Leading Article: We are not dumbing down, but broadening our cultural l ife

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The Independent Culture
BRITAIN'S CULTURAL life is being dumbed down, no doubt about it. Hardly anybody learns Latin or classical Greek. Reciting poetry from memory is a dying skill. News at Ten has gone. And the newspapers! Apart from The Independent and the Financial Times it is all the Spice Girl's baby and Prince Philip and his showgirls.

But whether this vulgarisation is a bad or a good thing is a much more complicated question. The authors in our series Dumb Britannia, which concludes today, have generally been surprisingly optimistic. As Thomas Sutcliffe wrote of television, "all golden ages are tricks of the light". More children watch cheap cartoons at all sorts of unlikely times of day, but the gold standard of Blue Peter is still there. The consumer has a choice, which includes more high-minded, engaging and educational programmes than ever.

The purists bemoan the triviality of Classic FM, the schmaltz of Shakespeare in Love and the eclecticism of the post-modern sensibility that regards football and Canaletto as being of equal value. Yet in each case the classical canon is being made more accessible, brought within reach of a wider audience, most of whom may skim the surface while some may be drawn in deeper.

The fragmentation of knowledge is also its democratisation. This week's hit in the cinema is a low-budget, alternative Danish film, Festen. There is more High Art in the galleries than ever before, and the theatres are packed - when they deserve to be.

It may be that there is less and less of a consensus about what constitutes high culture. There has not been for a long time a body of knowledge that it is assumed all civilised people in this country will know. But when there was a central canon, it was based on a classical education that was the preserve of the elite private schools. It was then widened out to the grammar schools before being dissolved almost entirely by the tyranny of "relevance", in which schools tried to base their teaching on what children already knew.

But it is an exaggeration to say that we now exist in a mix-and-match universe in which individuals are left without a guide to create their own sense of value. It is a beguiling vision, of a world in which there is far more information available than ever before, but no central avenue through it. That is the assumption behind much of the debate about the BBC: that one of its purposes is to lead the listener and viewer along the high and stony road of virtue and away from the low marsh of our baser natures - in which we would wallow in porn on the Internet and cable television all day if left to our own devices.

It is a false assumption, because the democratisation of knowledge is not about being left to our own devices, but about being more able to choose our guides.

Young people not only know different things, they know things differently, as John Sutherland pointed out in his essay with which our series opened. When he was a child a high value was placed on a trained memory, the ability to recall the key texts and the key names and dates of the canon. Children now place a much higher value on knowing where to find information and knowing what to do with it when they have found it.

Nor is it the case that the British education system stayed in the relativist morass into which it briefly slipped. The National Curriculum has been a huge project in reconstructing a central core of common knowledge. In her essay, our education editor detected a strong "whiff of utilitarianism" in this modernised version of the canon; but, to the extent that this means equipping children with the basic tools to access knowledge effectively, it is entirely right. And when she compared the O-level English syllabus from 1976 with the GCSE for 2000, she found Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge on both. The difference now being that culture is compulsory and universal, rather than being at the whim of individual teachers or for the "academic" minority.

In most cases, what is happening is not so much a dumbing down as a broadening out. But there is one area where the drive towards the lowest common denominator should genuinely be worrying, and that is in journalism. The ending of News at Ten and the convergence of tabloid and broadsheet newspapers on the middle ground of celebrity soap opera is a real threat, not to our cultural life but to our democratic citizenship. It is not yet clear that the Internet will be a viable alternative source of serious in-depth reporting for those who seek it. The Independent has an interest to declare and, we hope, our own furrow to plough. But we believe that, if you are alarmed by Dumb Britannia, then you are reading the right newspaper.