race and cultural identity recognised’. And to get children in Wales off the ground, so to speak, its school curriculum (‘for the 21st century’) ‘focuses on the learner’ (leaner, note, not pupil), and supports government policy on Europe and the World, equal opportunities, food and fitness, sustainable development and global citizenship, and entrepreneurship, while offering what the officials themselves call ‘reduced’ subject content and an increased focus on skills.
Where is teaching in all of this? Where is there any sense that before one can think, enquire, work independently, and fly off into a lifetime of achievement and economic well-being there are things which one simply has to learn and learn systematically (because otherwise the chances are one won’t)? Where is there any acknowledgement that there are duties owed to the past, that we as teachers have a vocation to reveal to the young where they have come from, and that if we do not pass on what has gone before us? Our cultural and spiritual amnesia will become ever more desolate, and we as a people ever more open to manipulation by oligarchs and smiling shucksters, only too able to seduce us with dissembling simplicities, the hog-wash of which Pound speaks in my epigraph. (That Pound himself was seduced by one such, as he later came painfully to admit, serves only to underline the gravity of our situation, dominated as it is by demotic politics and media, to whose blandishments the world of education has proved by no means immune.)
Above all, what the legislators from the four jurisdictions fail to recognise is that there is a considerable body of knowledge and experience worth entering for its own sake, and quite independently of any political, economic or social benefits. As for curriculum ‘developments’ being quite explicitly and shamelessly used to support or promote government policies, this was precisely what J.S. Mill warned against in ‘On Liberty’, Chapter 5: ‘A general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another, and the mould in which it pleases the predominant power in the government’ and, in so far as it is successful, it will establish ‘a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body’.
Mill’s warning about a despotism over the body might have seemed exaggerated in 1859, when he uttered it. But in Britain at least hardly a day passes without some celebrity cook being invited to pronounce on what can or can’t be eaten in state schools, while edicts emanate continually from government departments on matters such as childhood obesity and teenage pregnancy (which never seem to prevent either). And if I were a parent in Wales, I would object strenuously to my children being indoctrinated with whatever the Welsh Assembly thinks about Europe (which is not the Europe of Charlemagne and St Louis, but the EU), equal opportunities and the rest; but if I could not pay for a private school or move to England (in 2013, that is, but wait for the return of Labour, which was responsible for the QCDA and Every Child Matters), there would be nothing I could do about it. A despotism indeed, no better for being ‘democratic’ and not even noticed by the majority of the population, so inured are we to state interference in and control of education, as of so many aspects of our lives.
As for emotional well-being being a proper aim of schooling (particularly when interpreted as ‘happiness’), as Mill also taught, being a fulfilled human being, a human being in a certain sense maximising his potential, may actually be an unhappier human being: ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’ (Utilitarianism, Ch 2) Mill was, of course, responding to Jeremy Bentham’s notorious claim that, prejudice apart, as far as value goes pushpin is as good as music or poetry. Part of Mill’s point was that intellectual endeavour, as represented by Socrates, may lead to dissatisfaction, precisely because of the unfulfilled and possibly unfulfillable expectations it engenders. We have to recognise the fact that the educated mind might well be a mind prone to unhappiness at various levels, precisely because of the education itself stoking fruitless but possibly admirable ambition, but it might still be worthwhile, even so. Indeed (again Mill’s point), to leave a mind capable of education uneducated, stuck in an atmosphere of bovine or porcine pleasures and contentments, might be far more cruel than opening that mind to educated discontents.
In calling Bentham’s advocacy of pushpin notorious, we have, though, to remind ourselves that as a society we treat as serious artists rappers, pop singers, graffitists, pornographers and so-called conceptual artists such as Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George; while the recently appointed Chairman of the Arts Council for England is the man responsible for the execrable Big Brother on television. He is in fact pupil of Dulwich College and a Cambridge graduate, so no easy reassurance there, but rather an example of what might be called the oligarchic condescension of our rulers, but also a guarantee that he will be in no position to make, promote or defend the judgements of value which inspired the Arts Council, indeed what is was for, when it was set up in the 1940s by Maynard Keynes and Kenneth Clark. The slogan of that time, ‘the best for the most’, represented a noble ideal, to which the education of the time also aspired (in those days even at Dulwich and Cambridge), and aspired without invoking notions of happiness or emotional well-being.
One may, of course, think that educational regimes in the 1940s and 1950s were too harsh, and argue against the type of punishment and discipline which was common in the schools of the time. Indeed, in the world of ‘Every Child Matters’, obsessed with security, safety and so-called child protection (against what? Against any and every possible danger, real or imaginary, it sometimes seems, and often against the child’s own family), anything to do with physical or mental challenge, harshness, struggle or self-overcoming is likely to be a source of suspicion and rejection, inviting the attentions of ‘child protection’ officers and even the police. (Contrast the attitude of the Spartan mother who told her son, on his returning alive from a Spartan defeat, to leave her at once and expunge the dishonour. Other attitudes to childhood, other sensibilities than our own, in which children are at once cossetted and sexualised, are possible, and are not always obviously demonic. Indeed, even in terms of ultimate happiness and satisfaction, there could be something to be said for turning one’s attention away from ‘how I feel’ to things of value outside myself.)
But what one is not at liberty to do, at least not if one wants to retain any intellectual integrity, is to assert the 21st century sentimentalism that children cannot learn if they are not happy. They could, they can, and in many parts of the world, they still do (learn in an atmosphere of fear, even). No one could seriously maintain that the music and ballet schools of Eastern Europe of recent memory (and for all I know, even now) were places of ease, fostering or even interested in the emotional well-being of those being taught in them, but learning of a very high order undoubtedly took place, higher than in most comparable institutions in the West, indeed. One could maintain that the personal costs were too high, which might be reasonable, but what would not be reasonable would be to assert that learning had not been happening (and similar points could be made about the grammar schools and gymnasia of 19th century England and Germany). So we may simply have to confront the possibility that we, as a culture, are ready to trade a certain level of excellence off against a hoped-for emotional well-being.
On the current shibboleth of laying on even young children the burden of being independent learners and critical thinkers, I would draw attention to what Ruskin had to say in his lecture on ‘The Future of England’ from 1869: ‘The people are crying out for you to command, and you stand there at pause, and are silent… “Govern us”, they cry, with one heart, though many minds… You alone can feed them and clothe, and bring into their right minds, for you only can govern… that is to say, you only can educate them.’ Whatever we (or Ruskin) might hope from our rulers, a teacher is not, or should not be, one who stands there at pause and is silent. A teacher should be one who (like Ruskin) has much of value to impart, who has a passion for imparting it, and the belief and confidence to do so.
But, of course, there are also the many minds before the teacher, the great crux on which so many fail, and so many are broken. For the best but most cruelly deceived of motives, too many teachers are in the ‘deep mess’ that Ursula Brangwen was in D.H.Lawrence’s The Rainbow (Ch 13), when she (like Lawrence himself) tried her hand at teaching. ‘Children will never naturally acquiesce to sitting in a class and submitting to knowledge. They must be compelled by a stronger, wiser will. Against which they must always strive to revolt. So that the first great effort of every teacher must be to bring the will of the children into accordance with his own will. And this he can only do by an abnegation of his personal self, and an application of a system of laws, for the purpose of achieving a certain calculable result, the imparting of certain knowledge. Whereas Ursula thought that she was going to be the first wise teacher by making the whole business personal…’ And, while we are turning to Lawrence, there is also Jimmy Shepherd: ‘We have assumed that we could educate Jimmy Shepherd and make him a Shelley or an Isaac Newton. At the very least we were sure we could make him a highly intelligent being. And we’re just beginning to find our mistake. We can’t make a highly intelligent being out of Jimmy Shepherd. Why should we, if the Lord had created him only moderately intelligent? Why do we always want to go one better than the Creator?’ (D.H.Lawrence, ‘The Education of the People’ (1918), in Lawrence on Education, (edited by Joy and Raymond Williams), Penguin Education, 1973, p 133.)
Because of our sentimental attitude to children and to ourselves, we don’t like all this talk of stronger, wiser wills and knowledge and results and children who cannot achieve much or even anything in the academic line, but however it is dressed up, this is the underlying reality of the classroom. This does not mean being brutal, but it does mean recognising, genuinely recognising differences between pupils, and not in a misguided spirit of egalitarianism trying to give all the same, best , worst and middle, which will not help either the best or the worst, and will probably not do much for the middle either. The upshot of vainly trying to educate pupils beyond their real abilities is simply to turn out ‘a lot of half-informed youth who despise the whole business of understanding and wisdom’, as Lawrence predicted. The Welsh Assembly may believe it can ‘ensure’ safe homes and communities for all the children in the Principality, but even it cannot do what God has ordained cannot be done. If we are truly concerned about education rather than the pursuit of a humanly destructive egalitarian utopianism , we must work out forms of schooling suitable for the pupils before us.
We should extend and challenge all pupils, to be sure, but not continually humiliate the unacademic, the Jimmy Shepherds who do (still) exist and in significant numbers (see Charles Murray, Real Education, Crown Forum, New York, 2008, Ch 2), by giving them material that simply rams home their limitations in the theoretic and abstract spheres. Rather, we should really recognise difference (as we are constantly urged to do by progressive educationalists, for whom ‘differentiation’ is currently an obsession) and develop forms of education for the non-academic which respond to their often considerable potential for activities of a practical nature.
We must also recognise, as Aristotle did long ago, that in matters of behaviour generally, and in matters of learning more specifically, ‘it makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth, it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.’ (Nicomachean Ethics, 1103a33) Further, in human development, reasoning is not the first capacity we acquire: ‘Just as the body comes into existence earlier than the soul, so also the unreasoning is prior to that which possesses reason… while passion and will and desire are to be found in children even right from birth, reasoning and intelligence come into their possession as they grow older. Therefore care of the body must begin before care of the soul, then the training of the appetitive element.’ (Politics, 1334b27-8) All parents and teachers of young children will recognise the need for what Aristotle calls the training of the appetitive element, the directing of the will and desire into habits of virtue. For, unless we have some inclination towards virtue, reasoning on its own will not make us moral (which is part of what we hope from a good education). So a lot of education is, or should be, to do with the development of a virtuous character, which, because it is not purely natural, is not something which will develop without the habituation which comes from training, habit and perception. Pace the Scottish Executive, secure values and beliefs are not enough; they have to be correct values and true beliefs, rooted in virtuous dispositions.
If Aristotle is right that we cannot reason well about morality without having virtuous dispositions, then the sort of critical thinking which might be desirable must follow on from this training of the appetitive element, as he puts it, or training of character, as we might put it. And we could add to that, that experience too is part of the wisdom required in genuinely critical thinking, and one reason that I am cautious about the value of ‘independent’ reasoning at too young an age. It is rarely actually independent, and can all too often degenerate into jejeune logic-chopping, and is all too likely to subside into a simplistic consequentialism, if not informed by some relevant knowledge and experience, enabling us to distinguish between the long-term results we might desire and the likelihood of them actually occurring as a matter of practical policy. As Aristotle puts it, ‘we ought to attend to the undemonstrated sayings and opinions of experienced and older people or of people of practical wisdom not less than to demonstrations; for because experience has gi ven them an eye, they see aright.’ (N.Eth, 1143a31) The point here is that experience, and experience alone, gives us the basis we need to judge sensibly in actual, complicated situations, situations where there is no clear-cut application of first principles, but rather a question of weighing and assessing competing factors and considerations, and often in the process modifying our original ends to boot.
I have criticised the curricular documents we have been examining for the absence in them of any sense that there might be things worth learning for their own sake. Part of the burden of my argument is that the teacher has his or her authority because he or she knows things which the pupils do not, and that these things are important for pupils to become acquainted with, either because they are necessary means to desirable ends or because they are valuable in themselves. I will say little on the first element (means to other ends), beyond a general caution that in this area. Because of the universal and compulsory nature of schooling, a very good case would have to be made out for including a utilitarian item on the curriculum. Is this x essential for future well-being? Is it going to be available only in school? Is it best imparted in school? So basic literacy and numeracy would qualify here, but we should be very sceptical of lobbyists who are constantly urging that their speciality be on the curriculum (e.g. cooking, personal finance, local politics, computing technology). These things are often a) a matter of fashion or in other ways transient, b) easily and often better picked up elsewhere, and c) may not be really necessary anyway.
So we turn to things valuable in themselves, and the learning of which should (could) be itself an advancement in life, and not a means to some further advancement (even if it is). In a way we are back with Socrates and the fool, and what is particularly difficult here is that the uneducated person, being uneducated and therefore without the knowledge a Socrates has, is in no position to make a sensible choice as to the value of a Socratic existence. (Mill: ‘And if the fool or the pig is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.’) So there is something amiss with the thought of the Scottish Executive that in these matters the views of pupils should be taken into account. The burden and the faith rests with the teacher; so is it an unreasonable faith? Are we dealing here with mere prejudice, as Bentham (and anyone who repudiates judgements of value in this area) would have it?
What this question comes down to is whether the things of which education and, by extension, culture deal with are important and worthwhile, which is partly why, in distinction from our legislative documents, it is as well to be somewhat specific about the putative content of any liberal curriculum (liberal=knowledge which is liberating in a human sense, knowledge which is worth having for its own sake). It would certainly, as Newman proposed in the 1852 addresses now known as The Idea of a University, involve studying what is worth studying for its own sake; and it would also have as a goal producing in pupils the ability to see the different elements of knowledge and culture as they stand in relation to each other, and as they each, in their own way, contribute to the whole of human thought and experience. More specifically, again following Newman in essence, but drawing on the categorisation proposed by Kant, we could say that the substance of a liberal education deals with what concerns the world, the soul and God (taking the soul to cover humanity in its history and in its attempts to come to terms with its condition, and God to involve reflecting on ultimate realities). Put in this way, it would probably be hard to find anyone who might not find something valuable, something worthwhile in these studies. After all, we are not just machines for survival and reproduction, though if we were, coming to this conclusion would be part of what emerged from the study of the world, the soul and God. It would thus be one of the results of a liberal study (though, in my view, an unfortunate result, because if all our activity is simply geared to promoting survival and reproduction this would undermine the claims of any of our beliefs, including our belief in the theory of evolution, to be true as opposed to merely survival-promoting).
What is involved in the traditional liberal curriculum is what is or hopes to be (in Matthew Arnold’s phrase) the best that has been thought and known (or said) on these matters, and it is here particularly that judgements will tend to be internal to the particular form of knowledge or experience. For example, no one as a ten or even a sixteen year old pupil outside Italy, or indeed as anyone who had not read and given serious attention to the Divine Comedy could have any real sense of the value of the poetry of Dante. Here, as in science, as in maths, as in history, as in music, I will have, to a greater or lesser, extent, in starting to rely on the judgements of those who have gone before me, who have studied these things and made themselves expert in them, and who have seen these things surviving the test of time: that is that they are not merely the taste or expertise of one generation or culture, but have appealed and appealed deeply to different people in different times and places. There is, of course, room for movement and adjustment in all of this, and in the case of science, a degree of progressive increments of knowledge and certainty, and displacement of failed ideas. But, for anyone not attracted to a modish relativism, works such as those of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Pushkin, Racine, Proust and so on in literature, and similar lists from other fields are going to remain central and touchstones of what can and has been done. It was, I think, F.H.Bradley who opined that the man to whom ring a’ ring a’ roses is as good as a Shakespeare sonnet is ‘either a fool or an advanced thinker.’ Unfortunately for far too many of our children, the world of education, particularly in so called schools of education, but also in university literature departments, contains within it large numbers of noisily advanced thinkers.
There is nothing in fact very new in this. As Jonathan Rose reports (in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Yale University Press, 2001, p 366), even in the 1960s the social historian Richard Hoggart was inveighing against what he called ‘the Beatles are in their own way as good as Beethoven nonsense’, and reporting hearing an Oxbridge academic proclaiming that ‘lavatorial graffiti are not to be distinguished in any qualitative way from the drawings of Rembrandt’ and a BBC executive declaring that ‘there is no longer art. There is only culture-of all kinds.’ This is significant, poignant even, because Hoggart had himself been a pioneer of the study of popular culture which had led to the very erosion of judgement he is here deploring. That this abandonment of discrimination has only grown in influence and significance in the subsequent half century or so does not make it any the less deplorable, or any the less of a betrayal of generations of children, particularly of children from backgrounds of illiteracy, poverty and deprivation, where school is probably going to be the only place where they might be able to receive any sort of cultural or intellectual stimulation.
Over and above coining the phrase ‘the best that has been thought and known’, Matthew Arnold said this: ‘Plenty of people will try to give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper for the actual condition of the masses. The ordinary popular literature (read: television, pop music, computer games) is an example of this way of working on the masses… but culture works differently. It does not try to teach down to the level of inferior classes… (it seeks) to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere, to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light, where they may use ideas, as it sees them itself, freely – nourished, and not bound by them.’ (Culture and Anarchy, 1869, Chelsea House, New York, 1983, p 31)
Personally I would resile from the unfortunate phrase ‘sweetness and light’: I do not find sweetness in the Iliad or the Oresteia – light maybe, but a steady, unwavering light, illuminating the darkness of our condition. Moreover, I doubt very much that ‘sweetness and light’ however generously construed, will on their own be enough to counter the effects of original sin, to which we are all continuously prone and whose effects are dramatically and unpityingly revealed in Homer and Aeschylus. But these reservations aside, I find Arnold’s vision of the teacher (for that is what it is) both uplifting and (in the true sense) challenging. It is the possession of such a vision in his or her chosen subject, together with the craft and strength to transmit it to those unacquainted with what it consists in (and who in all probability will not otherwise become acquainted) which makes a good teacher.
In England in 2012 some new governmental standards for teachers were introduced, following drafting from a small committee, of which I was privileged to be a member. (Teachers’ Standards, May 2012, available from the Department for Education website https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/) Against the prevailing governmental and bureaucratic trends, in them there is a vision of the teacher not too far distant from Arnold’s. There is a strong focus on the practice of teaching itself, on subject knowledge and understanding, on love of learning and engagement with one’s subject, on scholarship and on intellectual curiosity, on stretching pupils of all backgrounds, and also on rules for behaviour and the appropriate exercise of authority, which is not just about behaviour, narrowly conceived, but which is about one’s authority as a teacher, but also – in the spirit of liberal education – about not exploiting pupil’s vulnerabilities thorough misuse of that authority. Perhaps more important, and in line with Hirsch’s strictures, there are significant omissions (significant, that is, in to-day’s world of education). There are no such creatures as ‘learners’ (though plenty of teachers and pupils), there is no talk of independent or personalised learning, not is there obeisance to the great idol of group work or mention of ICT. Teachers are expected to have skills of their own, but these are not to include equipping pupils with skills, as opposed to developing and extending the knowledge and understanding of pupils in the subjects they will study (study, note, not ‘research’).
What these subjects will be, and how delineated, has now (2013) been outlined for England in a new national curriculum framework. (Despite my Millian strictures earlier about a general state education, given that the political reality is that we do have a national curriculum, and will almost certainly continue to have one in some form or other, it is crucial that such a curriculum should reflect the best that has been thought and known, rather than be an instrument of social and economic engineering, as it all too often is and even in England could all too easily be again.) As already mentioned, this new curriculum for England is in the spirit of Hirsch’s Core Knowledge initiative, with a sense of ‘the best that has been thought and known’ strongly in the background, though with little detail as to what is to count as ‘high-quality works’ or ‘seminal’ literature or the ‘greatest artists, architects and designers in history’ or ‘great’ musicians and composers. There is considerably more detail in the areas of science and mathematics and also, significantly, in history, at the core of which is a sequential narrative account of the history of Britain and the British Isles (though not omitting the American Revolution!). It is this largely schematic attempt to give British children some sense of their identity and history which prompted Sir Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, not to praise the curriculum, as one might have expected, but to dismiss it as amounting to the ‘rote learning of the patriotic stocking fillers so beloved of traditionalists’. One might reply that it was precisely the abandonment of any attempt in school history teaching to give an overview of British history that led to the subject becoming, for the ordinary reader anyway, dominated by vastly popular books, written in the main by non-academics, no doubt to the chagrin of the academics. This aside, though, I cannot myself see any demand for rote learning or indeed of mention of dates in the new history curriculum (maybe there should actually be something in these respects more than the rather vague references there are to ‘essential chronology’!).
Nor do I accept the view of Simon Schama, that this ‘insulting and offensive’ curriculum is simply or mainly about national self-congratulation. The narrative history of these isles could and perhaps should be a source of weeping and despair at human cruelty and stupidity (medieval anti-Semitism, the Wars of the Roses, Ireland over the centuries, the persecution of Catholics, the slave trade, aspects of imperialism, the highland clearances, the Boer War, the 1914-8 War). But there should also be a degree of justified self-congratulation in certain respects, which possibly Professor Schama would himself admit (such as the development of the rule of law, religious toleration, democracy and liberal values, and our peerless literary heritage), were he not so ready denigrate politicians for whom he evinces a rather unscholarly visceral loathing. (And it is hard to resist remarking on the incongruity of the comment that the new syllabus was written by people who have ‘never sat and taught 12 year-olds in a classroom’, coming from a man more familiar with television studios than with school-teaching, as his reference to sitting and teaching 12 year-olds surely underlines.)
But Sir Richard Evans and Professor Schama are not the only critics, and history is not the only source of academic discontent. The whole curriculum and its underlying direction are deeply misguided in the opinion of 100 ‘leading’ academics in education, all working in publicly funded universities (including Oxford, Cambridge and London), who wrote a letter on the subject to the Independent newspaper. According to the 100, ‘this mountain of data will not develop children’s abilities to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity… Little account is taken of children’s potential, interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity’, in place of which there are what the letter describes as ‘endless lists’ of spellings, facts and rules. (Published in The Independent, where it also received a favourable leading article in support, March 20th, 2013.)
The education academics’ letter is symbolically useful in that it exemplifies perfectly the kind of thinking – and writing – Hirsch was warning us against, and also the weight and type of opinion would-be reformers will inevitably have to confront. We can note in the letter both hyperbole (mountain of data, endless lists) and flailing invective (singling out spellings, facts and rules for special opprobrium, as if these were in some way obviously objectionable and in tension with ‘thinking’).
But my objection to the letter goes far deeper. For many children, including those (some of whom I know) who live in circumstances of violence, crime, poverty and neglect, far from education needing to relate to their circumstances, as our experts would have it, a good school can be an oasis of civilisation. It can be this precisely because it is taking pupils away from the circumstances of their lives, which they leave behind at the school gate, into a different and a better, a more peaceful and a more orderly world. But school as an oasis of sorts is not the case only for pupils coming from difficult or deprived circumstances. For most, if not all, pupils entering into the worlds of science, mathematics, history, classical music, and great art and literature – entering into the best that has been thought and known -ought to be a prime way of transcending their immediate circumstances, and affording them visions of enduring value and endless possibility which even from situations of affluence they could not otherwise imagine or dream of.
Simone Weil once rather plaintively said ‘I do not mind having no visible successes, but what does grieve me is the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides.’ And in order to open that transcendent kingdom to others she famously wrote and spoke about Antigone for factory workers. Without hoping to emulate that great spirit in any other way, we educators can at least emulate her in this. In their own different ways, such was also the ideal of Arnold, of Newman, of Ruskin and of Mill, all of whom I have mentioned in this lecture, eminent Victorians all, in whose footsteps I humbly follow.
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