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Liberal arts education has been under attack – we need to rediscover its profound wisdom

30 January 2014

3:17 PM

30 January 2014

3:17 PM

England did so deplorably in the Ashes in part because of an obsession with data, including minutely detailed plans on diet and exercise. Excessive bureaucracy can squeeze the lifeblood out of sport, the arts, and indeed education. Bureaucracy gone mad.

Michael Gove, aided by Michael Wilshaw, has massively improved the standards of schooling in Britain. Their insistence on top quality teaching for all, and a will to smash the mediocre, lies at the heart of all they have achieved. They will go down in history as great education secretaries and chief inspectors respectively.

But for all that, they do not sit comfortably in the same railway carriage as the principle of a liberal education. They are on a crusade, relentlessly driving our schools forward. Perhaps it has been inevitable that the subtler manifestations of schooling have been subordinated under their watch. So too has any clear vision of what an educated young person is. In a recent speech on character to Birmingham University, I compared them to the great figures behind Italian unification. Michael G was Cavour, the supreme politician, while Michael W was Garibaldi, the forceful general. What they lack is a Mazzini, the philosopher. It was he who provided a vision of a modern Italy in a united Europe.

The concept of the liberal arts education emerged in the medieval era and was developed in the Enlightenment as a way of nurturing young minds to be educated across the fields of human knowledge, to realise their human potential, and to build societies based on liberty and respect. It embraces not just the humanities but science and technology, and deems it fundamental to nurture ethics, good character and civic engagement.

Liberal arts education came under attack in Britain in the twentieth century. It came to be seen as, at worst the self-indulgent alternative to a deep grounding in mathematics, science and technology, and from the mid-century, a woolly substitute for the social sciences. The US managed to avoid this polarisation, and in its top schools such as Phillips Exeter and Phillips Andover, as well as at Harvard, Princeton and many other top universities, it rides high.

We need very badly in Britain to rediscover the profound wisdom and sense of the liberal arts education. As TS Eliot asked, ‘where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’ In truth, as CP Snow said in his 1959 Rede Lecture, the breakdown between the ‘two cultures’ of the sciences and the humanities severely impedes a rounded education and an understanding of how to address the world’s problems.

All our young people need to be taught about the humanities and the sciences, about ethics and the development of their characters, as well as the passing of exams, about emotional, spiritual and moral intelligence as well as literacy and numeracy.

Michael Gove and Michael Wilshaw need to stop fighting, and more expressly the aides around the former need to grow up. Their revolution in schools has been deeply significant, but it is incomplete. If they could embrace and celebrate the liberal arts, in whose development this country has made such a distinguished contribution, their legacy would be so much more profound. Wisdom and knowledge are what our young people so badly need, and the metrics of inspections and GCSE alone will never call them into being. Mere information is not enough.

Anthony Seldon is the Master of Wellington College and the Executive Principal of Wellington Academy

The Spectator’s next debate is A liberal arts education is a waste of time and money with Harry Cole and Julia Hobsbawm vs Anthony Seldon and Doug Richard, to be held on 4th March. Book tickets for the debate here.


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