I was recently shown a clip from Question Time where the subject of education was being discussed. An audience member, sceptical of the “usefulness” (for want of a less odious term to describe art) of learning poetry in schools, challenged the panel to recite a poem they learned at school. Most, predictably, failed to do so and I suspect if they could remember one, preferred to toe the politically correct line that we should not be subjecting children to such anachronisms. The erstwhile Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry, spouted vague and contradictory statements about how learning the names of the kings and queens of antiquity is no longer educationally relevant, but all the same it is important for children to understand history. The general mood was one of scornful disdain and transparent bias for classical education, presumably fuelled by the oh-so-well-meaning anti-elitist imperative that so animates modern British liberals.
I remember similar arguments even when I was at school, during the height of the Blair years around the teaching of that “dead language”, Latin. Thanks to the modernisation of the curriculum, I was not given an opportunity to be taught Latin, so apparently irrelevant was it to my future career. The fact that this was the prevailing view merely indicates how little the people in a position to make such decisions understood about education. The teaching of Latin is a sort of multi-disciplinary foundational bedrock which gives students a grounding in history, classics, modern European languages, literature, linguistics, archaeology, drama, art, religious studies, politics and philosophy – Oh and while we are at it, every scientific discipline (including mathematics) which makes use of Latin designations and terminology. A dead language indeed.
But I digress; the point is not whether these subjects really are “useful” (there’s that awful word again), besides, education is useful by definition. Although certain skills and areas of knowledge are more directly applicable to everyday life, it is the act of study, of stimulating the mind and generating a lust for knowledge, that is the most important aspect. Much like the well-worn notion that it matters more “how you think” than “what you think”, it matters more how you learn than what you are studying. From this perspective it is important to inspire and ignite.
To return to Question Time, the one panellist who stood out from the rest of the closed-ranked flock was Peter Hitchens who recited on command Into my heart an air that kills by A.E. Housman and called out those who would pour scorn on this knowledge as having declared themselves a spiritual desert. Why should children be raised in a howling beige wilderness of “useful” information rather than having their minds, as Hitchens put it, “furnished with beauty”.
There have been societies before ours who have sought to stamp out education in anything other than directly functional matters and tear down “degenerate” practices or “formalist” art forms. Perhaps I can leave it to you to guess which societies I am referring to – I’ll even give you a clue; if the term “spiritual desert” refers to anything it would refer, despite their differences, to both.
And there is even more at stake; If we insist on taking this attitude to education we risk, not only denying students the inspiration and wonder of classics, poetry and art, but also in denying them an identity. Poetry alone is so bound up with historical context and national identity, that the insight you can gain into your own sense of place and history from the study of poetry, is invaluable; Wordsworth, Blake, Larkin, Shakespeare and many others are part of Britain’s national fabric. While for some reason it seems unfashionable these days to suggest that children should be raised with a sense of identity, place and history, I believe that to raise them in that aforementioned desert will have far worse consequences.
So, for those who don’t know this one:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
A.E Housman (1859-1936)
Featured Image Credit: Design by Imagine Athena, featuring Ovid’s Metamorphoses.