I was watching Question Time a few weeks ago, the topic under discussion was Michael Gove’s education reforms. A member of the audience asked what was the use in his son learning poetry?
In answering this, not a single person made the point that the whole purpose of education is surely to provide us with the tools to live the best life we are able to and, for most of us, life is not only about work.
Whilst I appreciate that learning one poem is not necessarily a pathway to a life-long interest in the arts, it seems very sad that the only learning for state-educated children considered necessary, by so many today, is the minimum which equips them for a job. It is very different for privately educated children, for whom the arts and humanities are still considered essential.
How, in just a couple of generations, have we managed to step backwards, to the period before Rab Butler’s Education Act (1944), when culture, arts, politics and philosophy were thought to be, largely, the domain of the rich and powerful and neither necessary, nor affordable, for the poorer amongst us? It was all so different for the post-war generations, for whom the world of learning was opened and expanded by the Education Act.
This week, I went to the Purcell Room and listened to a reading by the poet, Tony Harrison, who wrote Trackers of Oxyrynchus which, performed at The National Theatre in 1998 (I think?), was one of the best live theatre performances I have ever seen - funny, moving, rich in language and imagination as well as being a visual treat.
Tony Harrison is in his mid-seventies and was of a generation(s) whose lives were unexpectedly enriched though implementation of the Education Act which created a framework for aspirational children from all backgrounds to receive a rounded education. He has degrees in Classics and in Linguistics, has travelled all over the world and is conversant with several modern languages, including Hausa and Czech. Yet the more he has traveled and learned, the more he is drawn to his roots despite his feelings of alienation from his class, his family and the language he grew up with.
In The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, from fragments of a satyr play by Sophocles, Harrison attempted to resolve the conflict between his own polyglot erudition and his roots in working-class Leeds, by representing it as a conflict between classical Greek ‘high’ and ‘lower’ class culture. Steeped in his knowledge of classical literature, he created a contemporary play, vivid in character and language, illustrating the perpetual division of 'divided audiences, divided societies' (from the introduction to the Faber edition of Trackers). I imagine he hoped we could learn something from this and look for a better way of doing things.
It seems not. Our response to the various crises in education appears to be to restrict access to learning, either by charging for it or limiting the scope of it for those without money. I am infuriated by this. Surely, we, in a society that is living and working longer, need to find ways to open ourselves up to learning more not less? And isn’t this especially so of those who are currently the least educated or least likely to receive benefit from early years schooling?
Not everyone understands the value of education in their early years but, oh, how many would wish to have a second, or more, crack at it later, as a mature adult?
I am not advocating a return to the grammar school system - for every Tony Harrison, there were more less well served - but this is the twenty-first century. There are so many ways we might offer state-funded education more flexibly and accessibly and isn't this an essential investment in people fit for today's fast-changing world?
Instead, we condemn poorly educated children and adults to a lifetime of limitation through lack of awareness, resource and unwillingness to be creative in our thinking. No wonder our welfare bill is so high.
Perhaps Tony Harrison should whip his pen out about this … it may not be Greek but it certainly is a tragedy!