Alice in Texas

Not writing here anymore- see top post for details of my new blogs.

Monday, August 15, 2005

classical education

I was quite lucky with my comprehensive state secondary (high school); we did Latin. But we didn't do proper Latin, with declensions and grammar. We did trick-Latin, for getting good grades in the exam. The teacher was quite open about this, and it worked pretty well, and I got an A. But it wasn't real Latin. However, I still count myself lucky, because I went on later to do English Literature at university, and at least I could roughly recognise which words were likely to come from Latin. Understanding where words come from is important if you're going to study English. As part of my degree course, I also studied French literature, a fair chunk of history, and Middle English. Done properly, English is supposed to be a very big serious academic subject indeed.

It was painfully obvious at Cambridge which people had been to decent independent schools and which people had been to bogstandard comprehensives. Those of us in the latter group (I wasn't exactly at that stage, but effectively I was, having boarded at a non-academic music school) had a lot of extra reading to do. We might have good exam grades, but we didn't have a sound classical education. Having grown up thinking that my mostly state education was no way inferior because my grades were just as good, this came as quite a shock. Having taught in the independent system I can confirm this impression all the more. There is almost no comparison betwee what a good independent school and an ordinary state school can teach, and exam grades are only tangentially related to that fact.

It is one reason why, when they are a bit older, I do not want my children attending a bogstandard comprehensive school. I want them to have a proper, wide-ranging, classical education, or at least the opportunity for one; and that opportunity does not exist in the state sector. It doesn't even exist in most of the private sector. It is very expensive indeed. (I am tempted to blow my own trumpet here, of course, but current family circumstances would make that a bit of a sick joke.)

Not all kids are cut out for the kind of education I'm talking about. There are other more vocational ways to learn, and we all know that Latin is a dead language. I have never had a problem with vocational education for children who don't have the ability to learn in an abstract way. The world will always need carpenters. But a broad knowledge of history, literature, the classics, foreign languages and the arts opens the mind, and gives you more than just "ideas"- it offers different ways of thinking. And one thing I am quite certain of is that children who can acquire this knowledge should have it made available.

Even in the home educating community there is a materialistic, functional attitude to learning in many quarters. Education is not just about facts, tests, practical skills, or (as some crackpot homeschoolers do) arrogantly dismissing "academics" as if the true value of knowledge could only be guaged by how often it appears on the Discovery Channel. Not everything valued by tradition is therefore evil, and conversely sometimes traditions grow to neglect and undermine what they were originally designed to protect. As far as I can tell, enormous chunks of institutional education are heading exactly that way at the moment.

The least we can ensure is that our children have the opportunity to be at least as well educated as we are ourselves. I am basically an optimist, in fact I have been accused many times of deluded head-in-the-clouds idiocy, but when it comes to state schools my opinion is that they are worse than they have ever been. Bright children may knuckle under and get their A grades, but that doesn't mean they have learned what they could or should have learned during the many years of childhood they were supposedly being educated. On the whole, but not always for an intelligent child, institutionalised schooling is more of an incredibly boring waste of time than it has ever been. The trouble is finding something better.


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