What do we mean by ‘the best that’s been thought and known’?

I was recently interviewed about my essay The Liberating Power of Education for a future episode of Dr James Mannion’s excellent long-form podcast, Rethinking Education. In the often intolerant and tribal world of educational theory and policy, James is to be commended for his willingness to explore differences of opinion in a generous and civil fashion. And we disagreed, civilly, on several topics during the three hour discussion. One was my claim that schools should teach ‘the best that has been thought and said’. James raised some objections which prompted me to develop my argument here.

The phrase ‘we should teach the best that has been thought and known’ (along with its variation ‘…thought and said’) has been contested within education circles ever since it was coined, over 150 years ago, by poet and school inspector Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) in his book Culture and Anarchy. It is perhaps more controversial today than ever, providing both a rallying cry about the importance of knowledge for educational traditionalists and an emblem of backwards-looking elitism for educational progressives.

Whether or not you have a horse in that particular race, Culture and Anarchy (1869) is well worth reading for its thoughtful discussion of the principles involved in education and indeed culture more broadly. (Fans of anarchy will be disappointed at how little Arnold has to say about it). There’s much more to the book than a discussion of ‘the best thought and known’ but we don’t have space to go into that here. If you do decide to explore it for yourself, just be prepared to zip through the first 80 pages, which he spends dissing his critics and rivals, to get to the good stuff.

So why did ‘the best thought and known’ strike a chord in Arnold’s time, and why does it continue to divide opinion today?

A radical idea

During the century preceding the publication of Culture of Anarchy, a mass education system of sorts had been established in Britain, in the form of thousands of charity schools funded by a combination of church and commerce. These provided a deliberately restricted moral and religious education for poor children, designed to make them appreciate their allotted place in society so that they would cause no trouble for their ‘betters’.

Yet poor people in large numbers were not satisfied with their allotted place, and did cause trouble, demanding to be taken seriously, as voters and as rational, intelligent, moral beings. Understandably, during an era when revolutions were a fact of life, those in power were worried where this might lead. If knowledge was put in the hands of working men, it was feared this would mean the ruination of civilised society.

In this context, to argue, as Arnold did, that everyone should have access to the ‘best that’s been thought and known’ was a radical idea. Teacher Gareth Sturdy, writing in TeachWire, describes its impact…

Culture and Anarchy appeared on the eve of the ground-breaking 1870 Education Act, which introduced England’s first national school system. Its inspiring vision of what education could truly mean blew apart the consensus that schools were for getting the workforce ready for the factories. Instead, they should foster in ordinary people a “desire after the things of the mind simply for their own sakes.” This completely changed the debate over what schools were for and what they should teach… When you learn that Culture and Anarchy was written as an attack on reductive checklist inspection methods used to assess the value of schools, Arnold’s work assumes even greater significance.’

Arnold also used his role as an inspector to promote practical innovations conducive to a more liberal approach to teaching. He criticised the charity schools he visited for depending on the ‘monitorial system’, in which hundreds of children were taught together by a single schoolmaster with the assistance of student ‘monitors’. This approach might have worked for rote learning but was ill suited to the nascent subjects of the humanities, in which the intellectual relationship between teacher, pupil and subject became more important.

Schools began to build additional smaller, relatively intimate, classrooms seating seventy and later thirty children, a step towards the standard classroom of today. Visit the British Schools Museum in Hitchin to see genuine examples of ‘before and after’ classrooms and get a sense of the profound change this represented.

On the face of it, Arnold’s view prevailed, although it took over half a century to get there. We have a state system providing free education for all. His vision of a liberal education with primary, secondary and university phases is the pattern we have today. The idea of ‘the best that has thought and known’ has influenced state school curricula, not least the one currently in place. I think it’s undeniable that schools today do provide, to some extent, a liberal education, in that they open up possibilities for many children.

But, as I argue in The Liberating Power of Education, these liberal aspects continue to coexist with attempts to direct education to narrow economic, moral, and political ends. Arnold’s claim that ‘plenty of people will try to give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper for the actual condition of the masses’ still rings true today, in calls for schools to teach skills for the workplace, promote a particular vision of healthy relationships or encourage children to be climate activists.

In contrast, Arnold’s vision of a culture of ‘the best’…

…does not try to teach down to the level of inferior classes; it does not try to win them for this or that sect of its own, with ready-made judgments and watchwords. It seeks to do away with classes; to make all live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light, and use ideas, as it uses them itself, freely – to be nourished and not bound by them. (1, p.52)

We can see from this that the alternative to an education in ‘the best’ – in Arnold’s time and today – is not ‘the worst’, but an education directed to particular ends.

We have the technology

What is it about ‘the best’ that makes it better than the rest? Because, as we just learned, it brings us an atmosphere of ‘sweetness and light’. ‘Sweetness and light’ is another ambiguous Arnoldian phrase, the meaning of which has been discussed endlessly. For the sake of this essay I’ll assume it’s a good thing to have in our lives. ‘Sweetness and light’ – why settle for less?

Nevertheless, you might object that the idea of a life of ‘sweetness and light’ sounds a little beatific and passive. However, there’s a second part of Arnold’s phrase that is usually left out, and it shows that Arnold has something more dynamic in mind. He argued we should teach the best that has been thought and known… ‘so that we can see things as they really are’.

In other words, the best knowledge of the world helps us see the truth, or at least to get closer to it.

Why is it important to see the truth? To encourage ‘right reason’, says Arnold, by which he means reason based on a truthful picture of the world. By seeing a situation ‘as it really is’, we have a better chance of acting wisely in response to it and bringing about more ‘sweetness and light’ for us all, rather than less.

Arnold did not see a simple mechanistic relationship between the truth and action, in the way that the modern idea of ‘awareness raising’ is supposed to make people behave in certain ways once they’ve become ‘aware’. He quotes Goethe: ‘to act is easy, to think is hard.’ But that hard thought is more likely to be productive if we have recourse to the ‘best’, which engenders ‘a freer play of consciousness upon the object of pursuit’ – in other words it provides the material for rich, imaginative, creative thinking about whatever we’re concerned with.

Arnold’s plea for ‘right reason’ resonates today when the cry ‘something must be done and it must be done now’ often precedes actions which makes things a hundred times worse.

‘…what if rough and coarse action, ill-calculated action, action with insufficient light, is, and has for a long time been, our bane? What if our urgent want now is, not to act at any price, but rather to lay in a stock of light for our difficulties? In that case, to refuse to lend a hand to the rougher and courser movements going on round us, to make the primary need, both for oneself and others, to consist in enlightening ourselves and qualifying ourselves to act less at random, is surely the best, and in real truth the most practical line, our endeavours can take.’ (1)

How many times have you heard someone proclaim ‘the time for debate is over’ as they demand you stop raising questions and sign up to their course of action?

In a world where we face so many urgent and difficult problems, small and large, Arnold’s argument amounts to, in essence, a call for better knowledge, better thought, better understanding and better action.

And for this I’d argue we need not only the objective truths of the sciences but the subjective truths and insights of the arts. To paraphrase a song by Pere Ubu, ‘We have the technology… of thinkers and poets from the past… they had to leap into the dark so blindly.’ As we step into the unknown, we need all the footholds, the best intellectual ‘technology’, we can get.

Who’s better, who’s best?

Arnold himself, it has to be said, was a cultural conservative who was highly suspicious of the sciences, but his wrongheadedness on that count need not mean we throw out his whole philosophy. It’s important to note that there is no prescribed list of ‘the best’ in Culture and Anarchy. Or how to teach it: according to his assistant, Thomas Healing, Arnold ‘never pretended to be an oracle in methods of instruction and therefore never attempted to prescribe to teachers the precise methods they should use’. (2)

What the best is, and how it should be taught, is up for debate and revision. The ‘best’ is often taken to mean the canon – the classics of Western literature, art, music, and philosophy. But it’s important to note that the ‘classical liberal education’ that emerged in the 19th century public schools was comprised of both classical studies and the new knowledge that was rapidly being generated in fields such science, maths, and philosophy during the Enlightenment.

The Western canon certainly has truth and beauty in spades, but it hasn’t cornered the market in either of those. People keep writing stories, painting pictures, making music, and having ideas, and some of them are very good, touching on aspects of life that the canon has nothing to say about. Any concept of the ‘best’ has to encompass both the canon, and the new, as did a classical liberal education.

But the very idea of a canon is under attack today, as consisting of the outdated, irrelevant creations of dead white males or tainted by association with slavery. If taken seriously, that outlook would give young people an unbalanced picture of the world, which focuses on the contemporary and novel while downplaying the cultural wealth of the past. People have argued elsewhere that those criticisms of the canon are misguided. I’ll confine myself here to exploring a more practical objection to the canon, which resonates with a lot of teachers…

Teaching ‘the best that has been thought and said’ is believed by many to be a prescription for force feeding children long, old, difficult books, whether they like them or not, and in doing so putting many children off reading for life. There’s certainly some truth to that and when it happens it’s a great shame. Teachers need to be given the freedom to use their judgement and introduce children to the works of the Western canon at the right time and in the right way.

But also, I suspect, many children are put off reading before they get anywhere near the canon, thanks to dispiriting encounters with the largely artistically worthless books, designed to teach language or put across worthy social aims, that can be found in large numbers in Primary classrooms and school libraries.

Nevertheless, children’s literature has an ever-growing canon of its own and there’s no shortage of joyous, engaging, inspiring, hilarious, and gripping books for children. Many children have been persuaded that reading is a worthwhile activity, something they might want to do for its own sake, something they might want to devote free time to.

Once that fire has been lit in children’s minds, there needs to be space in their lives to explore the delights of reading for themselves, whether that be Robinson Crusoe or Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Harry Potter, manga, series book. Whatever takes their fancy.

A love of reading is a great thing, and it’s important to encourage children to cultivate their own interests, but that will only take them so far if they exclusively pursue what comes easy and entertains them. At some point in every young reader’s life they will encounter a book they find baffling, confounding, or disturbing.

Dare to know

This takes me to my closing point. I’ve argued that knowledge – and by extension the education that provides us knowledge – is inherently both powerful and frightening. It’s frightening to others – but it’s also frightening to us.

Eighty years before Arnold, the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), in his essay What is Enlightenment?, argued that knowledge and thought do not just involve hard work (as Goethe believed), but are inherently unsettling and discomforting. Acquiring new knowledge often makes us question our way of seeing the world. Kant saw that it was much easier for us to remain blissfully ignorant, in a form of intellectual ‘immaturity’:

‘It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on–then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me.’

Kant argued instead that we should ‘Dare to know! (Sapere aude)… Have the courage to use [our] own understanding’. This involves cultivating our intellectual bravery.

And this is where, as adults, we have a responsibility to make judgements about what it important and worthwhile for young people to know about, to recognise and stand up for ‘the best’, to encourage them to be brave, to ‘dare to know’, when they encounter something that confounds them.

For if we let children follow their interests to the point where they dodge every challenge and give up at every barrier, we cripple their ability to engage, not only with the canon – the intellectual wealth of the past – but also with the best of the new – the risky and very necessary experiments that take us outside the comfortable and familiar into the unknown.

So when a child struggles with that difficult book, or idea, we don’t need to force it down their metaphorical throats. We can use our judgement – if they’re not ready, leave it for now, they may be more receptive to it another time. If they’re almost there, they may need a helping hand through the difficulties involved. Sometimes we have to take responsibility and say ‘this is important, special, unique and here’s why. You may find it difficult but it’s worth persevering with it, and we can help you get there if you’re willing to try.’

If we do that, we don’t just help preserve the best of the past, we show them that the best may be yet to come.

Listen out for my Rethinking Education discussion, coming soon, and check out previous editions of the podcast here. The inaugural Rethinking Education Conference takes place Addey & Stanhope School in New Cross, London on Saturday 17th September 2022.

The Liberating Power of Education, along with other Letters on Liberty, is available from the Academy of Ideas.


  1. Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold (Oxford World Classics, 2009)
  2. A Life of Matthew Arnold by Nicholas Murray (1996, Hodder & Stoughton)

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