Howard Jacobson: Our woefully uncultured leaders no longer have any idea what schools should be doing

Mental torture I call it, making a man use a word like 'creative' when he doesn’t know what it means
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Much taken by what Alexa Chung – a person I have never heard of – told Deborah Ross in an interview in The Independent Magazine last week. So deep was her love of English at school, she remembered, that she took an extra hour of it every lunch hour, "and when we did Sophocles I was like, wow, Sophocles is amazing".

Never mind that Sophocles isn't, and indeed never was, English. In these new dark ages of ours we must be grateful when someone finds a writer like, wow, amazing, regardless of any confusion in language and nationality. Rush out a new edition of Oedipus the King, I say to publishers, and have "Like, wow, amazing – Alexa Chung" on the jacket. And while you're at it a reprint of the Women of Trachis similarly endorsed – "If you don't read any other English play this year, read this, you motherfuckers – Madonna".

Think of the approach as a benign cultural version of that ultra-sonic anti-teen device they're talking about banning – the Mosquito, is it called? – which emits a noise audible only to people under 20. You point it at armed gangs of junked-up teenagers – if that's not a tautology – and they disperse. With the cultural version I'm talking about they just read "like, wow, amazing" – words invisible to the eyes of grown-ups – and before you know it they're into Sophocles.

Something along the same lines, and in the same language, has just been proposed by the Government. Says Children's Secretary Ed Balls, "All young people should have the chance to experience top quality culture." Top quality culture, eh. Like, wow. You hold your breath whenever Ed Balls is sent on a culture errand in expectation of his breaking into gibberish. And he seldom disappoints. "Whether that," he goes on, "is seeing a play or dance performance, learning a musical instrument or producing some creative writing."

Mental torture, I call it, making a man use a word like "creative" when he doesn't know what it means. One for the annals, anyway – "producing some creative writing". As in: "Where you've been this last month, Shakespeare?" "Oh, you know, producing some creative writing." "Going well?" "Yeah. Top quality."

He was educated at Nottingham High School, Keble College, Oxford, and Harvard (the Right Honourable Mr Balls, that is, not Shakespeare), so we can't put his bottomless unculturedness – for this is a man uncultured to his bones, uncultured to his marrow, uncultured to his pith – down to the inadequacies of the state system. True, he did a PPE at Keble, but that doesn't have to be the finish of you. Hard to explain how one can start so well and end so badly, though you could say his trajectory proves, in reverse, the essential corrigibility of man: yes, you can make a pig's ear out of a silk purse.

Not that these current fatuities – five hours of culture each week to be appended to the curriculum – are all to be ascribed to him. What is implicitly being admitted in the new proposals is an ideological flaw – nothing less than the failure of education to educate – that goes back 40 years. For these are not five extra hours of civilisation, five hours on top of all the other civilising hours schools provide; these, we are told, are five hours without which access to "top quality culture" would be denied the disadvantaged. But isn't it precisely this access that schools have all along been expected to offer, to the advantaged and disadvantaged alike? You go to school and you are taught to think, to read, to write, to judge, to value, to question, to count, to listen, to look, to recognise – all of these essential elements in the formation of a cultured being. You cannot hive culture off from learning. And you cannot graft culture back on. Unless you think culture is simply something that happens to you while you sit dreaming through Phantom of the Opera. And any school that supposes that has failed.

This is the second time in a few weeks that I have been driven to speak up for the grammar school education I was fortunate to receive. I will not pretend it was without its flaws. It made us run cross-country. I count that a flaw. It made us play football on frozen fields in shorts – shorts! I count that a flaw too. A school has no business with our bodies. And, yes, its advantages were not available to everybody. Now every child gets the same like, wow, education unless their parents have the money to buy better for them, and we are to suppose that's an improvement. However much it offends egalitarianism to say so, at least someone somewhere was being taught the arts of civilisation in the heyday of the grammar school.

Culture in the grammar school was not an appendage to what else was on offer. Culture was continuous with the curriculum. Culture – at least when we weren't freezing in our shorts on furrowed fields of ice or clambering up wallbars like chimpanzees – was what the school exuded. It was in the demeanour of the teachers. It was in the example they set by the way they spoke, by the way they conducted themselves, by their spirit of disinterestedness, most of the time, whether they taught English or geography. Chemistry teachers sang in the choir. Latin teachers wrote novels. The head of maths directed the school play. One of our English teachers ran off with a prefect from the girls' school. Recklessness, too, is culture.

The school did indeed take us to the theatre, to ruined poetical abbeys in the Yorkshire Dales, to the Hallé. On a trip to Paris organised by our French teacher we went around Versailles, attended a play by Molière and the operetta Les Cloches de Cornevilles, visited Barbizon to look at paintings by Théodore Rousseau. Was this languages, literature, geography, history, music, art?It didn't occur to anyone to make the distinction. We were receiving an education. This was what being educated meant. Culture didn't begin and end with the buying of a theatre ticket.

As for creative writing, you can almost date the death of civilisation from the widespread adoption of the phrase. We weren't taught to creatively write at school. We were simply taught to write. Creativity will have its way with you if you have the imagination for it. It is not a tap you can be trained to turn on at will. Its sources are buried deep, too deep for a government that is profound only in its ignorance of what constitutes culture. As the like, wow, amazing Sophocles said, "Count no man happy until he's free of listening to Balls."