Once upon a time there was a perfect body of knowledge, with cleanly defined topics that fitted neatly together like the counties of England, each with its own familiar outline and characteristics. The Smithsonian tables was a hefty book of technical values which was regarded as definitive; the bible of science.
Then gradually the margins of these fields of knowledge began to blur and dissolve. Eventually the old disciplines of chemistry and physics will become small puddles of wisdom, hemmed in by the towering megaliths of molecular biology and quantum electrodynamics.
When the Daily Mail reviewed Stoppard’s Arcadia, it criticised the play’s heavyweight intellectual content: “Too clever by about two-and-three-quarters. One comes away instructed with more than one can usefully wish to know.”
Doesn’t this sum up the problems with British education? We love the idea of good schools, and the status they confer on children; but knowledge, and clever people, are viewed with suspicion.
It is August 2014 and the UK is debating the merits of a National Curriculum, a steady, uniform body of learning to be imposed on youngsters at school: they will be fed facts, as the Telegraph points out:
“The curriculum has been billed as providing a back-to-basics approach to education – emphasising the key knowledge that pupils must acquire at each stage.
This includes important aspects of maths at an earlier age, an emphasis on spelling and grammar in English, more reading in English literature and a narrative of Britain’s “island story” in history”
Journal Entry, 29 March ’88:
“The Centre for Policy Studies (Tory think-tank) recently issued guidelines for a national testing system for schoolkids. You know the sort of thing – being able to recite ‘I had a little nut tree’ and tell the time by age seven, and have read three Shakespeare plays by age sixteen. But I am a failure since I haven’t read any Shakespeare and I’m 24!
Here are Timbo’s suggestions for National Testing scheme:
Age seven: be able to tie shoelaces and read simple Ladybird books.
Age eleven: know twelve-times table, understand differential calculus, have composed three piano concertos.
Age fourteen: must have read at least 5 Dickens novels 2 Austen novels 2 Huxley novels 5 Shakespeare plays Waste Land Cement Garden Zen and the Art of H Roger’s Version Hidden Faces Affluent Society Rosy Crucifixion Paradise Postponed and 6 Dennis Wheatley novels.
Must have thorough knowledge of laser action superconductivity organic synthesis DNA replication and be able to assemble a BMW from spare parts and be able to recite Die Frau Ohne Schatten from memory.”
Journal Entry, 11 March ’91:
Phoned up the Dept of Employment who asked if I was being given pay in lieu of notice, so off I went to he personnel dept again to find out. One of the young workers there got my file out and placed it, open, on her desk so her colleague could examine it. After a few seconds reading, this one looked up at her mate and said ‘I don’t know what to say to that’.
Meanwhile, the UK is awash with offers of free goodies for ‘hardworking families’:
“All 3 and 4-year-olds in England are entitled to 570 hours of free early education or childcare a year. This is often taken as 15 hours each week for 38 weeks of the year.” (UK-dot-gov website)
“PARENTS across the county could save up to £6.3million a year following the introduction of free school meals.
From the beginning of next month, 15,864 four to seven- year-olds will be eligible for free dinners as part of a new scheme by the Government.
Across the county all schools will provide a healthy meal and 98 per cent will be able to provide a hot meal by the start of the autumn term. It means parents who previously provided lunches for their children could save up to £400 a year.” (Redditch Standard Website)
Isn’t it wonderful that so many farmers (and transport companies) are willing to supply free produce for these meals, and that utilities firms are happy to provide free water and electricity, and that caretakers and teachers and security staff will spend a few hours for no pay in order to allow children to receive free food and education? Or should we perhaps recognise that ‘free’ health, education and childcare actually come at a price, but that price is met by other people?
I admit that offering these services ‘for free’ is a far more efficient method than asking people to choose between competing suppliers in a competitive market place; but they are not actually free, just funded by invisible money in the form of taxes.
And if parents in Redditch can save over six million pounds a year, then their employers might want to consider if it is necessary to award them an annual pay rise, since their disposable income will have increased….