A Liberal Education
In 1879 William Gladstone gave one of his more memorable speeches. In the course of his oration he invoked Pericles, Virgil and Dryden, he poured scorn on Disraeli’s doctrine of Imperium et Libertas, he discussed the merits of the Andrassy Note and the Treaty of San Stefano and he outlined six principles of Liberal foreign policy - specifically a limit on legislation and public expenditure at home to conserve the nation’s strength, the preservation of peace, the maintenance of a balance of power in Europe, the avoidance of needless entanglements, the acknowledgement of the equal rights of all nations and a positive bias in favour of those people fighting for freedom.
In the same address, Gladstone also compared the arguments for Protection and Free Trade, enumerating the advantages of Free Trade, he discussed the folly of land reform and the break up of great estates as a remedy for agricultural distress and he went onto argue that wealth creators should be free from every unjust and unnecessary legislative restraint.
Impressive you might say. Some admirable sentiments you might be inclined to agree. With which all of us who might aspire to be Mr Gladstone’s heirs in the Commons would do well to acquaint ourselves.
Invited to reflect on other contrasts between then and now you might consider how far standards of oratory had fallen. You wouldn’t get a speech like that in Parliament today.
But Gladstone wasn’t speaking in Parliament. He was addressing a crowd of landless agricultural workers and coal miners in Scotland’s central belt.
Gladstone’s Third Midlothian Address is remembered today, insofar as it is remembered today, as the culminating moment in his back-to-the-people, grass-roots, comeback kid campaign for the premiership.
It deserves to be remembered as an important moment in the Manichean struggle between the crusader Gladstone and his cynical adversary Disraeli, between the Liberal Party in its High Victorian heyday as a guardian of limited Government and a Tory Party of a proudly imperial kind that we no longer know.
But the reason I recall that speech now, is because the most striking thing about the Midlothian campaign is not how different today’s Liberals and Tories are from those of one hundred and thirty years ago.
I think the most striking thing is how different the public of 130 years ago were.
Or more specifically, how different were the expectations that the political class had of that public.
It was assumed that an audience of agricultural labourers and mineworkers would either be familiar with or, at the very least be curious about, Pericles and Dryden, the intricacies of the Andrassy Note and the deficiencies of the San Stefano Treaty, the merits of Protection and the arguments from first principles for Free Trade.
The public were paid the compliment of assuming they were intellectually curious. They weren’t patronised by being treated as rude mechanicals.
It would have been unthinkable for Gladstone to have used the House of Commons to answer a question on the fate of a character in a soap opera, as Tony Blair did when he expressed his support for the innocence of Deirdre Rachid.
It would have been inconceivable for any member of his Cabinet to have sought public approbation by letting the world know they had the critical tastes of a teenager, as Gordon Brown once did, when he confessed his fondness for the Arctic Monkeys.
It would have been impossible to credit if any leading politician of their age had been asked, as Nick Clegg was, how many lovers they had taken before marriage, or as David Cameron was, whether or not he had harboured lurid sexual fantasies about a previous party leader.
I draw these comparisons not because I am such a narrow nostalgist that I wish to live in a pristine past purged of modern popular culture.
I draw them because I look back with admiration at the great Victorian statesman, their intellectual and cultural self-confidence, and in particular the great ambitions they harboured for the British people.
It was an automatic assumption of my predecessors in Cabinet office that the education they had enjoyed, the culture they had benefitted from, the literature they had read, the history they had grown up learning, were all worth knowing. They thought that the case was almost so self-evident it scarcely needed to be made. To know who Pericles was, why he was important, why acquaintance with his actions, thoughts and words mattered, didn’t need to be explained or justified. It was the mark of an educated person. And to aspire to be educated, and be thought of as educated, was the noblest of ambitions.
The Eminent Victorian, and muscular liberal, Matthew Arnold encapsulated what liberal learning should be. He wanted to introduce young minds to the best that had been thought and written. His was a cause which was subsequently embraced by leaders of Victorian opinion as a civilizing mission which it was their moral duty to discharge.
In an age before structuralism, relativism and post-modernism it seemed a natural and uncomplicated thing, the mark of civilization, to want to spread knowledge, especially the knowledge of great human achievement, to every open mind.
But, over time, that natural and uncomplicated belief has been undermined, over-complicated and all too often twisted out of shape.
Well today I want to reclaim it. I want to proclaim the importance of education as a good in itself. I want to argue that introducing the young minds of the future to the great minds of the past is our duty. I want to argue that we should be more demanding of our education system, demanding of academics, headteachers, professionals in school and students of all ages. We should recover something of that Victorian earnestness which believed that an audience would be gripped more profoundly by a passionate hour long lecture from a gifted thinker which ranged over poetry and politics than by cheap sensation and easy pleasures.
Intellectual exercise, like physical exertion, or so I’m told, becomes easier the harder you work. A consistent investment of intellectual effort brings the satisfaction of seeing problems dissolve before your analytical gaze.
I think any society is a better society for taking intellectual effort more seriously, for rewarding intellectual ambition, for indulging curiosity, for supporting scholarship, for feting those who teach and celebrating those who learn.
I believe that because I believe we have all been endowed, either by a generous creator or by those selfish genes, with the capacity to share in greatness.
We may not all be able to inherit good looks or great houses, but all of us are heir to the amazing intellectual achievements of our ancestors. We can all marvel at the genius of Pythagoras, or Wagner, share in the brilliance of Shakespeare or Newton, delve deeper into the mysteries of human nature through Balzac or Pinker, by taking the trouble to be educated.
I believe that denying any child access to that amazing legacy, that treasure-house of wonder, delight, stimulation and enchantment by failing to educate them to the utmost of their abilities is as great a crime as raiding their parents bank accounts - you are stealing from their rightful inheritance, condemning them to a future poorer than they deserve.
And I am unapologetic in arguing that all children have a right to the best. And there is such as thing as the best. Richard Wagner is an artist of sublime genius and his work is incomparably more rewarding - intellectually, sensually and emotionally - than, say, the Arctic Monkeys. Yet it takes effort to prise open the door to his world. That effort is rewarded a thousandfold. The unfulfilled yearning of the Tristan chord, the battle between power and love in the Ring, the sublimity of sacrifice in Parsifal, all these creations of one mind can, today, move and affect the minds of millions with a profundity almost no other work of man can achieve.
But for any of us to properly appreciate and enjoy Wagner takes time. And work. The oft-quoted jibe that Wagner has some great moments but some terrible quarters of an hour underlines how inaccessible he can be, at first.
But one of the first lessons we learn on the road to maturity is that the greatest pleasures are those which need to be worked at. Instant gratification palls. Investing care and attention, and deferring gratification, brings understanding, appreciation and real enjoyment. Whether its friendship or cooking, listening to Richard Wagner or appreciating a work by Nicolas Poussin, the more time and care that is invested the richer and deeper the rewards.
Which is why I am worried that far too often we do not expect, let alone, demand the level of effort, application and ambition of which students are capable. We do not seek to stretch them, and reward them, as Gladstone stretched and rewarded his audience of labourers one hundred and thirty years ago.
I accept that some may think my position is romantic - hopelessly so. How can I talk of Pericles and Wagner when the young people I dream of engaging with Greek heroes and German operas were on our streets this summer rioting and are on our conscience this winter as the number of young unemployed appears to rise remorselessly?
Well, yes, I am romantic in one sense I suppose. Promethean even. I believe man is born with a thirst for free inquiry and is nearly everywhere held back by chains of low expectation. I am convinced there is an unsatisfied hunger for seriousness and an unfulfilled yearning for the demanding among our citizens.
In Willy Russell’s drama Educating Rita, his heroine, played by Julie Walters in the film version, is portrayed at one point in a cosy Merseyside pub with her friends and family as they, increasingly merrily, belt out the familiar numbers they’ve sung along with all their lives.
As a picture of traditional working class solidarity, it’s moving - in current circumstances it’s even elegiac. But, as Russell knows, it’s also constricting. Rita, growing frustrated with the limited horizons of her close-knit community, insists “there must be better songs to sing” and seeks them in education.
Her subsequent, earnest and driven, pursuit of knowledge helps rescue her tutor, Frank, from his jaded and complacent approach to learning as he recovers, through her, his original enthusiasm for literature.
Educating Rita is fiction of course, but it resonates because there are so many of our fellow citizens who know there are better songs to sing than those they hear around them every day.
The appetite among parents from poorer homes for strenuous educational excellence - for stretch and challenge - is constantly under-estimated.
Let me illustrate my point with one anecdote. And then some data. The anecdote first.
Jade Goody may be an unfamiliar name to many of you. But she is the epitome of a celebrity famous for being famous. A contestant on the crudely exploitative TV game show Big Brother she was singled out for notoriety because she appeared so tragically poorly educated. She didn’t know where or what East ‘Angular’ was, she seemed at sea with any literary, historical, cultural or political reference - and therefore she became a poster girl for general ignorance and terminal educational failure.
To her enormous credit, she turned this notoriety into celebrity, turned scorn into sympathy and transformed a fleeting appearance in a game show into the launchpad for a hugely successful modern media career.
Her life was cut tragically short, however, by cancer. But before she died she worked harder than ever to set up a trust fund for her sons. With the explicit aim of enrolling them in one of Essex’s most traditional prep schools and then ensuring they could go onto public school.
Scorned as she may have been, almost by the whole nation, for her lack of education, Jade knew its worth. If she merely wanted her children to be rich she need simply have left them her wealth. But she wanted more - she wanted them to be educated, to have their minds enriched.
And lest you think Jade is an exotic exception, a bird of bright plumage atypical of her environment, consider the facts on the ground now in our capital.
For generations the working class communities of South London have been tragically ill-served by council-run schools which consistently failed to secure a decent clutch of GCSEs or their equivalent for the overwhelming majority of their pupils. It was assumed that the children could scarcely be expected to do better, given their backgrounds. And parents were denied any meaningful information about how their children’s schools performed relative to others so they had no real idea how badly they were being betrayed by those who took their votes, council rents and rates for granted.
But recently those families have been given an alternative. Through a combination of league tables - fought by the Labour Party and the unions, schools free of council control - fought by the Labour Party and the unions, and headteachers free to hire who they want and pay them what they want - a principle also fought by the Labour Party and the unions.
As a result of these changes we can see that for example the Tory peer Lord Harris of Peckham now runs a dozen comprehensives which were once local authority controlled schools. They draw pupils from the same communities that they always have, and they enjoy the same level of funding as all their neighbours. But their results are incomparably better. Ten times as many students get five good GCSE passes as a few years ago. The rate of performance improvement is far faster than that of any neighbouring school. And schools which once struggled to fill their classrooms are now hugely over-subscribed.
And that’s because so many parents, and its often parents who themselves were denied a great education themselves, yearn to see their own children properly educated. And they know what that entails almost instinctively.
They know that mathematics, English, the sciences, foreign languages, history and geography are rigorous intellectual disciplines tested over time and want those subjects prominent in the curriculum. They know that ordered classrooms with strict discipline are a precondition for effective teaching and a sanctuary from the dangers of the street. They know that respect for teachers as guardians of knowledge and figures of authority is the beginning of wisdom. And as a result we now have a situation where parents don’t just flock to these schools, they actively petition local authorities to allow Lord Harris to take over their schools.
The Harris academies, like those of ARK, E-ACT, ULT and others are providing children with the opportunity to transcend the circumstances of their birth, just as the grammar schools of the past gave an, admittedly smaller, proportion of their predecessors similar opportunities.
And to visit these schools is to be reminded, at every turn, of what a love of learning looks like.
In Burlington Danes, an Academy run by the charity ARK in White City, academic excellence is recognised with a rank order system for every pupil in every year, allocating a place to every child in every term based on their performance subject by subject. So at half term the children are examined, given their scores from 1 to 120. That’s kept private. Then they have the opportunity in the remaining half term to improve their scores and at the end of it every student in every year is ranked, in every subject and for effort, and also artistic and sporting achievement. When I encountered this the first time I thought - that’s a bit hard core, must be unpopular with some of the parents and some of the students. But actually I was told that this had been the single most popular change that had been initiated. The children were now so anxious to do well in this competitive process, which rewards the acquisition of knowledge, that they petition the head to have them transferred out of classes where teachers are weak into those where teaching is strong. They know when they are being fed material which is thin gruel intellectually and they demand better. They ask for more homework and additional reading. They thirst to know.
In another Academy school that I visited just last week, Denbigh High, the students, overwhelming Asian, second and third generation immigrant families, competed to tell me why they preferred Shakespeare to Dickens and they showed me how alliteration, personification and first person narration helped hook readers into the openings of particular novels.
When students from the communities that these schools serve display such passion for learning they only underline how poorly we serve so many of their contemporaries.
Because while schools such as these may ensure that three quarters of their students get five good GCSEs, the whole country only succeeds in getting half of young people to that level.
And what’s worse is that just around 16 per cent manage to succeed in getting to secure a C pass or better at GCSE in English, Maths, the sciences, a language and history or geography.
And lest you think that a C pass in these subjects is an impossibly high hurdle for many young people consider this.
It is possible to secure a C pass in mathematics GCSE with less than 35% of the questions right.
Until this Government came to power there was no formal recognition of grammar punctuation or spelling in the mark schemes for GCSE.
Conventional grammar - as we understand it here and as Simon Heffer lays it out masterfully in his wonderful book Strictly English - doesn’t feature in the English curriculum.
But the English Language GCSE can include listening to tape recordings of Eddie Izzard and the Hairy Bikers.
In English Literature, many students will only have read one novel for their exam - and the overwhelming number - more than ninety per cent – will have studied only either Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies or To Kill a Mockingbird. Out of more than 300,000 students who took one exam body’s English Literature GCSE last year, just 1,700 – fewer than 1% will have studied a novel from before 1900 for the exam.
In science GCSE students are asked which is healthier – a grilled fish or battered sausages?
In History GCSE, only a tiny proportion of students who get the chance to choose the papers study for those which deal with our own past in any depth - the overwhelming majority focus on the American West 1840 to 1895 or the Nazis.
I could go on.
I could explain that it’s possible to secure a good pass at A level in a modern language without having studied any work of foreign literature.
I could relay the sentiments expressed to me by members of the Royal Society last week who found current science A levels inadequate preparation for university study.
I could even quote from Robert Tombs, a history don here in Cambridge who lamented in the London Review of Books that, “The present system – curriculum, examination methods and teaching practices combined – is ineffective in producing skills or knowledge, breadth or depth. It drills students to write formulaic essays on causation and mechanically ‘evaluate’ miscellaneous texts for ‘reliability’. And it’s boring: students and teachers are stuck in a round of tests, exercises and exams, which discourages them from venturing outside the limits of a fragmented and decontextualised curriculum. Hence a level of ignorance that still sometimes makes me gasp, and complacency about that ignorance, as if no one could possibly know anything not specifically taught.”
I could go on but I think you get the picture.
That is why the Coalition Government is reforming our national curriculum - so that every parent and every child is clear on the essential knowledge they need in the subjects that matter.
It’s also why we’re reforming our whole exam system - so our GCSEs and A-levels can stand comparison with the most rigorous exams in the highest-performing jurisdictions.
And also it’s why we’re ensuring those schools with the worst academic record are taken over by organisations with a proven track record of educational excellence.
Schools in East Manchester which have under-performed for years are now being transformed, as Academies, through the example set by the leadership of Altrincham Girls’ Grammar School.
A comprehensive in Wiltshire which had not allowed service children to fulfil their potential is now being transformed as an Academy sponsored by Wellington College.
Uppingham is supporting schools from Preston to Grimsby which desperately needed to have their ambitions raised beyond what they have ever achieved in the past. Brighton College is setting up a new academy school for the very brightest sixth-formers in one of the most deprived parts of the East End of London to give them an equal chance to compete for university places with students at fee-paying schools.
Overall there are now more than 1,400 academies and free schools in England - a 700% increase in the numbers we inherited - all of them are schools free from local authority control and focused entirely on raising standards. They have all the freedoms of independent schools over curriculum, staffing, timetabling and ethos. And I expect great things of them.
But 1,400 is not enough. And to take reform to the next stage I want to enlist more unashamedly elitist institutions in helping to entrench independence and extend excellence in our state sector. I want universities like Cambridge, and more of our great public schools, to help run state schools. They will be free of any government interference, free to hire whoever they want, pay them whatever they want, teach whatever they want, and as a result we can demand higher standards.
I want this because I believe in a truly liberal approach to education - like that outlined by John Stuart Mill - where the state provides the finance and sets high expectations but the delivery of education and the management of day-to-day learning is devolved to genuinely independent schools and chains of schools.
And I also believe we must be more radical in our reform programme because we are still not asking enough of our education system, and we are not being ambitious enough for our young people.
Now of course I acknowledge that children are working harder and as I’ve said on every platform I’ve been given, and as I’ve always said, I believe that the young teachers who are now entering the profession are better than any generation of teachers ever before.
But I don’t believe it is enough to compare ourselves with the recent past and assume that incremental progress from where we once were is enough.
That lack of ambition would have appalled our Victorian ancestors. And it’s certainly not apparent in other nations. In the last ten years we have fallen behind other countries. We have fallen from 4th in the world for the quality of our science education to16th. 7th in the world for literacy to 25th. 8th in the world for maths to 28th. In Shanghai 14 year olds are two years ahead of their English contemporaries in maths skills.
In Singapore and Hong Kong children are introduced to calculations involving fractions and the foundations of algebra long before our children.
In Poland and Hungary children are expected to be familiar with a canon of great literature more extensive and demanding than any we have ever prescribed.
Now there are very powerful economic reasons why this relative decline should worry us. Globalisation may be a moderately ugly word for what is really just the victory of liberal economics or Victorian political economy over its rivals - but its consequences of globalisation for those without qualifications are truly ugly.
The number of jobs available in this country to those with few, or no, qualifications is rapidly diminishing as lower wage costs abroad, and technological advance at home, bear down on employment opportunities.
Those countries with the best educated workforces will be the most attractive to investors, particularly if those workforces are mathematically and scientifically literate and have displayed a talent for hard work and application throughout their student days.
The more connected, and numerous, your population of well-educated citizens are, the greater the potential for intellectual collaboration and creativity, driving innovation and growth. Whether its Palo Alto or Silicon Fen, there’s a reason why we need to preserve the idea of communities of scholars which the original founders of Oxford and Cambridge established.
Countries which award soft qualifications to students, which are not comparable to those in the most rigorous jurisdictions, suffer just as surely as a country which issues money too promiscuously to pay its debts suffers. Grade inflation, like currency inflation, costs us all in the long run.
So I believe we need to do everything we can to stimulate economic growth and I have argued that the best way of doing so is for policies to drive up educational standards. There is no question but that a better educated population is our best long-term growth strategy. Investment in intellectual capital is the best way of a nation securing a proper return on its money.
But it is important that while we acknowledge the critical role that higher educational standards can play in generating wealth and spreading opportunity more evenly, it’s really important that we do not subordinate education to purely economic ends.
That is a mistake the last Government made.
It made it in its approach to rating research at university on its economic impact which undermined the humanities.
It did so in its decision to make university policy a matter for a business department.
And it did so in the casual dismissal of subjects such as classics or medieval history by different Education Secretaries.
If we are to recapture and reclaim the importance of liberal learning we must always state that education is a good in itself.
And in our anxiety to explain, as I have to, why a focus on educational excellence makes sense economically I must make sure that I do not fall into the trap of justifying learning only in utilitarian or instrumentalist economic terms.
I acknowledge that one of the reasons why we want economic growth is so that we can ensure that the place of learning in our culture and civilization is protected, and enlarged.
I want, not for economic reasons but for the best of reasons, more of our fellow citizens to study English literature in depth. I want that because the great works of the canon contain eternal truths about human nature conveyed with a profundity and weight it’s impossible to encounter anywhere else.
Middlemarch should be part of the mental furniture of many more of our fellow citizens because its lessons about respecting the autonomy and individuality of others, its exercise of imaginative sympathy, its belief that one should not seek to make instruments of others to satisfy your own will and its author’s recognition that good is more often achieved by modest persistence than grand projects are all conveyed with such sublime and generous mastery of feeling and language that it is a delight to spend time in the presence of George Eliot’s genius.
Whether its Austen’s understanding of personal morality, Dickens’ righteous indignation, Hardy’s stern pagan virtue, all of these authors have something rich to teach us which no other experience, other than intimate connection with their novels, can possibly match.
I also want more of our fellow citizens to study mathematics and science to a higher level because there is a beauty and wonder in the physical world, a poetry and pattern in number, an awe and excitement in mapping creation which takes all our brains onto a higher plane.
Scientific reasoning, the falsifiability of assumptions, the need to measure reliably, weigh evidence rigorously, submit to the examination of peers, all of these things which science teaches us contribute to the questioning mindset our society needs if it is to avoid error, falsity, superstition and folly.
Similarly the study of history is important. Not just because it is an excitement in itself – because it brings us into direct contact with the lives of those great men and women who bent events to their will. It also teaches us how to weigh evidence, test assertions, sort good arguments from bad, plausible explanations from bogus.
I also believe in the study of a foreign language because it extends not just the reach of our empathy but it opens up new ways of reasoning and judging. It allows us to see how complex individual societies and cultures are, gives us a new way of observing the world and ourselves. It gives us a privileged vantage point accessible only after hard work, but worth it because so much is revealed.
I believe in the application to all these subjects because they cultivate the mind - and they inculcate in the citizen the virtues we once called republican.
It was a central argument of renaissance historians and political theorists that any republic or commonwealth - whether the Rome of the time before the Caesars or the Holland of the seventeenth century - needed citizens who were schooled in virtue if it was to survive and prosper.
Open, and participative political systems could not long endure if men were left simply to follow their appetites or allowed, unprotected, to fall prey to demagoguery.
If these polities were to succeed then citizens needed not just a technical education in a skill to earn their living or basic literacy and numeracy to learn the laws and pay their taxes. They needed to have learned lessons from history, studied the examples of great men from the past, developed robust reasoning skills, had a grounding in ethics, learned to appreciate the importance of art and music, architectural and natural beauty. Without that knowledge, that understanding that the survival and enhancement of a civilization and its culture mattered more than manoeuvring for personal advantage, a society it as thought would inevitably decline, dragging all its citizens with it.
And it is to you, as members of this University, that I now look for champions ready to enter the public square uphold the pursuit of knowledge as a good in itself.
And ultimately I cannot put it better than Gladstone did, in another of his great speeches, his rectorial address to the University of Glasgow.
He was concerned about the dominance in the life of the nation of a new class of speculative financiers who were united only by “the bond of gain, not the legitimate produce of toil by hand or brain.” They, in an uncanny prefiguring of what happened with derivatives, “gave their name to speculations which they neither understand nor examine” and their endorsement means they act as “decoys to allure the unwary and entrap them” into unwise investments.
The growth of these individuals who were indulging in such speculations was proof, Gladstone thought, that “we live in a time when, among the objects offered to the desire of a man, wealth and the fruits of wealth have augmented their always dangerous preponderance.”
We might well reflect on the appositeness of that warning for our own times - and in particular the importance of places of learning as bulwarks against greed and materialism.
Universities were, Gladstone argued, “places of hard labour and modest emoluments” well that much hasn’t changed...
…“but the improvement of the condition of the student flows from the improvement of the condition of his mind, from the exercise and expansion of his powers to perceive and to reflect, from the formation of habits of attention and application, from a bias given to character in favour of cultivating intelligence for its own sake, as well as for the sake of the direct advantages it brings.”
“The habits of mind formed by universities are founded in sobriety and tranquillity, they help to settle the spirit of a man firmly upon the centre of gravity; they tend to self-command, self- government and genuine self-respect.”
“All honour then to the University, because while it prepares students in the most useful manner for the practical purposes of life, it embodies a protest against the excessive dominion of worldly appetites and supplies a powerful agency to neutralizing the specific dangers of this age.”
To which I can only say, as I’m sure the audience at the Third Midlothian Address did, hear, hear....