Don’t they teach that at school?
To the left is a photograph I recently took in a gift shop. It is a display of the phenomenally successful ‘nostalgic series’ of books from the publisher Michael O’Mara. They have been turning out these titles since their book on old school grammar lessons, I Before E (Except after C), hit the Sunday Times bestsellers list with around 250,000 copies flying off the shelves.
As a history teacher, I was attracted to such titles as A Classical Education: The Stuff You Wish You’d Been Taught at School and Remember, Remember (The Fifth of November): The History of Britain in Bite-Sized Chunks. From the publisher’s website, it turns out the ‘nostalgic series’ has sold over 1.1 million copies. The fact they are selling so well shows the yearning amongst certain members of the public to teach themselves the traditional, even classical education, which schools today fail to provide.
Whilst teaching history, I am desperate to spend my lessons enthusing pupils about the stuff of the past: stories, events, characters and changes. However, the National Curriculum and GCSE exams, not to mention inspections from SMT, conspire to prevent me from doing this. Whilst I want to pass on a significant knowledge of history to my pupils, I am expected instead to give them skills: the spurious skill of source analysis to spot bias at one hundred yards; the skills of collaboration to model Hitler and Stalin out of Play-Doh; and the skill of empathy to sit in a puddle and consider what life was like as a medieval peasant.
The ‘nostalgic series’ represents a public thirst for knowledge, or Cultural Literacy – a phrase first dubbed by the American academic and educator E. D. Hirsch. Hirsch is a university professor who first became concerned with what was being taught at American schools when he observed college freshmen arriving year after year with an ever-lower level of general knowledge. In 1988, he published his book Cultural Literacy, which argued that to be an educated American, who can comfortably understand an editorial in the Washington Post or New York Times, you need to be able to do more than just read. You also need to be equipped with certain level of knowledge which enables you to know where Beirut is, who John Adams was, or what is meant by the Second Amendment. Hirsch argued that the American education system, which (much like ours) sees cognitive skills as more important than ‘mere’ knowledge, has failed to equip pupils with this Cultural Literacy.
It is an indictment of Britain’s education system that publishers can market a popular book entitled A Classical Education: The Stuff You Wish You’d Been Taught at School. If schools continue to believe that knowledge is secondary to skills, they will continue to turn out pupils whose reading is hampered by an inability to understand simple allusions and references. For such pupils, phrases like ‘David and Goliath struggle’, ‘Achilles heel’, ‘Once more unto the breech’, or ‘feudal society’ belong to a foreign language. Thankfully, some people still want to understand these faint echoes of what once promised to be a common culture for all.
Many dismiss calls for a knowledge-based curriculum as ‘old-fashioned’, or worse yet ‘right-wing’. However, Hirsch (a life long liberal and Democrat voter) recognised that for all its progressive rhetoric, skills based teaching hampers social justice. What could possibly be ‘progressive’ about letting independent schools retain a monopoly on providing cultural literacy for their pupils? With great wisdom Hirsch wrote, ‘To withhold traditional culture from the school curriculum, and therefore students, in the name of progressive ideas is in fact an unprogressive action that helps preserve the political and economic status quo.”