A good cultural education makes good individuals and a good society

Published by ConservativeHome

Matthew Arnold quote

Matthew Arnold – poet, essayist and Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools – famously wrote that culture is concerned with knowing “the best that has been said and thought in the world”. This has become the leitmotif of Michael Gove’s educational revolution: if children are not exposed to the classics of literature, music, theatre, dance, film, painting, sculpture – what we terms the “fine arts” – then society is impoverished, civilisation declines and future generations are inculcated with nothing but the banal, mediocre and vulgar.

Out go TS Eliot, Wordsworth, Elgar, Monet and Mozart; in come Carol Ann Duffy, Damien Hirst, Russell Brand and Madonna. Critical thought is abandoned for formulaic answers – who needs epistemology when you’ve got a WH Smith’s revision guide? And academic rigour is replaced with emotional intelligence – what’s the point of straight-A*s if the child has low self-esteem?

Arnold saw culture as a force for moral and political good. It is a fundamentally conservative vision aimed at enlightenment, character development and social cohesion. It combines “the best that has been said and thought in the world” with the pursuit of philosophy in the context of Christian theology; the reasoned discourse around our existence in a moral order which ordains the triumph of good over evil – in our personal lives as well as the eschatological culmination of the age. Thus, children should be taught not to steal, cheat or lie not only because it is wrong, but because there is intrinsic value in being a “good person” and aspiring to be a “good citizen”. The morality endures, even if the cohesive theology which gave birth to the idea is gradually giving way to a fusion of multi-faith relativism, new-age spiritualism and secular humanism.

Culture transcends class, which is what makes it such a beneficial force for social mobility. The daughter of a Grantham grocer can go to school and read the words of Karl Popper; the son of a Welsh miner can join the choir and sing Fauré’s Requiem. A visit to Stratford-on-Avon can change the course of a life; a trip to the cinema can transform a whole country. In these options lies a sense of explored truthfulness: a journey through our customs and conventions causes us to reflect on our shared social structures and institutions.

Culture challenges and inspires. It is concerned with virtue and shared values, but leaves space for rebellion and critical protest. It communicates and perpetuates the moral code of community, challenging head-on the self-generating and self-referencing cult of the individual, for whom there is no right and wrong. But at the same time it evaluates what we might mean and understand by right and wrong, constantly bringing the child back to the very origins of their culture and morality.

The ultimate purpose of education is the development of the “rounded individual”. But this is not primarily a function of the state: indeed, whenever governments attempt to impose a notion of citizenship or a uniform moral order, we are a breath away from Fascism or Communism. Character education and academic enlightenment are better promoted by small groups and particular communities, each developing their own ethos and moral vision – religious or secular – which adapts to the prevailing culture. Lord Adonis gave us Academies; Michael Gove has given us Free Schools. The intrinsic devolution of power and liberation from local authority control are irreversible. As our culture has become more diverse, the common ground has shrunk. This has necessitated a fundamental reconsideration of how we inculcate our common virtues of justice, responsibility, compassion, courage, respect, honesty and tenacity.

The better way, as Plato observed, is to inspire; to turn the eyes of the child to the light so that they might see for themselves. This is infinitely preferable to formulaic templates, model answers and the learning of rules and regulations by rote. There is no point in professing an ethos of enlightenment if the pedagogical culture is one of dull oppression.

As long as schools are concerned with shared culture, character education and the virtuous society based on the principles of liberal democracy, we will see academic progress in pursuit of the common good. When they cease to be concerned with respect for authority, loyalty to ideals and the commitment to participate in community, we will witness social fragmentation and moral anarchy. The conservative is concerned with individual responsibility – with treating others how they might wish themselves to be treated. The liberal advocates that the government should not interfere with the lives of others as long as these others do no harm. Both of these philosophies are concerned with community, socialisation and moral development. It is why this Coalition Government can agree on the necessary scale of the educational revolution, if not always and entirely on the pace of reform.


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