Aristotle knew it, but we've forgotten

We see education now as an entirely functional activity. There are good cultural reasons for defending the old-fashioned liberal ideal
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The Independent Online
Education, Education, Education. The Government declared its three priorities at the election and has followed them through energetically, "doing something" almost daily - urging parents to read with their children for 20 minutes a day, welcoming the Dearing report, offering knighthoods to successful head teachers and even finding more money (not enough) for our creaking schools system.

But listen carefully, because what is being talked about may not be education at all in the old sense of the word. There is a real danger that what is being urged upon us (and in fairness what we as a society seem to be asking the Government to deliver) is a very narrow band of a larger educational spectrum: the pragmatic bit - skills, vocational training qualifications.

"An education which is not an education of the heart is no education at all," wrote Aristotle - using heart not as the seat of amatory emotions, but as the location of what is truly human. It is hard not to feel that we have abandoned such a concept, and see education now as an entirely functional activity. There are good cultural reasons for defending the old-fashioned liberal (or humane) educational ideal.

Britain is notorious abroad for the contempt and suspicion in which we hold intellectuals. A recent survey found that the nation's most popular poem was Kipling's "If": "If you can think and not make thoughts your master/If you can dream and not make dreams your end ..." etc etc is rated above Wordsworth's or Houseman's rural romanticism, or Owen's and Brooke's tragic patriotism, higher even than Shakespeare's lyricism, wit and psychological insight. The mad professor, the bumbling academic, the nerd or swot, the blue-stocking, the effete poet, are all stock joke characters for us - even wearing glasses is mildly humorous, along with all contemporary art, most European thought, and anything that can be called "ideological". Philosophy is about the only subject in which you cannot do a GCSE. In fact, without wishing to extol the honours system, it is pretty typical that you can give knighthoods to sporting heroes, but giving them to schoolteachers is considered bold and innovative. So perhaps we should not be entirely surprised that our attempts to expand and improve the education system do not address this wider aspect of education at all. We do not value education for its own sake, even though we think we do.

I am presently a writer-in-residence in a prison. Here, full-time education is the worst-paid work that the prisoners can take - they are paid less to get educated than to be cleaners. You can earn more than pounds 20 a week working in a textile shop and less than pounds 7 getting educated. So, although nominal support is given to the idea that education has a rehabilitative role to play - and indeed that many of the inmates are there precisely because the education system failed them in the first place - it is not given a chance to compete on level terms.

Moreover, the only full-time education courses available are Adult Basic Education (remedial education) and Business Studies. Prisoners can, and do, volunteer for other educational activities - including GCSEs, A-levels, Open University degrees, creative writing, arts and crafts and music - but they do so in their own time, or lose wages. One of the justifications I have heard for this peculiar discrepancy is that this is how it is "on the out", in the real world.

My son is 15, he has just completed his GCSEs. Since he was 13 he has studied nothing at school, except sport, which was not product-oriented - in which he was gong to get (we hope) a qualification. All his study has been based on completing a pre-planned and highly restricted course. If he has indeed been doing the amount of homework the school recommended he has had very little time for any independent study, such as learning a musical instrument, or even extensive reading. Is this a full and proper education?

I am even hearing of proposals that we should speed up degree courses: students should work much harder, more of the time, so they can "get through" the course in two years. They probably could, even though many of them would have to be in part-time work as well, since they will be paying their contribution to their fees and will not be receiving maintenance grants. But is this education? Is it really what we want?

Education used to have a far wider purpose. It was meant to give individuals some external reference points through which to become full "stakeholders" in their society - to become citizens. It was meant also to increase sound and creative thinking, and to enrich lives. It was supposed to enlarge the world - allowing a person to move from the domestic life of childhood into the social world of adulthood. Within universities people met not only their peers, but grown-ups as well - the collegiate and tutorial systems were meant to encourage this; it was an encounter designed not just to qualify professionals but to develop civilised individuals. Now children are even more confined within the home, the world outside being perceived as too dangerous for them. Increasingly students in tertiary education are likely to be living at home as well. The onerous weight of administration and publication reduces the amount of time that academics have to associate with their students. We cannot seriously fool ourselves that we value education if we think that cramming courses into a shorter period of time will serve either society or individuals.

Lest people should think that all this is solely an elitist ideal, it is worth noting that the old apprentice system served many of the same ends. Through direct contact with a "tutor" the apprentice was given access to the wider world of adulthood, and to a social context where the generations could mix and hand on traditions, and knowledge, as well as skills.

I am not saying that we do not need a trained, flexible and creative workforce. But I also think that we need to ask if we are developing the education most likely to produce civilised adults who seriously value culture, learning and themselves as effective thinking individuals.