A Paper first delivered to Secondary Heads in Birmingham in June, and subsequently slightly modified for a similar conference to be held in Sydney, Australia later in July
To those of us living in First-World countries the early twenty-first century appears rich in opportunity, yet paradoxically the immediate future seems full of uncertainty. Individuals oscillate between exhilaration and anxiety; families fracture and communities have ever less cohesion and substance. As the full impact of a global economy becomes ever more obvious, nations too become more ‘itchy’ that policies which aim to create more equitable societies may in fact cause their people to loose out in the global marketplace. The more confused people feel themselves to be, the more concerned they become as to how decisions about the future are to be made. In times of uncertainty the practice of democracy is put to the test as it struggles with the contrary nature of human instincts.
Recent findings in bio-medical and socio-economic research help explain these contrary instincts, the resolution of which has concerned philosophers and spiritual leaders for millennia as they sought to establish the basis for civilised behaviour. From such research it is possible to understand how a particular environment reshapes a set of neurological processes that may turn innate individual or group behaviour from collaborative to competitive, from altruism to selfishness, or from empathy to aggression. Rather than seeing behaviour shaped exclusively by inheritance and “selfish genes”, or entirely by social or physical environments, we have come in the last few years to understand better the interplay between nature and nurture. There is no escaping the fact that without commonly -agreed value systems, human behaviour quickly slips back to “the survival of the fittest”, and the law of the jungle.
Democracy, it has been observed many times, is the least imperfect way so far devised for reaching decisions that concern the whole of society and which, for their implementation, require the support of everyone. Democracy is also a fragile concept because, for the voice of the people to be listened to by their elected representatives, the electorate must be able to think logically and sensitively. Critically the mass of the people must possess what the ancient Greeks called “nous”, something today we would describe as “applied commonsense”. If the decisions to be made by the people’s representatives are to be more than responses to whoever shouts loudest, then the electorate need an education in their youth that unites thinking with doing, the logical with the intuitive, and which recognises the ongoing conflicts between a private gain, and a public good.
The more complex the society, the better the electorate needs to be at sifting through crooked thinking and perceiving the long-term implications of decisions, often outside their original context. Democracy simply can’t function where the people’s thinking has not been well-honed in working things out for themselves. Neither can democracy be effective where there is no sense of community within which individual aspirations can be merged to achieve the common good. Being a territorially-aware species humans are best able to act collaboratively when the group is small and inter-related, but easily becomes highly competitive when resources become scarce.
Furthermore Democracy doesn’t happen of its own accord, nor can its continuity be assured unless each new generation is nurtured in ways that support both their intellectual development, and their personal involvement in the maintenance of the common good. While some aspects of education can be formally taught, the ability to form judgements on conflicting expectations comes from the experience of being so caught up in life itself that applied commonsense, ‘nous’, grows through the daily experience of life’s ups and downs in home, in community, and at the workplace.
Democracy was born in the small Greek city states in the fifth century B.C., places small enough for all those entitled to vote to meet in a single place and debate, and vote, in public –probably not more than two thousand free, land-owning men. After the fall of Greece, it was to be a further two thousand years before questions about democracy became the stuff of political debate in England as the autocratic power of the Monarchy was progressively challenged by Parliament in the seventeenth century. Interestingly England was, at that time, dominated by hundreds of small market towns, each – like Stratford-on-Avon where Shakespeare grew up – having less than two thousand people. They might have lacked the large outdoor theatres of the ancient Athenians but their market squares were places where active men and women came together to trade both the goods that they made, and the ideas they were formulating out of endless arguments.
In this congenial environment the Englishman’s way of living was the culmination of the steady co-evolution of man and his surroundings that had gone on since the beginning of human time. Here in seventeenth century England was probably the finest balance ever achieved anywhere in the world between the evolution of the internal mechanisms of the brain, and a manageable, but always challengingly, environment. To survive in this equation people had to use daily the multiple forms of intelligence that we now know are to be found within each of us. Everything they created had to be made by the sweat of their brow. Life was still on a sufficiently human scale for ‘ordinary’ people to know – at a deeply subconscious level – that everything was connected. They had to act intelligently in all that they did. They asked questions, and were not content with incomplete answers. They were a practical democracy in the making.
Such cultural and economic inquisitiveness converged with that Puritan theology that stressed the responsibility of the individual directly to his or her God for their behaviour, exemplified in John Bunyan’s creation of Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan caught the mood of these people and turned the ordinary Englishman’s life from an uncertain journey into an eternal personal pilgrimage by providing every man with a colloquial story whose values they could live by, and on which they could model their lives. Here was the foundation of the Protestant Work Ethic. Pilgrim’s Progress was the ultimate self-starting and self-regulating guide to overcoming the distractions of everyday life and remained, after the Bible, the most widely-read book in the English-speaking world until early in the twentieth century. It was John Milton in his capacity as Secretary for Foreign Affairs to Oliver Cromwell who expressed more succinctly than anyone else what had to be the nature of the education of a person worthy to live in a democracy: “I call a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices both public and private, of peace and war”, he wrote in 1644. With less than thirty words Milton defined the Puritan ideal of a mature, interdependent and essentially self-correcting society that would ultimately be responsible for England’s phenomenal growth as the world’s pre-eminent industrial power two centuries later.
England’s experiment with a limited form of democracy collapsed with the death of Cromwell, and with the Restoration of Charles II it was possible that Milton would even lose his head. Further dreams of democracy would thus be dormant until the first third of the nineteenth century. Totally forgotten was Milton’s proposal that a primary school should be established in every village paid for out of a local rate. Forgotten too was Milton’s recommendation that the post-reformation grammar schools, which still adhered to a strictly classical curriculum, should be replaced in every market town by Academies for young men between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one. In such academies parity would be given to the study of academic as well as artisan skills. When Milton called for a complete and generous education he meant just that, an education where the skills of thinking and doing were truly complimentary. Without such a breadth of understanding, Milton readily appreciated, a man would never be able to fulfil his responsibility both to his friends, and to the greater community.
For the better part of the century up to the 1760s and 1770s, formal education in England largely festered. While an increasing number of people learnt to read and write in the thousands of ‘dame schools’ (often held in church porches) that littered the country, the English were so busy making money that they just couldn’t be bothered to go to school, especially secondary school. Winchester College received only ten new pupils in 1750, and the number of students going to Oxford and Cambridge fell by nearly a half. The young Humphrey Repton was typical of his time. Removed from Norwich Grammar School at the age of twelve because his “father thought it proper to put a stopper to the vial of classical literature, having determined to make me a rich, rather than a learned man.”
Yet in the middle years of the eighteenth century, when most people were too busy to go to school or think about democracy, innovative and entrepreneurial activity knew no limits. The result was dramatic. No society in history has ever had to reinvent itself so quickly, or so often, as did England in late Georgian times. Here was the spontaneous expression of a people’s energy, dependent not simply on the brilliance of an inventor but on the practical skills of carpenters and blacksmiths, goldsmiths, clockmakers and engineers, in hundreds of towns and thousands of villages ready instantly to turn such designs into new machines. England was full of resourceful thinkers who knew how to make their innovations work, and got up and did so