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Last Updated: Sunday, 29 June, 2003, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
Culture and Anarchy Revisited 1: Sweetness and Light

Transcript of talk by Simon Heffer on The Westminster Hour, 15 June 2003.

Simon Heffer
Simon Heffer
At the end of January the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, declared that 'Education for its own sake is a bit dodgy'. 'The idea' he went on 'that you can learn about the world sitting in your study just reading books is not quite right. You need a relationship with the workplace.'

He also said that he didn't care too much whether anyone studied the classics any more, and even added it might not be such 'a bad thing' if there were to be a decline in highbrow subjects at university altogether.

So, nearly 150 years after Charles Dickens invented - and pilloried - Mr Gradgrind, with his 'facts, facts, facts' hard times are back in English education. The Secretary of State himself has declared that learning for learning's sake is not justifiable. We are entering a new dark age.

Only 0.2 per cent of GCSEs taken in this country are in Latin, and only a fraction of that in Greek. The study of classics has dwindled. Many people will not rue the fact that such 'elitist' skills as using the aorist in Greek, or conjugating Latin irregular verbs, are virtually extinct.

But so therefore is the ability to read the Iliad, the Odyssey or the Aeneid in their original languages, or to understand all the nuances of Plato and Aristotle, or the legal and political writings of the Roman Republic - I could go on. And if some people really think our country is better off as a result, or that the cause of civilisation is thereby advanced, then God help them, and all of us.

In 1869 Matthew Arnold, poet, critic, sometime school inspector and son of Dr Arnold of Rugby, published one of the greatest works of the 19th century: Culture and Anarchy, a critique of Britain's social and political life. Here he dealt definitively with the questions that still vex today's educationalists. Britain, at the time, had just witnessed the agitation that forced a Conservative government to pass a second Reform Act, extending the franchise to the new middle classes, and the great thinkers of the day were concerned with one overriding question: how to get a largely uneducated population ready to play a larger role in an expanding democracy.

Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill and others all grappled with this: but only Arnold addressed the problem with clear vision. 'The whole scope of the essay,' he wrote in the preface to Culture and Anarchy, 'is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said.'

One hundred and thirty-five years later, sunk in cynicism, we may well wonder at the very idea that 'our total perfection' can ever be obtained. Sadly, few of the products of modern schooling will be able to translate the supremely hopeful superscription that Arnold placed at the start of his work: 'Estote ergo vos perfecti!', loosely, 'therefore perfect yourselves'.

For Arnold, the essential quality a more civilised and humane people needed was education. Even if perfection were impossible, it might yet be approached through a greater understanding of all that had happened in the world, of other lands and civilisations and ways of thought. He railed against utilitarianism, rebuking the Manchester liberals who believed in it ┐for their failure to see how society had been diminished as a result. I shall deal with this in more detail next week.

He also developed Ruskin's notion that before the electorate can properly use political power, it must be educated in the broadest sense. Both schools of thought - Arnold's and Ruskin's in the late 1860s, Charles Clarke's today - could be said to be opposed to elitism. The difference is that the two Victorian sages wanted the fruits of elitism available to all - for the many, not the few - for the good of the nation, while modern thinking would have them disregarded altogether. Perhaps we think now that human nature cannot be perfected: so there's no point in trying.

Arnold recognised that culture could be 'an engine of social and class distinction', though that is why he wished to spread it out as far as he possibly could. He called this propagation of education the extension of 'sweetness and light'.

'Sweetness and light', to the modern ear, sounds almost twee. But he could not have chosen a better metaphor and it is, beyond even his poetry itself, Arnold's most famous phrase. It conveys the mellifluousness and harmony of the highest aesthetics and the brightness and warmth of true civilisation: what Winston Churchill, in a memorable speech in 1940 when he sought to describe the counterpoint to Hitler's chill darkness, called the 'broad sunlit uplands'. To Arnold, sweetness and light, or learning for learning's sake, had a religious purpose. It was 'to make reason and the will of God prevail'. Or, as Montesquieu put it in more secular terms, 'to render an intelligent being yet more intelligent'.

Non-vocational education is about more than just ancient civilisations: it teaches much more recent history, modern languages, and our own literature and language and art. It equips people to appreciate and to think. As Arnold put it, the purpose of culture was to enable people to question their 'stock notions and habits'.

He said that, once this was appreciated, 'the moral, social and beneficent character of culture becomes manifest'. For Arnold, the will of God was synonymous with the truth. I am reminded of the Vulgate: 'magna veritas est et prevalet': 'great is the truth, and it shall prevail'.

And that could just as easily be a secular slogan and so, at a stroke, Arnold's belief in the importance of sweetness and light becomes blindingly relevant to our times.

He realised that some would see the pursuit of sweetness and light, or learning for the sake of learning, as something to be disparaged. Utility is what many contemporary educationalists, like Mr Gradgrind, feel learning is all about.

Do the politicians who have taken this line have an ulterior motive?

If we are religious, we wish the will of God to prevail. If we are not, we still would like there to be the prevalence of the truth. How much easier either of those things are (and they may well be the same thing) when the populace has been well and broadly educated. But educated people are questioning people. What's more, they question rationally and from a position of intellectual strength; not from stupidity or bloody-mindedness.

Culture, by its very immensity and scope, diminishes ideologues and ideologies. As Arnold said, culture 'is always assigning to system-makers and systems a smaller share in the bent of human destiny than their friends would like'. Aha.

Our times, unlike Arnold's, are those in which Governments assume huge measures of social control, interfering in the lives of individuals. By denying them culture too, they make their interventions seem benevolent, rather than destructive of the human spirit.

When we look at the last century and a third since Arnold wrote, we might wonder what success his call for 'sweetness and light' actually had. He published 'Culture and Anarchy' the year before Gladstone's Education Act, which introduced a measure of compulsory schooling for all children. The late Victorian and Edwardian periods saw an expansion of schools, formal education for girls and women, the development of institutes for workingmen, a determination to rescue Jude the Obscure from a life of unfulfilment and frustration.

The Butler Education Act of 1944 extended opportunities even further. It brought the best university education within the reach of everyone intellectually equipped for it, irrespective of wealth. While there were elements of vocational teaching - the technical schools, for example - education was generally viewed in the Arnoldian sense as something of breadth, meant to encourage the widest understanding of the world and its intellectual currents. As well as identifying the will of God with truth, Arnold identified it with reason.

The pursuit of sweetness and light was about the pursuit of reason, and, from that came order: or, as Arnold said, 'sweetness and light for as many as possible'. He wanted a society 'in the fullest measure permeated by thought, sensible to beauty, intelligent and alive'.

That, of course, was high idealism, and Arnold again anticipated the dangers.

He was canny enough to know that some would try to substitute ersatz sweetness. '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.' He went on to say, darkly, that 'the ordinary popular literature is an example of this way of working on the masses.' He knew, too, there would also be attempts at indoctrination, when the popular mind was stimulated sufficiently to be receptive to ideas, but not given such sweetness and light to be sufficiently critical or discriminating about them. He saw political parties, and religious organisations, already doing both of these things.

Had he been able to see ahead to prime time television, or the mass circulation press, Arnold would have seen two even more potent corrupters of his ideal. True culture, he said '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 the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.' Pre-empting socialists - and I mean socialists of all parties - he said that this proved the fundamental point: that 'the men of culture are the true apostles of equality'.

But other means have since been used to promote equality, and they have not always been compatible with sweetness and light. Attempts have been made to teach reason, whether by teaching the humanities in schools or enshrining the principles of civilisation in law as regards how we treat other people. Sadly, they have failed. The skill of literacy has been put directly to the use that Arnold feared, rather than to the use for which he hoped. Airport novels and tabloid newspapers may gratify and amuse, but do they enlighten? Sensationalism is more exciting than steady appreciation. Human nature has shown, and continues to show, a reluctance to be perfected.

Everyone now receives an education: but too many see it in utilitarian terms, as a means to an end - a well-paid job, a house, a car. Thomas Carlyle once said that 'the only human right worth having is the right of the foolish to be governed by the wise'. As a visceral Tory of what Ruskin called 'the old school', Carlyle was a pessimist. For him, society simply wasn't perfectible.

The only hope was for strong governors to contain the promiscuous excesses of the people as best they could, by threats and sanctions. Education was positively dangerous to those who didn't know how to use it: it took a special man from the lower orders, like Carlyle himself, to treat learning as a lifelong process, and to be capable of serious self-improvement. Similarly, many modern education ministers have thought themselves wise, and believed they knew what is best for those they privately consider foolish.

Perhaps there was an age, from the late Victorian period to the arrival of Tony Crosland at the Ministry of Education in the mid-1960s, when the English might have had a chance to perfect themselves. With the rise of the new middle classes, education became more important than ever. People made sacrifices of time and money in order to enrich their minds, and the state offered more and more support. It was not for everyone..

The proportion of the population attending a university or a polytechnic remained small. But a broad education, on the Arnoldian model, was available, and it was prized. Crosland started to destroy the grammar schools: the policy continued under the Heath government, when Mrs Thatcher was Education Secretary. Labour , back in office, wanted to destroy the private schools, even though with the elimination of class privileges would come the erasure of much high-quality education.

Then, during 18 years of the last Conservative government, education ceased to be an end in itself. The politicians of that era didn't quite despise the notion of learning for learning's sake: but they saw university as little more than a step on a ladder, and wished to pump as many people as possible into tertiary education for political reasons. Hence the creation of many new universities, and many new courses, that at times seem to be more residential apprenticeships than mind-expanding interludes between school and work.

The old notion of teaching people to think seems mostly to have been lost. Thus, long before Charles Clarke, universities were becoming more and more places of vocational instruction. Courses were tailored to the life the undergraduates would lead on leaving university. Fewer and fewer people had an education that taught them, above all, to recognise great truths, and to see that they prevailed.

Those who shape our country's education policy have no proper conception of the true purpose of education. This is not all the fault of the politicians. There is an institutionalised resistance, still, among many people, to the very thought of being cultured. Once they have got their basic education, the skills that allow them to survive in the world of leisure or work, they have no further intellectual interests. They are without curiosity and, what is more, the system in which they are brought up encourages them to remain militantly so.

It is not just that they don't know about art and literature and history, it is that they expressly don't want to know. To Arnold, curiosity wasn't enough. To us, it would be a start. For sure, we have vastly improved the material welfare of our people since 1869. But has their moral, intellectual and spiritual welfare improved one iota? If not, this is the fault of politicians of all parties in the last 40 years who have confused elitism with exclusivity, and have made the mistake of refusing to believe that egalitarianism could be achieved by levelling upwards.

As a result, our age is darker than it need be, our people have been made vulnerable to cynical manipulation. And, as I shall argue next week, they have been duped into thinking that the superficial extension of liberties is a substitute for the real power that comes with knowledge and understanding.



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