Some Thoughts on Education: On High Culture and Low Expectations

Some thoughts on the debate at #NCR11, at Katharine Birbalsingh’s book launch, 3rd March 2011, Rich Mix Bethnal Green.

On the Arts and the hierarchy of subjects:

To start with my question: “If Shakespeare, Bach and the Renaissance are so important, why are the visual and performing arts treated as second class subjects?”
Sir Ken Robinson decries the hierarchy of subjects that puts the Arts below ‘academic subjects’ like Maths and Science. I think it is partly circumstantial, and partly because culturally we are suspicious of creative people. 
Does the head of Winchester react equally when a student suggests Bob Marley, Bach or Coriolanus for their ‘free time’ discussion?  Of course not.  Students know how to play these games. 

On high expectations and high culture:

We should be encouraging teaching at the highest level in all subjects.  The education system should not be rewarding schools that dumb down, but to encourage each child to be the best they can be, as part of our community. World class, and appropriate. Those if us who love to learn, love it not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. We have learnt to love the struggle, and we love to exceed our own expectations of ourselves.  It does not matter which subject we are studying.

Like the head of Winchester, I believe in ‘high culture’, and I believe that every child should have the options open for them to study all subjects.  All children should be encouraged to reach high, to understand what it means to be world class, to be the best they can be.  The relative difficulty and benefits of each subject should be honestly discussed, for example, the cultural significance of classical subjects and the influence that has on university admissions.  Irrespective of whether Latin is more difficult or useful than Media Studies, we can be clear that it is likely that a university Admissions tutor will view the former more favourably.  That is a fact and we need to give children and parents that information.  

On ‘soft’ subjects and computing:

Someone suggested that 2 years studying ‘hair and beauty’ is neither appropriate nor necessary.  I think it was Toby Young, and I suppose he does not often visit the hairdresser.  Hairdressing is a three-year professional course and covers a range of subjects including chemistry, human biology, graphic design and business management.  For some children it will be an excellent choice, a (relatively) tough course leading to a good career.  For others, it would be a disappointing choice. Let’s be brutally honest, some kids are brighter than others. Not everyone can be a brain surgeon. Not everyone wants to work to the peak of their potential.

The problem with some ‘catering’ and ‘hair and beauty’ and ‘media studies’ courses is, as Katharine Birbalsingh decries, the low quantity of ‘stuff’ the kids are learning in a given time.  That is, to me, irrespective of the subject.

The head of Winchester College suggested that Computer Programming is a soft or easy subject.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  My father teaches ‘Foundations of Computing’ at Manchester University and I proofread his book.  The foundations of all programming are the most basic pure mathematics and logic developed by Russell, Wittgenstein, Popper and Turing.  It is a universal language of logic that underpins not only mathematics and the sciences, but also natural languages.  I would suggest that formal programming would be an excellent basis of study for many subjects, even more so than Latin.  Its simplicity makes it highly accessible to all (if well taught), and yet the practical applications are exciting to young people and highly relevant to the world of work.  For example, my father uses the following examples with his MSc students:
– setting up a Book Club
– registering participants and charting progress for the Paris-Dakar car rally
– logistics of emergency relief after an earthquake.

On Oxbridge, Eton and the Club:

My school pushed me to apply to Cambridge. My parents knew it was a great university but they would have been happy for me to go to any Russell Group university.  The architecture course at Cambridge did not suit my interests, nor did the town and the elitist atmosphere suit me personally.  In fact I left after four weeks, so digusted that I hit the road and travelled for two years.  It took me a long time to understand, reluctantly, why my school was right – many years after my college had persuaded me to go back and complete my degree there.  

Cambridge is a Club.  It is difficult to get into, but once you are in, you are in. You are in to win.  ‘MA (Cantab)’ has opened many doors to me, internationally and in the UK.  Fair or unfair, elitist or not, I would encourage anyone to go there to study if they get the opportunity.

The experience and the education are extraordinary: the quality of teaching, the extra-curricular activities, the freedom and support from the college, even when we were not so much pushing boundaries as smashing them up. The opportunity to meet amazing people from all over the world, the quality of debate in the bar – imagine, at 19, drinking and debating with PhD antropologists the Chiapan revolution, or Liberian politics with a guy who had just come back from secondment with the UN setting up a refugee camp there.  Hardship funds, travel bursaries, three years of cheap accommodation and food – Cambridge is great for kids from families of modest means. Tutors who really believe you are there to change the world, with their support.  Support that lasts a lifetime.  I am now proud of my Cambridge education and I contribute to my college’s hardship fund and outreach programme to state schools.

I have a lot of time for independent schools and our top universities.  God forbid that we dumb everything down to the mediocre middle ground.  However, when I hear someone say “the reason Eton-Magdalen Alumni dominate politics is because of the quality of the education”, there I disagree.  They dominate, because they are in the Club.  Even a thick, lazy kid at Eton is in the Club.  Orwell said in 1940 that “public schools are a tax on the middle classes by the upper classes for entry into the professions” – a membership fee for the Club of professionals. That is still true today.  The children learn the rules of the Club, the signals, the dress codes, the behaviours.  This extra-curricular education is fundamental.  Fair? No. Fact? Yes.  The curricular education is no doubt rigorous and well-taught, but it is only part of the story, and I would venture, the minor part.

Although I may disagree with Katharine Birbalsingh and Toby Young’s assessment on this point, I agree with them on the following:  The kids who are NOT in the Club need all the help they can get from their schools, to be able to compete. They need to be taught how the system works. They need to be told what their options are – all the options without any ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ – and encouraged to aim as high as they can, higher than they can possibly imagine.  Oxbridge will not be everyone’s choice.  But we need to guide children in their choices, and not constrain them by the school’s need to hit certain targets.  

And most of all, first of all, we need to teach them about the Club.

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One Response to Some Thoughts on Education: On High Culture and Low Expectations

  1. Donald Clark says:

    Some very good points here. Your question received no real answer and made Winchester’s headmaster look duplicitous. The PISA results, Englis Bac and other trends demote the arts. I have twin boys, one maths/science, one arts/social in character. One’s doing Maths, Physics A-levels, the other the International Bac which really does try to provide a wide range of subjects, including the arts in the qualification. You have to do 150 hours arts/sports/comm service. My musivcal, performing arts son son loves it.

    Stephen Pinker makes exactly the same point re programming as a better foundation than Latin. This post makes similar points.

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