How Britain abandoned its classical education
It was accepted wisdom when I was younger. I was fortunate to attend one of our oldest and most successful grammar schools, where gifted teachers identified boys with aptitude for the arts or sciences and developed their strengths. I was hopeless in science largely because, despite the best efforts of my excellent teachers, I just couldn’t get into it – while literature, languages, music and history couldn’t come. in sufficient quantity. I still remember the learning shock I had passed O-level math, again thanks to exceptional teaching. Now a scientific fool like me would be quickly written off.
Then I managed to get into Cambridge, got an undergraduate degree in English and later a doctorate in history. Both have been exceptionally helpful in my career in journalism, writing, broadcasting, and now as a part-time college professor. I didn’t blink when my eldest son followed me to Cambridge to read classics, and his brother went to University of London to read French and Spanish. Both are remarkably intellectually curious and, therefore, better citizens; and both, by the way, have great jobs. Whatever popular opinion, the humanities are not a dead end.
“Our great universities are increasingly dominated by the sciences,” observes Professor Robert Tombs of Cambridge, a brilliant historian of France, “not only financially, but thanks to the talent and enthusiasm of their best academics. The humanities, already in danger of marginalization, risk becoming paralyzed by timid conformism and self-censorship in the face of intellectually weak dead-end ideologies. Yet the humanities are central to our cultural existence. We must cherish them and support those who stand for intellectual honesty and freedom of thought.
Our cultural existence, however, seems less important to prospective students, for whom a college degree should enhance employability, not mind expansion. And although this interpretation of education as utility dates back to Jeremy Bentham over 200 years ago, and was mocked by Dickens in his 1854 novel Hard Times through the character of Mr. Gradgrind and his obsession for force-fed children. it has gained astonishing momentum during this century.
This is not only because students are “customers”: it has also had political motivations. “for ornamental purposes”, and described the idea of education for itself as “a bit dodgy”.