“The best which has been said and thought”: reconsidering a liberal education in 2017

Whilst the headlines of news reporting might well be regularly dominated by the very real concerns of terrorism, defence, disasters, international sabre-rattling and garrulous demagogues, the issue of education generally occupies rather more benign paddocks across the landscape of society, quietly evolving as a civilised asset of an enlightened age.

Still, despite the seemingly innocuous slow burn of education’s significance to the development of society, I would like to make a few comments about what I consider to be the profound power of education, and to reflect on its progressive and yet problematic impact on societies even in relatively recent history.

Education has moved over the centuries between the diametrically opposed poles of liberal-minded inspiration and strict authoritarian control. As educators, we are entrusted with a marvellously rewarding chance to contribute to the ongoing growth of our people and our society; of course, not all societies historically have chosen to adopt that approach to education, which instead (in some cases) can become a powerful means of command and control.

In England and Europe

In England, the 1870 Education Act stands as that nation’s first piece of legislation to deal specifically with the provision of education for all children. It demonstrated a commitment to such a provision on a national scale, moving away from the presumption that education should be restricted to those who were, by virtue of class, best able to benefit from it. Few surely would now disagree with the importance of this historical development, although we should also bear in mind the immense political dimension inherent in the reality of any national curriculum, through which a society’s skills and values are in some measure directed and controlled.

Actually, across Europe a century or so ago various educated voices of the intellectual elite were not entirely enamoured by this approach to nation-wide education. Friedrich Nietzsche opposed universal education, claiming in Thus Spoke Zarathustra ‘[the notion] that everyone can learn to read will ruin in the long run not only writing, but thinking too’. Similarly, the novelist DH Lawrence declared: ‘let all schools close at once … the great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write.’ (Fantasia of the Unconscious). Furthermore, Lawrence hoped, as John Carey argues in The Intellectuals and the Masses (Faber and Faber, 1992), that without education the masses would pleasantly relapse into purely physical life, and in this way the dangers of a ‘presumptuous, newspaper-reading population may be averted’. TS Eliot, however magnificent his poetry, bemoaned: ‘there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody we are lowering standards … destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanised caravans’. (Selected Essays, 1951)

Education and gender

Inevitably, and sometimes problematically, education and gender roles have been entwined historically. Having arrived back home to Grammar most recently from the wonderfully historical Christ’s Hospital School in Sussex, England, I thought I would share a few rare glimpses from a 1937 publication of Christ’s Hospital’s own proud declarations regarding curriculum, as voiced by the then Clerk of the School, George AT Allan, to demonstrate the significance of such a curriculum, and its problematic impact on girls. Allan notes proudly of the girls’ curriculum at the school:

So began the regeneration of the girls’ school on modern lines, although the aim of the curriculum today is not essentially removed from the [stated ambition] that ‘the girls are instructed in all such work as becomes their sex and may fit them for good wives, mistresses and to be a blessing to their generation’

I think the choice of the word ‘ideal’ is comment enough for the words which follow:

Let us see if we differ from this ideal… the ordinary school curriculum is certain to be up to standard; but it is not every school that can boast of a model laundry, cookery school, and model flat. Every girl before she leaves the school goes through a practical course of housecraft; and if she stays after passing Matric. There is a two-year course in advanced household science; so that all start their after-school life knowing something of cookery, laundry work, upholstery, needlework and dressmaking, besides acquiring some useful tastes through the exercise of their individual hobbies.

The boys’ curriculum at this time, on a separate campus, included Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Classics, as well as schooling in the famous Royal Mathematical School established by King Charles II in 1673. Clearly, curriculum and resourcing, locally and on a national scale, are profoundly significant aspects and statements of political and sociological values.

I have always found the following excerpt from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962) compelling when considering the key dichotomy of activity and passivity in education, and I would like to think that Grammar is a demonstration of the freedom from such an experience:

Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: “You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show you how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought aid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual that others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself – educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.

Indeed, Lessing’s articulation of the ‘robust and individual’ might well suit the Grammar boys and their masters. Further, I think that Grammar is truly a place where free-thinking and civilized debate allows all involved to, in an ongoing sense, be ‘educating [our]own judgements’. Lessing’s words point not only to the political dimensions of education of generations of children, but also to the (at times) frightening passivity of the system, in which students and teachers submit slavishly and soullessly to mandated curricula and short-sighted regulations.

Matthew Arnold and ‘liberal education’

Grammar has a strong sense of the notion of a ‘liberal education’. This approach is as old as education itself, but we might usefully consider the perspective of Matthew Arnold. He was a leading Victorian 19th century English social and literary critic, as well as a poet. His father, Thomas, was a famed headmaster of Rugby School in England.

Writing in 1868, he proposed that, during the junior years of secondary school, pupils should study, ‘the mother-tongue, the elements of Latin, and the chief modern languages, the elements of history, of arithmetic and geometry, of geography, and of the knowledge of nature.’ Arnold believed such a curriculum would be ‘the first great stage of a liberal education’. He did not invent the idea of such a form of education. Its roots go back to classical antiquity, when it was widely recognised that, to use Aristotle’s words, ‘there is a form of education which we must provide for our sons, not as being useful or essential but as elevated and worthy of free men’.

Arnold believed liberal education should be the prime aim of all schooling beyond the most elementary and crudely vocational, claiming that ‘the aim and office of instruction … is to enable a man to know himself and the world … to know himself, a man must know the capabilities and performances of the human spirit …[which is] the value of the humanities … but it is also a vital and formative knowledge to know the world, the laws which govern nature, and man as a part of nature’, ultimately allowing one to access ‘the best which has been said and thought’.

Modern concerns

Grammar advocates a liberal, pre-vocational, secular education. We aim for an enduring intellectual life which will be adaptable to both contemporary and the unpredictable, future worlds of work. Core subject knowledge for its own sake, and a relentlessly diverse range of academically rigorous pathways, remain essential.

Daisy Christadoulou’s influential book Seven Myths About Education (Routledge, 2013) confronts a worrying, contemporary line of educational thinking. This worrying approach asserts, in a data and information-rich internet-supported age, that ‘general knowledge’, (i.e. the accumulation of details, facts, stories, patterns, ideas etc.) is no longer of importance in teaching and learning. The argument goes that we are now living and learning in an age of skills and manipulation of immediately accessible factual knowledge.

Whilst it is clear that we live in a time of unprecedently swift access to facts and data, there are serious long term cognitive reasons why learning the fundamental features of a liberal course of subjects is of crucial long-term benefit to intellectual muscularity of young people as they grow into the swiftly-changing next few decades.

Writing on the significance of human long-term memory, PA Kirschner (Educational Psychologist, 2006) notes that ‘Our understanding of the role of long-term memory in human cognition has altered dramatically over the last few decades. It is no longer seen as a passive repository of discrete, isolated fragments of information … Rather, long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see hear and think about is critically dependent on the influenced by our long-term memory’. Put another way, the more extensive the landscape of your ‘factual’ and detailed knowledge of fundamental subjects may be, the richer and more powerful your ongoing landscape of instantaneous reference when encountering each new situation, a cognitive multiplicity equivalent to millions of Google searches in just moments. Inevitably, our perceptions, understanding, and judgements are constantly dependant upon that acquisition of detail (factual, narrative, visual), and it is this domain of experiential material that we then assess and judge each new challenge.

The years to come will almost certainly present our boys with new and possibly unforeseen challenges. However unforeseen such challenges may be, we know that our boys will leave Grammar and eventually enter the next generation of work possessing a landscape of instantaneous reference, a ‘long-term memory’ which will be securely founded upon ‘the best which has been said and thought’.

Dr RB Malpass

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