Skip to comments.On the front line in the war against dunces
Posted on 12/23/2001 2:47:39 PM PST by NativeNewYorker
IF YOU dumb down secondary education, a generation later you will find you have dumbed down everything, your teachers, your politicians, your businessmen, your television, even your scientists. The contrast of English generations is visible everywhere, particularly in the two Houses of Parliament. The average age of the Commons is a generation below that of the Lords; the peers are so old that we were educated before the flood. Most of the unfortunate young persons in the House of Commons have had a more modern education; it shows in their relatively incoherent debates.
Only 40 years ago, the grammar and public schools, which are themselves only fee-paying and independent grammar schools, turned out students with a wider and deeper general education than one now finds in the average university graduate. In the 1950s a good student would leave a grammar school with some knowledge of four languages and four great literatures; the fourth language was English, which was learnt by contrasting its usages with Latin, Greek and French. The student would have been grounded in mathematics and science, and would also have studied English history and the Bible, which contains the holy books of two world religions. Too few students had the advantage of this excellent education. In 1964 a Labour Government was elected with a policy of correcting this inequality, not by creating more grammar schools, but by destroying those that already existed. They did not attack the private schools; they destroyed the best part of state education. This was an act of iconoclasm, far more destructive in its long-term consequences than the destruction of the two great Buddhist statues by the Taleban.
We know when the grammar schools ended; they began in 1510, when John Colet, then Dean of St Paul's, founded St Paul's School. That school has survived only because it is not a state school. From the beginning Colet aimed to teach the new learning, the Greek studies that had been brought to Europe after the fall of Constantinople half a century earlier. St Paul's School is a Renaissance institution. The first students were cosmopolitan. There was no restriction of nationality and Greek was taught as well as Latin. From the beginning it was meritocratic, as it still is. The students had to be able to read and write and had to be "of good capacity".
Colet was influenced by his close friends, including Thomas More and Erasmus, whom he had known since Erasmus first visited Oxford in 1498. This Renaissance system of education spread by example to many other schools. The great Busby at Westminster in the 17th century, or Arnold at Rugby in the 19th, were teaching in the Colet grammar school tradition.
Its greatest virtue was the study of literature. Even in the 1950s, a student could leave a grammar school with a fair chance of having studied Cicero and Thucydides, Virgil and Homer, some French literature, perhaps Voltaire, and the classics of English literature, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, perhaps Dryden and Pope, Gibbon, the Romantic poets, and the major novelists of the 19th century. For some, that was the start of a lifetime of reading, growing broader with time. For others it was the only literary interest they ever developed.
The study of literature trains and extends the human faculties. Our own imaginations, in their natural state, are dull and limited. The great creative authors bring their power of imagination to us, and their understanding of human nature. The great thinkers give us at least some idea of the way in which their minds work. We can almost hear Socrates talking.
Human psychology remains much the same over time. People still feel jealous like Othello, malignant like Iago, infatuated like Juliet, irresolute like Hamlet, ambitious like Macbeth or Lady Macbeth. Logic remains the same; self-contradictory argument is in the same model now as it was in the time of Aristotle. Literature is the road to general understanding, at the heart as well as of the head.
Erasmus knew that; we do not recognise it now. Dumbing-down continues to expand in ripples, long after the first big stone has been thrown into the lily-pond. In the Christmas issue of The Spectator, Julia Lewis writes a poignant piece: "An Axe to the Roots of our National Culture". In my view, the axe fell in the 1960s; we are now grubbing out the roots. She tells how "the Government is forcing libraries to sell, and sometimes pulp, great works of literature in the name of vibrancy and multiculturism".
With deadly bureaucratic precision, each local authority has been given 8.5 years to replenish its entire stock. "Councils have to submit a 'library plan' to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport . . . 'the targets are to make sure that libraries are vibrant and attract people to them'." The result is the dumbing-down of libraries, just as secondary education was dumbed down in the 1960s and 70s. Apart from the insult to the residual functions of local authorities, this is authoritarian modernisation, with its contempt for the past.
Julia Lewis finds it is not only high intellectual books that are thrown out. The Borough of Merton, whose citizens could do with a good read, has been selling not only George Eliot, who does after all get on television, and Dickens, but The Darling Buds of May, as reader-friendly a book as one could hope for, and a television series as well.
At her own library, Miss Lewis made a check, using a book she had bought at one of these sales, One Hundred Great Books! Masterpieces of All Time. "The library computer revealed just seven of these books. It registered as zero when I typed in Aristotle's Ethics or Malthus's Essay on the Principles of Population - hardly surprising. But no Pride and Prejudice, Robinson Crusoe, Madame Bovary, Brave New World or War and Peace."
I have, at this point, to declare an interest as the chairman of Pickering & Chatto Publishers; we publish collected scholarly editions of historic English authors. We do indeed publish two of the missing authors, Malthus and Defoe. My financial interest will be a slight one, since our editions are not widely bought by the English public library. Small print runs are expensive; we cannot find sales on the Harry Potter scale for the 29 volumes of our collected Darwin.
Nevertheless, the pulping and sale of great books angers any book-lover, and most publishers are book-lovers. In English literature and learning, Pickering publishes or is preparing editions of Leigh Hunt, Robert Southey, William Godwin, William Hazlitt, Mary Shelley, Benjamin Disraeli, Horace Walpole, Christina Rossetti, Aphra Behn, Fanny Burney, Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Gay, Eliza Haywood, William Shakespeare, Thomas de Quincey, Mary Wollstonecraft, H.G. Wells, Mariah Edgeworth, Wilkie Collins, William Cobbett, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Thomas Malthus, Robert Boyle, Charles Babbage and Charles Darwin. These are our elite troop in the war against the dunces.
The scholarship that has gone into these editions is often English, but the sales mainly go to the United States, Japan, or other countries overseas. We export something close to 90 per cent of our books. In America and Japan, English literature is seen for what it is: this island's greatest contribution to world culture. The Germans do music; the English do books. I include, obviously, Irish, Scottish and Welsh authors in the literature of the English language.
It may, perhaps, be too late to reverse the iconoclasm of the 1960s that destroyed the grammar schools. It is not too late to fight the book-pulping of the Department of Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest.
For my part, I am throwing Daniel Defoe first into the battle. He wrote almost every sort of literature, novels, Utopian fantasies, histories, travels, social studies, economic pamphlets, brilliant journalism, passable poetry. Of all the great English authors he is the most varied in his subject matter, but always close to the realities of human life. Pickering & Chatto's biggest project for this decade is a 44-volume edition of his works, the first proper collected edition. It is being edited by Owens and Fairban, two leading Defoe scholars. They come from the Open University, of which Defoe would surely have approved. Bureaucrats may try to "deaccession" Defoe; with his help, we can hope to dethrone them.
Cancerous sites are best removed or the cancer will metastasize.
Why are the British people standing for this excision of great literature from the school curricula?
What a loss of knowledge - one of the worst sins a nation can commit upon itself.
From the Renaissance to the early 20th century, education was seen as a means for the cultural advancement of man.
Now, our system of learning is geared towards producing workers with enough knowledge to perform assigned tasks.
Michealangelo and Mozart.
Marilyn Manson and crap on canvas.
One of the reasons businesses have trouble expanding in NYC is that our public schools produce innumerate illitrates who can neither add nor read.
The schools here have largely stopped functioning at all. They seemingly train nobody for anything.