Opinion - Talks

Learning what we don’t need to know

The Devonshire Dome, Buxton

I was invited to discuss my essay The Liberating Power of Education this weekend at the second Buxton Battle of Ideas festival. The text of my introductory speech follows. The discussion that followed, with respondents Dr Adam Simcock and Dr Ruth Mieschbuehler and members of the audience, was recorded and should be available soon.

For as long as people have possessed the power of communication, it’s likely they have used that ability to pass on, to the next generation, the knowledge and skills required to survive in this often hostile world. In other words, they have taught what was necessary to know.

My contention is that education – in the true, liberal, sense of the word – only came into being the moment people had choice about what to teach and what to learn – when civilisation rose above mere survival and gave at least some people the free time to choose what to learn, to learn what they didn’t need to know.

Two and a half thousand years ago the Ancient Greeks gave this a name – liberal education, an education in the so-called liberal arts – as distinguished from the mechanical arts which were taught to slaves, like agriculture, hunting, baking, butchery, navigation and medicine.

The liberal arts involved studying and discussing philosophy, art, literature and ideas, in order to contemplate the universe and our place in it. Aristotle called it ‘a form of education which we must provide for our sons, not as being useful or essential but as elevated and worthy of free men.’ As such, it was not considered appropriate to educate a woman or a slave in the liberal arts, since they were not free. Much of the history of education ever since has been intertwined with the fight of people to become free.

The mechanical arts were taught with a specific end in mind, to learn a useful skill. In other words, they provided more of the same. A liberal education however was open-ended and created possibilities. Knowing things about the world was intellectually rewarding but was not a final destination – it tended to generate questions and doubts. As my essay explores, one question led to another – and another – and liberal education would play a crucial role in the gradual snowballing of collective knowledge that would lead, two millennia after the Greeks, to the Enlightenment of the 17th to 19th centuries. This transformed the world and brought far more material freedom, and with it education, to people than the Greeks could have imagined.

Yet the liberating power of education was rarely embraced by those in control of education, who feared it and tried to suppress it, by restricting access, or attempting to direct it to their own narrow religious or political ends.

In the long run these attempts to limit the scope of education failed, because once the genie of knowledge is out of the bottle and in people’s heads or written down in books, it cannot easily be controlled.

Throughout the history of education there are many examples of knowledge breaking out of its shackles with unexpected knock-on-effects, but for one of the most far-reaching, we can look to the 18th century, when fear of moral laxity and social disorder led to people setting up thousands of charity schools. These taught children the 3Rs so they could read the Gospels.

The charity schools were in no way a project of social mobility. The intention was to teach just enough knowledge for poor children to appreciate their role in society and no more. As the philosopher Bernard Mandeville put it: ‘The more a shepherd and ploughman know of the world the less fitted he’ll be to go through the fatigue and hardship of it with cheerfulness and equanimity’.

Yet merely teaching poor children to read opened up a world of knowledge, encoded in books, to ordinary people, with profound ramifications. Thousands of working people – who were considered to be barely rational, incapable of being educated – became autodidacts – self teachers – and used their precious spare time to give themselves a liberal education. Through reading, discussing, setting up their own schools, they could grapple with the classics of literature and philosophy and explore for themselves the ideas and contradictions contained within the Bible. At the very least this enriched their lives.

But it also fed into the growing collective sense of political agency, and the fight for working people to be treated as moral equals with their economic betters. A fight which culminated in the social reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries and the expansion of the franchise to all adults, going hand-in-hand with the arrival of free state education for all.

Photo c/o the Academy of Ideas

Today many aspects of our education system are liberal in nature, introducing young people to worlds beyond their front door. Yet the ideal of a liberal education, that we all deserve to be taught the ‘best that’s been thought and known’ and the leap of faith that involves, teaching not knowing where it will lead – that is premised on a hard-won sense of human potential and agency. And over the past century that sense has greatly diminished in power. So often we hear people described as fragile beings, ruled more by their emotions than by rational thought, victims of forces beyond their understanding and control, rather than intelligent beings with the potential to change the world for the better.

So when the inevitable attacks on liberal education come, as they always do, the response is often half-hearted at best. For example, every few months, for as long as I can remember, there has been another headline-generating report produced by business leaders, politicians or celebrities saying that education should be focused less on knowledge and more on workplace skills. The latest of these being David Blunkett’s report commissioned by Keir Starmer to inform Labour party education policy.

It’s hardly surprising that business leaders and politicians would prefer schools and universities to be organised in their short-term interests and focused on what is perceived to be immediately useful, rather than subjects whose value is harder to pin down and requires some imagination to appreciate. Yet, thanks to some recent trends in education thinking, there is little pushback from educators.

To give but one of many reasons for this – the conviction that a liberal education can transform a child, stretch and develop them, expose them to new, maybe better, ways of thinking is fundamentally at odds with the modern idea of child-centred education which aspires to orient teaching around a child’s interests and says a child’s sense of identity must be celebrated and reinforced at every turn.

Frank Furedi explores this strange convergence of business and educational ideas at length in his book 100 Years of Identity Crisis. The upshot though is that few teachers seem interested in standing up for liberal education today. So it’s unsurprising that arts and humanities courses – the most obviously liberal subjects – are being shut down in schools and universities, to society’s great detriment.

With the tough economic times ahead of us, the voices telling us to narrow our horizons, saying ‘we don’t need to learn that’, will only get louder and louder. But what we really need is knowledge, open-ended education, leaps of faith, ideas – not more of the same old same old. Liberal education – learning what we don’t need to know – is more important now than ever.

The Liberating Power of Education is part of the Letters on Liberty series published by the Academy of Ideas. You can download it or order the physical pamphlet here.

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