A matter of democracy

Chris Woodhead, writing in The Sunday Times about examination results, said “children are not equal.  Physically they come in all shapes and sizes… some have a capacity for academic education, others do not…”  Which is true in all respects but one; while it is self-obvious that they don’t all look, or weigh the same to claim that they are not all equal (a judgement apparently based on academic affairs) is to deny that each matters.  The English are fortunate to live within a democracy where, in terms of their right to influence the future, each has just one vote because, at law, Jack is as significant as his master.  So, it surely follows Mr Woodhead, that each has to be well-enough educated to use their vote well?

Woodhead often goes off at a tangent but now Ed Balls, Michael Gove and the recluse-coming-out-of-retirement Kenneth Baker, are each beating around second order questions – the quality of exams, independent schools, the role of private sponsors, academics, vocational qualifications and academic excellence.  None of them are bold enough to put their heads above the parapet and state just what they think education should be all about.  In their numerous confrontational statements none of them seem able to set out a vision for the individual in terms of what this might mean for each person – singular and collective.

One Englishman did, and he did it more than 350 years ago when England was in the midst of a horrible Civil War.  John Milton was both poet and philosopher, and at the time was Oliver Cromwell’s Secretary for Foreign Affairs.  Milton did it in a mere thirty words in a ten-page essay entitled “Of Education” which he contributed as a thought-piece to that great European intellectual, Samuel Hartlib.  Milton was most certainly an intellectual but he was also a fervent theologian, a convinced republican and totally committed to the ideal of democracy.

Man of ideas Milton most certainly was, but he firmly believed in the unity of thinking with doing.  He despised the claims of those who posed as intellectuals but possessed no practical skills.  “Though a linguist should pride himself to have all the tongues that Babel cleft the world into, yet if he had not studied solid things… he would nothing so much to be esteemed a learned man as any yeoman or tradesman competently wise in his mother tongue only.” He laid out plans to establish in every town an Academy where theologians, lawyers, classists and mathematicians should share space with hunters, fowlers, shepherds, gardeners, apothecaries, anatomists and mariners.  To Milton the “esteemed man” was the one who knew both what to do, and why to do it.

This is what Milton wrote: “I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the office both private and public, peace and war”.  You can’t state it better than that.

Let Woodhead, Balls, Gove and Baker ponder how a better approach to justice, skilfulness and magnanimity would lead to “a complete and generous education.”  Get this first-order question right, and some politicians would be surprised at how quickly the other lesser issues fall into place.

See Part Ten of the Briefing Paper