Children and the Use of Technology

(I published this piece on the Keystone blog a few months ago, and reprint it below.)

One topic often discussed in my conversations with parents is the impact of technology on family life.

Context – how common is technology in children’s lives?

The pervasiveness of technology in children’s lives is undisputed. The Connected Kids Report last year showed that children aged 5 – 16 spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen, compared with around three hours in 1995. (UK adults spend even more time). Smartphone and tablet ownership amongst children is at an all-time high; did you know that more than one in 10 children aged 3 – 4 now have their own tablet (11%, up from 3% in 2013)?

Few areas of modern life are technology-free and teenagers in particular perceive themselves to be at a social disadvantage if they do not have a smartphone. Combine this peer pressure with an educational environment ever more in thrall to the use of technology in the classroom (the growth of BETT even during the years I have been running Keystone has been staggering) and the occasional concerned voice raised in opposition to this omnipresent technology is, if heard, rarely listened to.

What is wrong with technology?

Technological improvements have liberated and enriched whole areas of human activity in ways that the most visionary alchemist of yore could never have predicted. Few of its critics fail to recognise these contributions. Nonetheless, there are three particular concerns that parents have as they see the relationship their children have with technology.

  1. Social media – a shallow form of communication. Perhaps the most popular form of technology in children’s lives is social media, particularly Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. One of the most eloquent critics of the impact of social media on children’s social development is Sherry Turkle, whose books Reclaiming Conversation and Alone Together are well worth reading for parents who want to explore the issue further. She points to the fact that children have started to prefer digital communication over in-person / face-to-face communication, in part because it is easier to control. Children, especially in their teenage years when many are so nervous about how they are perceived, prefer to present more perfected selves via digital means rather than face the messiness, stumbles and mistakes of real-world, real-time communication. Of course, though, it is exactly this older form of face-to-face communication that is so important to the development of the self, and the development of such attributes as empathy. A 2011 University of Michigan scan of studies of American college students found a 40-per-cent decrease in empathy in the past four decades, with the steepest declines appearing in the past 10 years. These figures lead Professor McGilchrist to comment last year that smartphones were making children “borderline autistic” – though this was critiqued well in BigThink. But Turkle is surely persuasive when she says: “The predictability and ‘friction-free’ nature of virtual worlds is compelling to children, but it doesn’t teach them about relationships — conversations do.”
  2. Modern technology is distracting. A completely obvious point, you will say – butthis article by technology scholar Clay Shirky made me see just what a problem distraction has become, even for extremely able NYU undergraduates. In it Shirky reminds us how bad humans are at multi-tasking; draws our attention to the sinister pact made between smartphone Operating Systems and app companies to ensnare children’s attention neurochemically; and – perhaps most interestingly – shows that even students who do not bring smartphones to lessons can be distracted by the “secondary smoke” of a neighbour’s phone.  In my own experience of watching teenagers, I so often see evidence of that cruel tug placed on children by an unread message or status update, to the extent that some seem almost powerless to resist.
  3. Modern technology mediates and diminishes experience and perception. In a related concern, such technology has begun to invade experience to such an extent that children’s perception of their childhoods is in danger of being dulled, alienated and diminished. This is, of course, equally a problem for adults, and Turkle’s work is full of sad – but all-too-recognisable – stories of, for instance, the parent who reads his emails while giving his son a bath or who finishes a text as she greets her child at the school gates. Our relationships have started to slip into what researchers call an “absent presence.” We live in what Nicholas Carr calls The Shallows. In one telling statistic, although 82 per cent of adults acknowledge that using your phone during an in-person conversation hurts that interaction, 89 per cent keep doing it anyway. In my own experience, I fear that even technology use that is focused on the child (e.g. using your smartphone to record your child’s sports match or play) acts as a barrier between parent and experience – thereby draining it of some of its meaning.

What can parents do?

If the above three concerns strike you as plausible (and I’d love to hear from you whether they do or don’t), here are a few suggestions from the literature on what could be done in response – some easier to implement than others…

  1. Be strong. One of the most interesting comments I read in Turkle’s work is that children both longed for more conversations with their parents and peers (saying they turned to their own devices because others were similarly plugged in) and appreciated the liberation from them when firm rules were put in place. Even Steve Jobs, amongst other technology entrepreneurs, was firm in the limits he placed on his children’s technology use. As in many areas of bringing up children, parents should help children delay gratification and resist temptation in the secure knowledge that “they know better.”
  2. Model a healthy relationship with technology. As Turkle has pointed out, if a child sees their parent obsessed with a “shiny object” from the moment they’re born, they will want one for themselves as soon as they have the words to ask for it. “In parental slang, it has become known as the ‘passback,’ passing back the iPhone to quiet your toddler in the rear seat of the car.” Turkle recommends cultivating “sacred spaces” in family life, such as the kitchen, the dinner table and – a surprise for me – the car, in which no technology is allowed and conversation (even messy grunts and half-articulations) is fostered. If you need a hand, a friend from New Zealand points out that there are now apps to stop you overusing apps! The novelist Zadie Smith used a site called Freedom to help her avoid distraction and finish her novel.
  3. Encourage the experience of solitude and hands-on activity. Turkle convincingly points to studies showing that it is “only when we are alone with our thoughts — not reacting to external stimuli — that we engage that part of the brain’s basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past.” Some schools have built in wilderness / craft experience, such as Australia’s Timbertop programme or the UK’s Forest Schools, into adolescent education. However, most parents will find that simply encouraging their children to get out into the natural world or pursue quiet individual activities like modeling clay and sketching will help to achieve the same goals: slow children down and counteract the distractibility of technology. Turkle again: “When you watch children play with them, you see how the physicality of the materials offer a resistance that gives children time to think, to use their imaginations, to make up their own worlds. ”
  4. Interrogate the school’s policy on technology use. If you have found any of the above convincing, send some of the articles and books mentioned to your school. What is their policy on smartphone and tablet use? If they agree with the three problems mentioned above, how do they help their pupils overcome them?

The moral training of young children

I recently read a piece in The Guardian about the introduction of financial education in our schools from next September, intended to teach children to “solve money related maths problems and learn about public finances, pensions and how to budget”. Worthwhile behaviour this of course is, and the priority given to such lessons is a growing trend in today’s schools. I think it reflects the role that the curriculum plays in the mind of today’s activist. Faced with the crisis of obesity, or waste, or the role of women, the activist suggests that we teach children how to eat their greens, use fewer plastic bags, dismantle the patriarchy and so on.

Such suggestions are benignly given, seem sensible and few would question the problems they seek to solve. But do such lessons achieved the desired effect? I think they are often have three unintended consequences.

Firstly, such lessons take time away from a school’s core purpose, which is the transmission of knowledge. You’ll notice that most of these lessons are aimed at primary school children who have not yet mastered the foundations of arithmetic, reading, writing, grammar, history, geography, science etc. Lessons instructing children in particular attitudes or behaviours were traditionally a responsibility of the home because it was felt that schools did not have enough time to combine ethical lessons with traditional subject lessons. Here is an example of a lesson on water health and wellbeing as part of the Guardian’s ‘Live Better Challenge’:

“[F]ive nine- and 10-year-old boys fan out next to each other in the grass under a big, leafy tree. Another boy tries to lie beside them. “Get up, we can’t have six fingers. Go and be soap!” bawls part of the “hand”. The unwanted finger reluctantly hauls himself to his feet and joins the larger group of pupils standing over the outspread hand. Grinning at the sheer daftness of it, they all start to bob up and down in unison, making splurting noises as the “fingers” wriggle energetically on the ground. “Miss, look, we’re a soap dispenser!” the pupils call out, verging on hysterics as they try to co-ordinate their “squirting” action.”

Every hour that a child spends in lessons like these is an hour he is not spending learning the essential prior subject knowledge needed to understand the world in any depth.

The second effect is an effect of the first. Without foundational subject knowledge, is it not probable that children will learn the behavioural commandment without understanding the knowledge underpinning it? The best time to consider conservation, nutrition, feminism and other prominent contemporary issues is once a child has a good working knowledge of natural biology, human biology, history, politics etc. Without knowledge, the commandment becomes something of an empty cartridge, unconnected to the wider fabric of human knowledge, less likely, perhaps, to lodge in the daily consciousness of the child.

Lastly, I have long been unconvinced that lessons in behaviour, which might otherwise be called lessons in character, are best taught explicitly in the classroom. The independent sector has always understood this truth, preferring to inculcate virtues through the careful cultivation of a child’s experiences outside the classroom, such as on the sports field or in the dining hall. If we are to teach character in the classroom, do the above examples – and many like it – really hold up to scrutiny as virtues? Are they not rather applications of older virtues, such as temperance (‘temperantia‘) or charity (‘caritas‘)? To misrepresent the application of a virtue for a virtue itself is to conspire in a moral muddying of the waters, particularly when we are talking about the character formation of young children.

To take one example, a recent government report found that the UK had slipped from sixth to ninth place in the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index, that “a relative lack of ambition and positive attitudes may hold the UK back from realising its full entrepreneurial potential”, and that therefore the following lessons in primary schools were to be encouraged:

“Schoolchildren as young as five as will be taught how to set up their own businesses and make profits under plans to be unveiled this week…Those changes would mean that even the youngest children will be taught about the role and importance of business and the need to make a profit.”

The instruction “to make a profit” is not a morally defensible virtue in itself, but is rather an instance of the older virtue of diligence (‘industria’); just as the instruction to eat healthily is an example of temperance (‘temperantia’). Profit is a benign outcome only when tempered by other virtues and limited by other vices – above all greed. To set up profit itself as the virtue is, in C. S. Lewis words, a “rebellion of the branches against the tree.”

For more than a century, the multitude of different Purposes for education has disturbed and confused the means. “We [profess] to make ideal citizens, super tolerant neighbors, agents of world peace, and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars,” Jacques Barzun wrote – in 1945. There is of course a place for character education, and the UK independent sector has been responsible for some of the best examples of it, but it would be wiser if it was both confined to a later stage in a child’s schooling and limited in scope to virtues and vices that have stood the test of time.

Mini-Essay: Why Boarding?

The symptoms of what we call being a Boarding School Survivor are varied and complex. They include difficulties in relationships and parenting, workaholism, inability to relax, isolation, being experienced as a bully, substance abuse, a sense of failure, as well as physical, sleep, and sexual problems…

(http://www.boardingschoolsurvivors.co.uk)

Such is the trauma allegedly caused by attending a British boarding school… and certainly many of the families I have advised over the years (especially from around the Mediterranean!) seem to hold similar views. Even in the UK, many families feel that boarding is wacky or elitist or past its sell-by date.

Does boarding have a place in the modern world? You will find many articles that answer that question by drawing our attention to their ‘excellence’: their excellent academic results, their excellent sports facilities and so on. I agree with the label, but it does not by itself make a case for boarding. This mini-essay will ask: what is the actual purpose of boarding school? What makes it a distinctive choice for parents?

I believe the case for boarding rests on three distinct purposes.

 

Purpose 1) Boarding schools allow parents to entrust their children to those who have been raising children longer than they have.

The Latin origin of the word ‘educate’ is not, as some like to think, ‘educere’ (to lead/draw out) but ‘educare’: to rear. To choose boarding schooling is to delegate a large part of that rearing to experienced and, most importantly, dispassionate teachers. Teachers, male and female, are often called “Masters” in boarding schools because the title once described their minimum qualification (a Masters in Liberal Arts) but, in my mind, it is a title justified more by their mastery of rearing children. Good teachers have often instructed thousands of children. Sometimes this leads to complacency; more often, it leads to a disposition that does not treat every childish whim as an urgent need to be satisfied.

James Delingpole made this point well in an article explaining why he sent his children to boarding school:

Jim was bright but a slacker and could easily have gone off the rails. But he was steered through a difficult adolescence by an inspirational housemaster – Dennis Christley – who’d dealt with hundreds more teenage boys than I ever had and who, by administering just the right amount of carrot and stick at just the right moments, turned Jim into the charming, rounded, socially well‑adjusted delight he is today.

Historian and Anthropologist Professor Alan Macfarlane explains (in Letters to Lily) that, even before the popularity of boarding schools, the English believed in the importance of sending their children away from home at a young age:

Long ago, much to the surprise of Italian and French visitors, it was noticed that many of the English sent their children off very young (from as early as age seven) to be brought up in another household. If they were rich, they were pages or ladies-in-waiting; if poor, servants or apprentices. The English said they did this because unrelated strangers or friends could exercise good discipline in a way that parents found very difficult…Later this developed into the sort of education that I had: boarding schools from the age of eight to eighteen with parents abroad in India whom I hardly saw. My grandparents, with whom I lived, disciplined me. Meanwhile my parents were like grandparents who could show an uncomplicated and high level of affection.

Is this purpose still necessary? Absolutely. Parents so often tell me how hard it is to be authority figures to their children, especially to teenagers. They describe the nightly battles with homework, the constant setting and re-adjusting of curfews. Parents in the West have probably never been on such intimate terms with their children; they have also probably never found it harder to exercise the discipline that is demanded by paternal and maternal love. Boarding schools help parents enlist the support of experts who, like them, have their child’s best long-term interests at heart but who, unlike them, have enough experience and emotional distance to know how those best interests are realized.

 

Purpose 2) Their immersive cultures are able to exert a more profound influence than day schools.

The reason I started this blog is because I believe boarding schools have the power to enact an educational philosophy of a comprehensiveness that is denied to day schools. Their longer school day and sometimes isolated campuses allow the fostering of a culture that can in some respects be insulated from ordinary affairs.

Under the wrong stewardship, boarding schools can foment the most hideous cultures. Witness the many British boarding schools in the nineties and their problems with bullying and drug addiction. By the same token, though, a well governed and purposeful boarding school culture can prove to be a powerful countervailing wind against the narcissistic and trivial preoccupations that are typical of teenage life.

What is this culture? As stated in the Purpose of my blog, despite the differences of individual schools, I believe that there is such a thing as the ideal British boarding school culture, and that it is something to which most boarding schools aspire. At its best, it is a culture that pays due consideration to the head, the heart and the body; that promotes the virtues of selflessness, teamwork and responsibility; and that stands as a bulwark against the appeals of materialism, cynicism and self-importance. This last word is the most crucial for me. By sublimating a pupil’s ego into a culture that is in every sense larger than itself, the best boarding schools can help to train pupils in that most rare virtue of humility.

At a boarding school, such a culture can be fostered from the moment a pupil wakes to the moment he or she goes to sleep. One Eton housemaster, now the Headmaster of a top day school, lamented the fact to me that his school “basically stopped educating at 5pm”. Etonians, he said, were being educated for at least another four hours per day.

Do any boarding schools really exert a more benign cultural influence than that provided at home? How can you tell? School websites and Open Days can reveal a school’s culture, if a somewhat manicured version, but perhaps the best way to see a culture in action is via the raft of fly-on-the-wall documentaries that are now available, most of them for free on YouTube:

The changes through the years are fascinating (do Eton boys still sit around “declaiming” with their pals before class?) but more telling to my mind is the cultural thread that runs through them all over the past half-century. It’s a thread that runs back until at least Thomas Arnold’s day at Rugby. It is hard, though of course not impossible, to foster at home.

 

Purpose 3) They encourage independence.

This purpose is the most popular motivation cited by prospective parents and pupils. Of course, independence feeds out of the two purposes mentioned above: being away from one’s parents and being part of a strong and positive culture. It is so self-evident a merit of boarding school life that I shall limit myself to just a few observations.

Firstly, in what ways is the independence learned at boarding school different from that learned at day school? Boarding pupils are physically independent from their parents; if they have been put through a rigorous curriculum, let us hope that they will become independent in mind and thought too. I think the independence that boarding schools most aim for, though, is the independence from simple or immediate gratification. Boarding schools train habits very well. It is through undertaking – and surviving – unpleasant experiences that we grow up. From sharing a room with someone you don’t get on with to giving up one’s free evenings to direct the house play to any number of petty annoyances that fill a typical boarding day, boarding schools are ideally conceived to help children grow up being able to cope with, to transcend, the petty stresses and irritations of life.

Secondly, ‘independence’ is not meaningful without its corollary: ‘responsibility.’ Boarding schools return the trust that parents have placed in them…by placing in their children trust to behave responsibly. Sometimes this means trusting older children to run various parts of a school; at other times, it means trusting children simply to use their time wisely. Ex-boarding school pupils are often remarked upon for their confidence (John Locke said that boarding school boys were “bolder and better able to bustle and shift among boys”); it is a confidence derived from exercising responsibility from a reasonably young age. In recent times, there has been a bit of a tendency in boarding schools to micro-manage pupils’ “schedules” (a horrid word), which is a shame. If the school culture is right, schools should have enough confidence in pupils who have earned their independence to use it responsibly.

The result of these three primary purposes is an environment ripe for one of school’s secondary, but most profoundly rewarding, purposes: friendship. Boarding schools encourage that rare breed of lifelong friendship that can only be forged by the sharing of intense life-changing experience. As Hilary Moriarty, Director of Boarding Schools’ Association says, “ask any boarder what has been the best thing about boarding, and they are likely to say, ‘Being with friends,’ whatever their parents may think about academic excellence.”

 

Further Reading

The Boarding Schools’ Association: http://www.boarding.org.uk/356/why-boarding-

My Further Reading list: http://www.willorrewing.com/reading-list

Boarding Schools’ Value-added: http://www.ukboardingschools.com/advice/value-added-learning/

State Boarding Schools’ Association: http://www.sbsa.org.uk/

Mini-Essay: The Curriculum

In almost a decade of answering questions from parents about boarding schools, I have never been asked about a school’s curriculum. And yet it is hard to think of a feature that has more of a bearing on a child’s education. This short essay makes a case for why the curriculum is quite so important, and suggests a few ways to judge individual schools on the merits or demerits of their curriculum.

I should say a word on the term. A school’s ‘curriculum’ is the course of study it has chosen for its pupils. In detail, it would describe the content of every lesson. Although schools are directed to some extent by national examinations, they nevertheless – and especially in the independent sector – have a lot of freedom to design their own curricula.

Very Brief History

To understand the importance of the curriculum, it is necessary to have a whistle-stop look at its history.

Before the nineteenth century, boarding schools offered a curriculum that appears baffling to the modern parent. Most schools exclusively taught the Classics; Harrow also offered…Archery.

From the nineteenth century onwards, though, after spirited debate as to the merits of new-fangled subjects like Science and English Literature, the curriculum began to take the shape that it was to retain to the present day. This is a curriculum arranged into discrete subjects, such as Maths, English and Science, and organised around the core knowledge included in these subjects. To my knowledge, no more effective curriculum has ever been devised or instituted.

Such a curriculum is what late nineteenth century commentators such as Matthew Arnold called a “liberal education.” (For more on the term, read my mini-essay on the topic.) Importantly, it was thought to be a curriculum that should not be limited to independent schools, but which had universal appeal and benefit. From the 1870s onwards, it met with the approval of headmasters, politicians and commentators of many different stripes. And it was just such a liberal curriculum that inspired the formation of the first National Curriculum in 1988.

However, though the support for such a curriculum was broad, it was by no means unanimous. Weakened by the ideological currents of the 1960s and 70s, the consensus faltered and, as David Conway charts in his brilliant summary of the events, the mainstream educational establishment began to view this curriculum as elitist, irrelevant and not fit for purpose. Since 1988, the National Curriculum has been steadily distancing itself from the curriculum beliefs that had been upheld for so long by both the independent sector and beyond.

From the late 20th Century onwards, then, there was has been a decoupling. The National Curriculum has become ever more suspicious of traditional subject knowledge, and has promoted instead a curriculum that is based on skills (such as “collaboration” or “project research”) and rooted in the knowledge brought to class by pupils rather than knowledge imparted to pupils by teachers. The independent sector, on the other hand, has by and large stuck to the curriculum principles laid down in the nineteenth century.

How does this affect boarding school parents?

Concerns for Parents

Parents should be anxious as to whether the independent sector is safely insulated from the modern educational orthodoxy on the curriculum.

This is not the place to go into detail about why a traditional knowledge-based curriculum is so important for children. For parents who want to read more, the book to read is Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education. For now, one quotation of hers out of many that favour the traditional boarding school curriculum will suffice:

Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not just because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge.

So do boarding school parents have any reason to be anxious? In general, I am glad to say, no. Most independent school leaders have rejected modern curriculum orthodoxy, no doubt seeing that their belief in traditional subject knowledge is one of the reasons why the private sector has so outstripped the maintained sector in the last few decades.

However, there are a two concerning trends that I have noticed:

  1. An increasing number of teachers in boarding schools have been subjected to two years of modern curriculum philosophy during their training on the PGCE. “Skills-based” curricula are terribly seductive. I should know: I was enthralled by them when I was a recent graduate teacher myself. What was the point of learning pointless lists of Kings and Queens, when – in the twenty first century – knowledge is just a click away? The modern child surely did not need such an outdated curriculum; he needed to be a flexible, resilient, lifelong learner instead! Without the underpinnings (scientific and philosophical) of a knowledge-based curriculum, many new teachers are prey to the seemingly more enlightened theories of Sir Ken Robinson et al. I have met many well-educated and well-meaning teachers who have been trained to look on traditional curricula with hostility. Such teachers are ever more numerous in UK boarding schools.
  2. For the same reasons that a “skills-based” curriculum is seductive to new teachers, it is also seductive to many new parents. Hence the ever more frequent promise on school websites that they are “preparing students for the twenty first century” by, for example, “developing skills of creativity, flexibility, lateral thinking and enterprise”; or by “fostering intuition and resilience” or by “nurturing empathy and courage.” If these melodious mission statements are achieved by sticking to a traditional subject-based curriculum, the potential for damage is limited; if they are accompanied, as they are in some boarding schools, by a subversion of the curriculum, the potential hazard is immense.

Tips for Parents

How can parents tell whether a boarding school curriculum is knowledge-based or skills-based?

Out of all the aspects of a school’s daily life, the curriculum is one of the hardest to get a handle on. Whenever I visit schools, I do my best – but am often left none the wiser about the content of a school’s lessons. This is particularly the case as few registrars ever have intricate knowledge of a school’s curriculum. A few tips will suffice, though I would be delighted to hear more:

  • Ask to be shown round by a pupil, and ask them what they have been learning in their subjects recently. I particularly enjoy asking about their History lessons. I was told by one group of prep school boarders, with inestimable delight in their eyes, about all the intricacies of the Battle of Waterloo. If pupils relay knowledge (as opposed to vaguer accounts of history projects or source analysis), it is a very healthy sign.
  • If you can’t gain a good idea of a school’s curriculum from its website, ask whether the Director of Studies would mind receiving an email from you. Ask him or her simply what principles underlie the school’s curriculum. If the emphasis is on knowledge over skills, or at least if knowledge is seen as the essential foundation block upon which skills can be built, you can rest easy.

This is a thorny but fundamental topic and, if parents have the time, one that well repays further reading.

Mini-Essay: The Abolition of Man

It is a frequent lament of liberal education enthusiasts in this country that they must so often turn to the United States for inspiration. So it was that, via the US education think-tank the ISI, I first came across C S Lewis’ slim, digestible book on education, The Abolition of Man. Few books have had such a profound effect on me, especially on my views of education. It can be read for free here, and I much recommend this accompanying lecture (number 118 on the list, I believe) by the entertaining and rather mellifluous Dr. Richard Gamble.The book can be read in one sitting, and I would hate to spoil the experience for the uninitiated, so I shall limit my commentary to just one point – on sentiment in education.C S Lewis’ writing is a wonderful tonic to modern conceptions of sentiment, which leave most commentators divided between automatons and sentimentalists. Today, it seems, one is either in favour of regimentation, efficiency and accountability (see most of McKinsey’s reports on education systems, or politicians’ regular praise for the education systems of Korea and Singapore), or else one would rather schools resemble Rousseauian playgrounds, exalting creativity and individual expression above all else.

C S Lewis would be appalled by both visions, though it was his fears about the former – the technocraticisation of English schools; the mechanization of their products – that led him to write the book. In my favourite line, he writes: “The job of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”

What did he mean by deserts? He worried that children were being educated in a way that robbed them of their souls – though atheists may prefer the word spirit. He illustrates his point with several examples, most from a popular elementary textbook of the time. I’ll repeat just one – on horses. In the textbook, the writer has found “a silly bit of writing on horses, where these animals are praised as the ‘willing servants’ of the early colonists in Australia”. The writer “debunks” this piece of writing and explains that horses were not interested in colonial expansion.

That C S Lewis picks out this example is a testament to his value as a writer on education, and to what we’ve lost now that his like are not around. Most parents or teachers would skim over this tiny detail as incidental, a bit trivial, not worth worrying about. Not Lewis, who writes:

“I find that the same operation, under the same general anaesthetic, is being carried out. Orbilius [his name for the writer] chooses for ‘debunking’ a silly bit of writing on horses…Of Ruksh and Sleipnir and the weeping horses of Achilles and the war-horse in the Book of Job—nay even of Brer Rabbit and of Peter Rabbit—of man’s prehistoric piety to ‘our brother the ox’—of all that this semi-anthropomorphic treatment of beasts has meant in human history and of the literature where it finds noble or piquant expression—he has not a word to say. Even of the problems of animal psychology as they exist for science he says nothing. He contents himself with explaining that horses are not, secundum litteram, interested in colonial expansion. This piece of information is really all that his pupils get from him. Why the composition before them is bad, when others that lie open to the same charge are good, they do not hear. Much less do they learn of the two classes of men who are, respectively, above and below the danger of such writing—the man who really knows horses and really loves them, not with anthropomorphic illusions, but with ordinate love, and the irredeemable urban blockhead to whom a horse is merely an old-fashioned means of transport. Some pleasure in their own ponies and dogs they will have lost; some incentive to cruelty or neglect they will have received; some pleasure in their own knowingness will have entered their minds. That is their day’s lesson in English, though of English they have learned nothing. Another little portion of the human heritage has been quietly taken from them before they were old enough to understand.”

Not just the missed opportunity to leave a child uplifted, but the actual reduction in scope and spirit that a lesson like this might cause, is tragically revealed. Elsewhere in the book, Lewis repeats the damaging consequences: “The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him…It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognised as a controversy at all.” That the capacity for worthy, “ordinate” sentiment is what it means to be human is why C S Lewis chooses such a fearsome title: by robbing children of this capacity, we are abolishing the species.

A very good friend, who teaches English at a top London independent school, tells me that C S Lewis’ fear is well-placed with regard to many of the colleagues he has worked with. One telling observation was the number of his colleagues – clever, professional, sometimes brilliant, well-meaning men and women – who would disparage as childish or needless their students’ tendency to imagine characters’ lives beyond the pages of a novel. History departments do the same damage to their students’ historical imaginations when they refuse to be drawn into class discussions on counterfactual history. As Lewis says, the result is that “we make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.”

There is nothing about the sentimental approach encouraged by Lewis that means that the education has to lack rigour – so often the case with modern attempts to prioritise the sentimental. The English public schools used to be purposeful standard-bearers for a middle way, managing to be at once academically rigorous and encouraging of “ordinate” sentiment, but I for one have fears that this is now under threat. It is interesting to note that C S Lewis, like Tolkein, T S Eliot and other writers who left school before WWII, were the last generation to have had a rigorous classical education. Anyway, the book has much more to it than what I’ve discussed above, and I heartily recommend it.

Mini-Essay: What is Liberal Education?

One cannot be a modern “educationalist” without a pithy defence of what education is and what (or who) it is for.

One cannot be a modern “educationalist” without a pithy defence of what education is and what (or who) it is for. Definitions for the purpose of education are to be heard everywhere, and are often loaded with personal or political bias. Someone new to the topic – told at every turn that education is one of the most important features of modern life – can be forgiven if he is left scratching his head, or if he is attracted by the meretricious glow of trendy definitions (or manifestos, as they increasingly seem to be called) currently doing the rounds.I have found it helpful to look backwards at how education has been defined in the past. It is a great comfort to do so, for although details and methods are debated, the central purpose of education seems to have been universally understood since it was begun in Athens in the 5th Century BC. The phrase “liberal education” – and this site – takes its inspiration from this old common understanding of what education is for. That this definition should be supplanted by something fit for the 21st Century is a case that has been repeatedly made; I would ask which developments have made the definition below no longer fit for purpose.The essay to read is Anthony O’Hear’s Introduction in his The School of Freedom, from which this brief, and personal, summary draws its inspiration.Firstly, how is Liberal Education liberal? In two principal ways:1. Its purpose and scope is broad.

 

The goal of liberal education is…to produce educated persons. Qualifications may be more or less required depending on the historical circumstances, but the chief measure of a liberal education is a frank look at the end product: is this person educated, or is he not? How do we test this? Principally, by how much he knows. This is where that glorious – but much too debated – phrase from Matthew Arnold comes in: that children should be fed a diet of “the best that has been thought and said.” The point is that the knowledge selected for the child to be taught should not be dictated by how useful it will be for a particular job, but for its own inherent quality. This means: the best novels; the most ground-breaking scientific breakthroughs; the great events in history. I disagree with a few points of Martin Stephen’s essay The Strange Death of Liberal Education, but he does use this attractive phrase. A liberal education, because it is concerned with more than training for a particular job “has time to gather flowers by the wayside.”

2. Its ambition is to liberate.

The more specific an education, the more trapped are its graduates. The payoff for the rigours of a liberal education is intellectual liberation. A diet of “the best that has been thought and said”, if taught in the right way, equips children with the mental armoury needed to be truly autonomous, protected in adult life from the temptations of sophistic hucksters or commercialist knaves. It was an education designed, in the words of the 15th Century writer Vergerio, to be “worthy of a free man.”

I shall leave to a future essay the central paradox of liberal education. To my mind, it is the reason that its name is so often taken in vain. Briefly, it is this: in order to achieve liberal education’s highly ambitious ends, teachers and parents have to use means, especially in the early years, which will feel illiberal. Memorisation; grammar tables; rote learning; high standards rigorously upheld. As Anthony O’Hear very eloquently puts it, “personal freedom requires an internal locus of control.” Supporters of liberal education have a low estimation of a child’s ability to reason. As Aristotle says in his Ethics, “no one would choose to live with the intellect of a child throughout his life.” Again, this is put very well from Professor O’Hear: “it is the responsibility of parents to exercise judgment on behalf of their growing children, and the most generous choice is to train the child’s own reason in anticipation of his or her necessary freedom in majority.” It is in these coercive areas – a recommended canon of knowledge, rigorously taught – that the Liberal Education tradition runs counter to some of the orthodoxies of modern permissive parenting. The payoff is worth it though. Anthony O’Hear again: “by aiming at such uniformity schools produce all the diversity of freedom…No pedagogy has ever shown more faith in its charges; no generation has ceded so much power to their successors.”

Liberal education is defined in essence above. It has two interesting lesser priorities, which I shall touch on very briefly here. The first is that it has an aesthetic element to it. Martin Stephen says that “A liberal education seeks to inculcate an awareness not just of why a thing works, but that it can be beautiful in its working”, and Professor O’Hear agrees: the ideal product has “…an educated sensibility in matters of value and the aesthetic.” The last point is that it includes quiet political ambitions too. Students who have been truly liberally educated want to engage with the world politically. “Reason,” as O’Hear says, “will call its pupils to action.” I shall be discussing the non-intellectual character elements of liberal education in another essay.

As a last point, it is worth answering the question of who, as opposed to what, liberal education is for. After its coercive elements, the next biggest problem for liberal education in this century is the whiff of elitism that accompanies it. Of course, it was precisely this elitism that made it attractive in the past. In more ambitious ages, people of all backgrounds thronged to the great books and ideas precisely because they basked in glory. This should be the rejoinder in the present age: when previous generations from all backgrounds took such succour from liberal education, why is it modern young people from poor backgrounds who are denied it? It is, after all, the unprivileged who have more use for intellectual autonomy than the privileged. The book to read on the topic is Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. In it, he charts the reading habits of the British working class over hundreds of years. The book teems with fascinating portraits: Catherine Cookson’s biography is famous; my favourite are those of the Midland weavers who had copies of Great Books propped up on their frames as they worked. As O’Hear points out, the initial aims of Liberal Education were to extend aristocratic Athenian culture to all Athenian citizens; this ambition needs to be urgently re-stated.