Tom Hodgkinson: 'Four hours of work a day is quite enough!'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The first event at the Idler Academy, which we held earlier this month, was a symposium on ancient philosophy. I had invited the writer and former priest Mark Vernon to give an outline of the major Greek thinkers on either side of Socrates. You may think this would be a subject of limited interest; certainly there is no way that these greats would be taught in the Academies of Self Esteem created by New Labour, where you are more likely to be offered a class in Madonna Studies, Sports Science or Positive Psychology than in the Stoics, Cynics, Sceptics and Epicureans.

To my surprise and delight, however, our symposium was completely sold out. And not only was it sold out, but punters called all afternoon, pleading to be admitted. "Can you just squeeze one more in?" they said. "I'm very small."

In the end, our shop was packed to the rafters with keen pupils aged from 16 to 70. It seems that New Labour's dumbing-down policy has in fact led to a renewed thirst for knowledge. At the end of the lecture, a teenaged girl asked me whether, in my opinion, Virgil's Aeneid tended towards the Epicurean or the Stoic in its philosophy.

The mind-numbing awfulness of England's education system had been a hot topic of conversation in the shop all week. Parents are simply flabbergasted at the low standards in both the state and private systems. Even the most academic schools leave gaps. In my own case, I wonder why I was never taught the basics of Greek philosophy, from which, after all, stems much Western thought. And I really should have been, having been educated at the intellectual hot spots of Westminster and Cambridge. If a privileged public schoolboy such as myself doesn't know his Socrates from his Plato, then what hope is there for the graduates of New Labour's dunder-headed educational philosophy?

The scary thing is that the anti-academic therapeutic ethos, which has created a generation of entitled youth who know their rights but little else, has crept into private schools as well. One famous victim of the positive psychology cult is Wellington College, which has introduced happiness lessons. And without naming any names, I have it on good authority that the teachers at prep schools charging five grand a term share the idea that teaching in any traditional sense is an unpardonable intrusion on the liberty of the child. Modern teachers are expected to create a "bespoke learning experience" for each pupil, clearly a total impossibility when faced with a class of 30 children. How can you allow 30 children to follow their own paths? It would be complete mayhem.

Well, it is true to say that until the mid-19th century, education meant a classical education. For Dr Johnson at Lichfield Grammar School, Latin and Greek were the only subjects taught. The mind was educated very simply in order to educate the mind. School did not have the sole purpose of fitting out children for an economic role as a worker for state or corporation.

But Latin and Greek, while beguiling our leisure hours in delightful fashion, are unlikely to pay the rent. To do this, you must do something useful, and one option would be plumbing. This must be the best-paid job in Christendom.

The day before our shop opened, the loo stopped working. We called the plumber. A young man appeared, swore for six hours, then cheerfully remarked, "I'm all done," jumped in his van and left me with a bill for 700 quid. It would take me five years to earn what he does in one.

Perhaps, then, the ideal life would be one where you practised some useful craft or job for four hours a day, and spent the rest of the time reading, debating and drinking fine wines. This is certainly the view of the massively talented actress and writer Emma Thompson, who has agreed to be patron of the Idler Academy. "Four hours a day, that's enough!" she remarked at our launch party. This was also the view, I should add, of John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell.

I would like, then, to propose the Four by Four Campaign. We will pledge to work towards a four-day week and a four-hour day. This would not be compulsory, of course: there will be no idle police preventing busy bees from working 19 hours if they want to. And I do not anticipate any government support for the project, or indeed from the CBI. Instead, this will be a campaign led by the people: it will be gradually and slowly seen as culturally acceptable to carve out more space for cultivated leisure.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'