“Our education, like our civilisation, is penetrated with an unintelligent utilitarianism, which makes us feel that we ought to be doing something ‘useful’; useful subjects are indispensable, but the prior task of education is surely to inspire, to give a sense of values and the power of distinguishing in life, as in lesser things, what is first rate and what is not”1.
The inter-war years in Britain are neatly divided by the events of late 1931 when Britain was forced to abandon the gold standard, and stopped pretending that she could control the world. Instead of looking backwards the British became seriously engaged in planning for a different kind of future. The ordinary Englishman now had more money to spend on luxuries; there were a million cars on the roads in 1920, and two million in 19302. There were worries about a falling birth rate; the ‘Baby Austin’ in the garage was blamed for replacing babies in the nursery. Most people were literate enough to buy newspapers, but largely disinterested in buying books. Only 18% of fourteen-year-olds were still in school in 1939 and only four pupils in a thousand eventually reached university (only one of those went to Oxford or Cambridge)3. Brains were being wasted. The economic recession of the mid 1930s not only delayed any further parliamentary initiatives, it led to a 20% reduction in those applying to go to public schools; and more people were questioning the relevance of such an education in the post-war world.
When war was declared on September 3rd 1939 one-and-a-half million children were immediately evacuated from London and major cities, causing chaos in village schools where teachers could make little sense of the cockney accents of those youngsters who had never seen a cow, or a field, and had no boots able to deal with country mud. In the summer of 1941 the royal Navy was struggling to protect merchant ships from U-boats attacks; Agatha Christie was writing her thirty-third detective novel, “Murder in the Library”; Benjamin Britten was composing “A Ceremony of Carols”; Sir Richard Livingstone4, President of Corpus Christi College, and soon-to-be Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, published a remarkable little book, “The Future in Education”.
“Why are we an uneducated nation, and how can we become an educated one?” asked Livingstone. We have “compulsory education, magnificent schools, an impressive army of teachers, and an enormous educational budget” yet, despite all that, he said it seems that “the chief uses of our present education system are to enable a minority to proceed to further education, and the rest to read the cheap press”. To cease education at fourteen “is as unnatural as to die at fourteen. The one is physical death, the other intellectual death. The vast majority of the population being shown a glimpse of the Promised Land, and then left outside; the majority had been treated as if they were to have no leisure, or as if it didn’t matter how they used what leisure they had. Our problem” continued Livingstone, “is that we ignore a vital educational principle, namely that studying a subject of which you have some first-hand knowledge is far easier, far more meaningful, than studying the theory of a subject of which you have no practical experience”.5 We all seem to have forgotten that learning involves more than schooling.
Not all subjects need experience of life before they can be usefully studied, Livingstone noted. Some subjects are like pre-digested food, they are complete in themselves; mathematics, algebra, chemistry, physics and some aspects of language, can be studied almost in isolation from real-life experiences. For them schooling alone is sufficient. However, other subjects, such as literature, history, religion, philosophy, economics and politics should be taught in school, at least to the level at which the student appreciates the basic structure of each discipline. However, these are only first steps. They await the young learner’s personal experience of life to turn them into meaningful knowledge. In one of Livingstone’s most memorable phrases he states, “If the school sends out children with a desire for knowledge and some idea of how to acquire and use it, it will have done its work. Too many leave school with the appetite killed and the mind loaded with undigested lumps of information. If a school is unable to teach its pupils to work things out for themselves, it will be unable to teach them anything else of value”6.
Livingstone’s solution was radical. However good schooling might become, young people entering adolescence need a rich array of non-school-based experiences if they are to grow their minds in ways that will enable them to internalise what’s studied in the classroom. Livingstone proposed that full-time schooling should cease at the age of fourteen or fifteen. For the next three years, every youngster should work at earning their own living for three days a week, and spend the other two days studying those subjects that most relate to human life, namely, philosophy, literature and history7. Like Milton all those years before him Livingstone knew that democracy was as dependent upon farmers, shopkeepers, craftsmen and factory workers understanding these issues, as it was on intellectuals and politicians understanding the realities of every-day life. By the age of seventeen or eighteen, said Livingstone drawing all this together, everyone would have had such a range of learning experiences that they would know for themselves just what form of further education would best suit them, and what kind of life they wished to lead.
Thesis 62: 24th August 2006