Must Try Harder

The excitement of learning has been lost in our schools. It’s time to end the intellectual poverty of the national curriculum

Academia Education Features

Secondary school is rather like a funnel. The pupil enters at the wide end and is presented with a timetable containing a lot of subjects but as the years proceed, the number of subjects decreases. At GCSE, depending on the school, it has come down to between five and ten, in the sixth form only three or at most four are studied to A Level. Eventually, the pupil is squeezed out of the narrowest point accompanied by one or perhaps two subjects to be studied at university. 

For “academic” pupils, at least, the funnel analogy still holds good. My daily timetable in c. 1956 looked something like this: 

First Period: RI or Scripture — first because God comes first.

Period 2: Maths — early in the day when the brain was supposedly sharpest.

Period 3: English.

These were the same every day and for Periods 4 and 5 Geography, History, French, Spanish, Latin, Physics, Chemistry and Biology alternated. In the afternoons came the less-regarded Music, Art, Domestic Science — and Sports. This might be recognised in general outline by a pupil today, though God no longer takes pride of place, virtually no state school offers Latin and there are some new subjects, principally IT and PSHE, aka sex lessons. 

The principal difference is that schools then were not dictated to by government, let alone political correctness, in the way they are now. And it is in relation to those things, as well as to the attitudes and prejudices of the teaching unions and examination boards, as well as to the general dumbed-down social ethos, that things in schools after the age of 11 have gone badly wrong, so that we have betrayed several generations of young people. 

The unacademic pupil, whose practical talents and potential were once recognised and catered for both in secondary modern school and via apprenticeships, is forced, resentful and struggling, into the same funnel to emerge at a low-grade university doing media studies or tourism, until they drop out or leave ill-equipped for employment other than the sort which could have been learned in a week “on the job” — if at all. That is one sort of betrayal. But what about the more academic pupil: bright, interested, motivated, who should not only be heading for a high-flying career earning a good salary, but has the potential and desire to become a well-rounded individual with a broad general knowledge, the ability both to study one or two things in depth and an interest in many wider aspects of culture and society? Yes, they still exist, emerging overwhelmingly from the independent sector, simply because with the demise of most grammar schools, the door has been slammed shut on bright but poor pupils. 

What has happened? 

Many things, and addressing the intellectual poverty of the secondary school curriculum does not change social attitudes — primarily poverty of aspiration. Once, a decent education was the only route for working-class children to a “good job with prospects”. Parents encouraged their children to work hard at school for this reason alone and there was also a general respect for learning and the learned, which died gradually from the 1960s onwards. Too many parents have no ambitions or aspiration for themselves or their children. That schools have dumbed down at the same time, discipline has weakened and respect for teachers vanished altogether has compounded the felony. Yet ask most parents, even the feckless ones, “Would you like your child to become a High Court barrister or consultant brain surgeon?” and few would answer “No.” The general lack of respect for learning also means that the bright ambitious child in many a state school is both held back in mixed-ability classes, where everything is brought down to the lowest common denominator for the benefit of the least able pupil, and bullied mercilessly for wanting to study and having aspirations. Well, even Billy Bunter and his mates sneered at “swots” but it is more widespread and pernicious now. Teachers do not stamp hard on this form of bullying, usually because it is simply not recognised as such.

Perhaps low expectations on the part of some parents, their offspring and even teachers are unsurprising. But when the entire system has lowered its expectations and watered down the curriculum in line with that, that is shocking indeed and it is time to protest. Because not giving young people the opportunity to be stretched intellectually, to broaden their horizons and enrich themselves as far as possible is the worst betrayal of all.

What is to be done? Attitudes need to be changed. But these ships have a very wide turning circle and the watering-down and thinning out of the curriculum has gone on for so long that nothing will change overnight. But a start could be made.

So let us make a start and address the problem of modern digital versus traditional analogue. I am talking about joined-up education. Information and skills have been put before knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge simply for its own sake has become despised not merely by those who bully “swots” because they don’t know any better, but by governments and those in authority who certainly should. Of course children need to acquire basic skills. Knowledge must be applied, essays written, projects completed, jobs done. But the sheer excitement of learning has been lost. Digital learning means that children are given information in unrelated gobbets. They read a couple of chapters of a book, learn about the rain forests or the Holocaust and other fashionable topics, flit about tasting world religions. Even examination questions are in multiple choice box-ticking format and short sentence answers required, rather than formally constructed essays. But the more digitally one tries to read and learn and respond, the more fragmented becomes the brain and one’s learning. The analogue in this context is not just something almost obsolete: it is an essential way of acquiring knowledge. 

We need joined-up academic subjects. Yes, it is important to study certain historical periods in depth but not to uproot them from their contexts. The Roman occupation, the Renaissance, the two World Wars, can be properly understood only in terms of the whole great flow of our island’s history, otherwise they become islands themselves. The line of history can be shown clearly on a well-designed and attractive chart, just as the shape of the British Isles can be on a map. There is a lot to be said for visual aids. 

It is always most saddening to see one’s own subject being downgraded and to learn that many, perhaps most, first-year English undergraduates passed their exam without having read a single whole book, so that when confronted with the requirement to read an entire Victorian novel of 800 pages they turn white with shock. Yes, separate sections have to be analysed for exam purposes, but what beats reading the whole? Why would those reading English not want to read the whole-many wholes?

The problem lies back in the funnel. The end is the narrow segment leading to the exam, but during that progress we have lost sight of the whole joy and purpose of education. Knowledge, expanding our intellectual horizons, helps to make us full, rounded human beings able to explore both breadth and depth. Learning is a joy for its own sake. We were put here to learn. That charming cliché “life’s rich tapestry” expresses a great truth. The more we know and understand, the more enriching our experience of that tapestry.

I cannot comment on the maths and science curriculum, but it is worrying that these rigorous subjects may also be watered down if only because engineers must rely on accurate mathematical calculations or innumerable things will collapse, killing us all. 

But although I am not a classicist I am delighted I was obliged to study Latin to A level. It seems strange that it has been banished from the timetable as “irrelevant” because if nothing else it is good mental exercise, a satisfying puzzle, and the popularity of brain exercises and sudoku surely indicates the desire to challenge the mind in an enjoyable yet rigorous way. Yet whereas most puzzles are like knots — untie them and you lose interest — classical languages lead to some of the greatest literature, magnificent civilisations, fascinating history and wise philosophy. If ever there was a great world to conquer metaphorically, it is the classical one. Bring that back and you challenge the young mind in the most exciting ways.

Bright young people who aim for academia know when they are being short-changed and they find it frustrating. I wish they would complain and loudly because it would have a far greater impact than when their elders do it for them. Of course, they do not know what they should learn nor should they choose their own curriculum, but the best of them know that when adults talk about not giving them knowledge which is not “relevant”, they are being patronised. Just as teenage patois changes weekly, what is deemed relevant to themselves by one generation of pupils will be dismissed by the next. It is wrong to pretend that they know best and it does them no service. 

The debate continues about whether it is useful to learn things by rote. The young brain absorbs and what it absorbs remains for good. Not only times tables, chemical formulae and foreign language verbs are easily learned by heart, but whole long poems and pages of prose. After the age of 20, the ability to learn by heart and retain that learning decreases markedly. It pays to do it when it comes easily. But rote learning has its dangers and the ability to parrot answers does not necessarily imply any understanding of them, as my head full of chemical formulae testifies. This is an area where things have improved. But the pleasure of having a mental store of poetry is considerable and can see one through many a tedious journey in later life. Great verse is enriching, even ennobling, and if some of it seems useless to us when young, it may well become increasingly relevant as we age. To open up the treasure chest of great poetry going back many centuries to the young is to give a pearl without price and it need not be at the expense of the modern, though it should exclude the merely trendy. For my English Honours degree I had to study English literature from the Anglo-Saxons to 1880, but everything written thereafter was regarded as optional so it was possible to get a starred A without having read a word of it.

That was ridiculous and the school curriculum must include poetry by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, the great contemporary writers — but not only theirs. Dryden and Byron may be hard going but Chaucer, Donne, Henry Vaughan, Coleridge and Tennyson need not be. (Chaucer is not difficult once the basics of the language have been grasped and untying that knot is great fun.)

There is more to great poetry than any of this, but answering the question “Why?” is never easy. It seems like a cop-out to say, “I just know” but that is almost what Marilynne Robinson does say in one of the best replies to “Why?” I have ever read. In her recent novel Home, Glory, a former teacher, remembers her pupils asking, “Why do we have to read poetry? Why Il Penseroso?” and her reply is, “Read it and you’ll know why. If you still don’t know, read it again. And again. People have always made poetry. Trust that it will matter to you…It is like a voice heard from another room, singing for the pleasure of the song, and then you know it too, and through you it moves by accident and necessity down generations.”

That is true of other things too, things which do not have immediate “use”, true of myths and legends for example, from our own country and from round the world. If young people do not hear and learn poetry, myths, legends and ancient stories or read great fiction or see great plays they are being betrayed, short-changed and impoverished but they do not know it, they must take it on trust, as previous generations did. Not all of them will understand. But that is no excuse for not trying.