Culture and Anarchy, 150 years on: Teaching the best that is known and thought?

Saturday 28 October, 14:0015:30, Old ShopBook Club Salons

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Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy left an important legacy for British schools. Many of his ideas were duly considered by politicians and policy makers of the early twentieth century, as they planned a modern, national education system. But what is its relevance for education in 2017? Today, when literature, and most other subjects, are mainly conceived in terms of how useful they may be for building technical skills, or how well they could promote current moral messages from respect for diversity to healthy relationships, maybe it’s time to consider Arnold’s thought afresh?

For Arnold, education meant access to culture. Not any culture, but ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’. Arnold asserted that culture was about human perfection – the study of pure knowledge, but also the social and moral good. As a school inspector, Arnold was fiercely critical of schools which failed to introduce pupils to examples of good literature, preferring instead to use books intended to provide drilling in basic literacy skills, or simplistic moralistic messages of the day.

Arnold’s view that the point of education was to humanise, in the sense of becoming more capable of autonomous judgement, is very different to today’s fashion for competent and effective thinkers, or for socially aware citizens whose awareness is rarely encouraged to stray beyond contemporary shibboleths. Arnold saw the very essence of life and culture as an ‘inward operation’ – something that had to be worked at in order to make one a better person. But this doesn’t come from reading David Walliams or studying the geography of football. Rather, it is when the pupil enters the world of sciences, the arts and the humanities that this knowledge changes how they see and interact with the world around them. As a result, their sense of self grows. What was especially radical about Culture and Anarchy was that Arnold held this aspiration for all children: ‘when the whole of society is in the fullest measure permeated by thought, sensible to beauty, intelligent and alive’.

Today a broader discussion of how culture and the need for value judgements affect education and the curriculum is often displaced.  Instead we have management-driven systems of levels, competencies, measuring learning objectives, demonstrating ‘progress’ and assessment for learning. Procedure and systems have replaced a love of learning what is true, beautiful and right. Not even the new knowledge-led National Curriculum was able to spark the teaching profession into a discussion of what knowledge we value and want to pass on to the next generation.

Are today’s educational orthodoxies, and the curriculum specifically, up to the job of fostering the quality of judgment Arnold passionately advocated? What should we teach school pupils and students today?