Letters: Parents first, Ancient and modern, Seeing red

Parents first

Angela Ritch laments the failures of today’s parents (Education, July): they are “ill-equipped to prepare their children” for today’s education; their “engagement and responsibility . . . cannot be taken for granted.”

It was not always thus. In 1813, James Mill, commenting for the Edinburgh Review on education in England, wrote:

We have met with families in which, for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.

Parliamentary surveys revealed that the number of children in education increased from 478,000 in 1818, through 1,294,000 in 1834, to 2,535,462 in 1858.

So how have we arrived at a position where teachers argue that parents need “nudging” and should suffer “financial penalties” for their children’s poor school attendance?

The first step was the introduction of school subsidies in 1834, funded by additional taxes. This discouraged the parents of unsubsidised schools, who paid the new taxes but whose children did not benefit from the subsidies.

The second step was the widespread introduction of Board Schools in 1870. These schools were funded by the rates, merely charging fees for attendance. All parents ended up paying for Board Schools: ratepayers directly, and non-ratepayers through increased rents. All other schools suffered from competition from the Board Schools: some switched to Board status, some closed, some struggled on. Effectively, education was being nationalised, even though W.E. Forster, the promoter of the Board Schools, was worried that the changes would encourage parental apathy.

The third step, taken in 1880, was to make education compulsory. The effects of this were completely unforeseen: parents took the view that since education was now compulsory, the government should pay for it. The government was forced to reimburse elementary school fees in 1891; and to abolish secondary school fees in 1944.

Each one of these interventions marginalised parents. Today’s parental apathy is precisely that feared by Forster in 1870.

How are we to put this right? First, we must recognise that the government’s interventions in schooling are the cause of this situation. Second, we must restore parental responsibility to the level noted in 1813. This will not be easy. It will require a conscious transfer of power from the government to those apathetic and ill-equipped parents.

David J. Critchley, Buckingham


Ancient and modern

Kant’s Categorical Imperative, discussed by Ralph Walker (“Why Immanuel Kant matters”, August/September)—that an action has moral worth only if done from duty—was a position taken by the pre-Socratic philosophers 2,500 years ago. Democritus thought we should eschew doing wrong, because of a sense of duty, not fear; the truly good do not even desire to do wrong; and we should learn to feel shame not before others but before ourselves. Empedocles thought along similar lines: we live most justly if we avoid doing the things for which we blame others.

Empedocles also anticipated the linguistic revisionism of which Konsantin Kisin writes (“Goodthink and crimethink”): evil men, he wrote, want to have power over the truth by distrusting it. And Democritus deftly demolished the relativist argument that is so modish today: if every opinion or statement is true then it must also be true that every opinion is not true, since that is an opinion. Therefore it is false that every opinion is true.

Even Louise Perry’s dismaying account of how women’s supposed sexual drives are being blamed for their own murder (Spare Rib) has echoes in the past. Herodotus makes one of the earliest claims that rape victims are not really victims: “The Persians say women would not have been abducted if they hadn’t wanted to be.” 

Violence was justified by presenting females as powerful and dangerous. Monstrous females such as Medusa and Scylla were just asking to have their heads chopped off. The Sphinx devoured Thebans who could not answer her riddle. The Furies and Harpies were so terrifying that in Aeschylus’s Eumenides their depiction on stage made members of the audience faint—Clytemnestra made herself Agamemnon’s widow with a two-headed axe. The 50 daughters of Danaus stabbed their husbands to death on their wedding night, and the women of Lemnos, tired of their men’s fighting and fornicating, killed the lot.

Blaming and fearing females started early: parents threatened naughty children that a female monster called Mormo would bite them if they did not behave.

Xenophanes should be our place of safety among the raging bigots of these times: no one has the certain truth, he said, for all our knowledge is but a woven web of guesses.

Michael McManus, Leeds


Seeing red

Richard Russell’s reminiscence (“Martians, mushy peas, leprechauns (and gin)”, August/September) calls to mind the exhibitions at the Galerie Vivienne, Paris, of the Salon des Arts Incohérents. In 1883 the artist and humourist Alphonse Allais exhibited a blank sheet of white Bristol paper, attached to the wall with drawing pins, entitled: “Première communion de jeunes filles chlorotiques par temps de neige”—“First communion of anaemic young girls in the snow”, and in 1884, an entirely red work: “Récolte de tomates sur le bord de la mer Rouge par des cardinaux apoplectiques”—“Apoplectic cardinals harvesting tomatoes on the shore of the Red Sea”.

Bohdan Rymarenko, by email

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