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State education has outlawed difficulty

But private schools, private tutors and bestselling books are filling the vacuum, says Harry Mount. Larkin was right: there is a hunger in us all ‘to be more serious’

10 September 2008

12:00 AM

10 September 2008

12:00 AM

But private schools, private tutors and bestselling books are filling the vacuum, says Harry Mount. Larkin was right: there is a hunger in us all ‘to be more serious’

The decline of the British education system has been my gain, I’m only partly ashamed to confess. As somebody who has published a jokey book about a highbrow subject, I have profited from the proceeds of writing for a market that simply didn’t exist half a century ago.

In 1958, the sort of people who are buying books about Latin today were learning Latin in school. I’ve lost count of the people in their forties who’ve told me, ‘I never learnt Latin, but my parents did. I wish my children did, too.’

The desire to learn difficult things is always in us, as Philip Larkin said in ‘Church Going’ — ‘Someone will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious’. The problem is that schools and universities have increasingly failed to feed that hunger over the last half-century.

There are lots of reasons: the growing feeling that children shouldn’t be allowed to fail; a dislike of competition because of its supposed nastiness; an embarrassment that private and grammar schools have done better than state schools, leading to grade inflation and infantilised exams; and a hatred for old-fashioned, difficult subjects that are considered wickedly elite.

The various strands of this dastardly line of thought were neatly and idiotically woven together by the then education secretary, Charles Clarke, talking about classics a few years ago. ‘Education for its own sake is a bit dodgy,’ he said, ‘The idea that you can learn about the world sitting in your study just reading books is not quite right. Students need a relationship with the workplace.’

Depressing as all this is — how can you tailor a child’s education to a job he doesn’t know he’s going to get; and in the meantime, what’s wrong with teaching him civilisation for civilisation’s sake? — it would just about be acceptable if you thought that Charles Clarke wanted to swap classics for something equally difficult. But you just know that the swap will not be from academic to vocational, but from difficult to easy. It always is.


Charles Clarke may have been long banished to the backbenches — dropping the occasional depth charge like last week’s attack on the Prime Minister — but his philistine attitude persists in government.

Only last year, the government tried to get rid of Ancient History A-level, considering it too irrelevant, elitist and difficult. Showing the hunger for seriousness that exists among adolescents — if not among Cabinet ministers — there was a spirited demonstration by 17- and 18-year-olds outside Parliament, and the A-level was restored.

The pattern is now entrenched: a flight from difficulty by government, schools, universities and examining boards, leaving a vacuum that is filled by the private sector — not just private schools, but private tutors, privately published books and privately set exams that are not recognised in the government’s league tables. And this flight towards easiness patronises the children it educates — children who also end up, incidentally, much worse prepared for the workplace that Charles Clarke values so highly.

Every time the government flees from difficulty by removing the obligation to learn a foreign language from the curriculum, or taking Shakespeare out of English GCSE, or Churchill out of History, they widen the gap between the public and the private sector — which continues to feed the hunger for seriousness. You end up with people like Sean James, a law student I knew at Bar School a few years ago. At the end of one land law class, Sean came up to me, white-faced with anger, and said, ‘Can you recommend a good book on grammar?’

‘I can’t think of one. I learnt it so long ago. Why do you ask?’

‘I’ve just got my land law essay back from Dr Harris, and it’s covered in red marks about my grammar.’

Sean, a bright mature student of 36, had been to Queen’s University, Belfast and, before that, to state school in Ulster — on the whole better than the mainland because it has held on to grammar schools, or at least it did until Martin McGuinness decided to get rid of them. But in several decades of education, Sean had never been told his grammar was wrong. And now, for the first time, he was up competing with expensively educated people like me, who had been told their grammar was wrong at the age of five.

No wonder he was angry, and no wonder he was worried he didn’t stand a chance of getting a job, up against all us privately educated candidates who hadn’t been patronised for a generation.

And no wonder Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves was such a bestseller in 2003. Some people may have bought it to remind themselves of the pleasurable minutiae of the English language — that ‘none’ takes the singular, that ‘begging the question’ doesn’t mean what most people think it means.

But I’ll bet most people bought it because they simply hadn’t been taught grammar at school. Sean would definitely have got a copy if it had come out a few years earlier.

Lynne Truss started a trend — for easy-going books on highbrow subjects — that shows no sign of slowing. Soon after came John Humphrys with his own grammar book, Lost for Words (2004). The trickle soon became a tide. Caroline Taggart got into the bestseller lists earlier this year with I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot from School. And she’s got a new one out next month — My Grammar and I (or should that be ‘Me’?). Also next month, Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent of the Guardian and author of Latin Love Lessons — Put a Little Ovid in Your Life (2007), will publish a crash course in ancient Greek, It’s All Greek To Me.

Other bestsellers, like QI: The Book of General Ignorance (2006) by Stephen Fry, John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, George Courtauld’s Pocket Book of Patriotism (2004), even The Dangerous Book for Boys (2006) feed the same hunger — for these old-fashioned, difficult subjects delivered in a jokey, digestible way. There’s nothing wrong in being jokey or digestible — much better than being humourless and indigestible. Nothing wrong in any of these books, either. Better to be jokey and digestible about highbrow, difficult subjects than about lowbrow, easy ones.

False modesty means I can’t speak for my own book, but these other books give a good, lighthearted introduction to the difficult subjects they cover. With a bit of luck, the enthusiasm in them will encourage someone to learn the language, or the grammar or whatever, in a deep-rooted, serious way.

But who’s going to build on the groundwork that is laid down in these books? Not the schools — which drove all these people, hungry for seriousness, to the bookshops in the first place. And not the universities — though some try manfully to patch up the gaps with remedial English, Maths and Latin. And certainly not the government. Once you take the flight from difficulty, the journey back is not easy.

Harry Mount’s Amo, Amas, Amat… and All That — How to Become a Latin Lover has just been published in paperback (Short Books, £7.99).


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