At the end of January the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, declared that 'Education for its own sake is a bit dodgy'. 'The idea,' he went on, 'that you can learn about the world sitting in your study just reading books is not quite right. You need a relationship with the workplace.' He also said that he didn't care too much whether anyone studied the classics any more, and even added it might not be such 'a bad thing' if there were to be a decline in highbrow subjects at university altogether. So, nearly 150 years after Charles Dickens invented – and pilloried – Mr Gradgrind, with his 'facts, facts, facts', hard times are back in English education.
Only 0.2 per cent of GCSEs taken in this country are in Latin, and only a fraction of that in Greek. The study of classics has dwindled. Many people will not rue the fact that such 'elitist' skills as using the aorist in Greek, or conjugating Latin irregular verbs, are virtually extinct. But so, therefore, is the ability to read the Iliad, the Odyssey or the Aeneid in their original languages, or to understand all the nuances of Plato and Aristotle, or the legal and political writings of the Roman Republic. And if some people really think our country is better off as a result, or that the cause of civilisation is thereby advanced, then God help them, and us.
In 1869 Matthew Arnold, poet, critic, sometime school inspector and son of Dr Arnold of Rugby, published one of the greatest works of the 19th century: Culture and Anarchy, a critique of Britain's social and political life. Here he dealt definitively with the questions that still vex today's educationists. Britain, at the time, had just witnessed the agitation that forced a Conservative government to pass a second Reform Bill, extending the franchise to the new middle classes, and the great thinkers of the day were concerned with one overriding question: how to get a largely uneducated population ready to play a larger role in an expanding democracy. Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill and others all grappled with this, but only Arnold addressed the problem with clear vision. 'The whole scope of the essay,' he wrote in the preface to Culture and Anarchy, 'is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said.'
One hundred and thirty-four years later, sunk in cynicism, we may well wonder at the very idea that 'our total perfection' can ever be obtained. Sadly, few of the products of modern schooling will be able to translate the supremely hopeful superscription that Arnold placed at the start of his work: 'Estote ergo vos perfecti!', loosely, 'Therefore perfect yourselves'.
For Arnold, the essential quality that a more civilised and humane people needed was education. Even if perfection were impossible, it might yet be approached through a greater understanding of all that had happened in the world, of other lands and civilisations and ways of thought. He railed against utilitarianism, rebuking the Manchester liberals who believed in it for their failure to see how society had been diminished as a result. He also developed Ruskin's notion that before the electorate can properly use political power, it must be educated in the broadest sense. Both schools of thought – Arnold's and Ruskin's in the late 1860s, Charles Clarke's today – could be said to be opposed to elitism. The difference is that the two Victorian sages wanted the fruits of elitism available to all – for the many, not the few – for the good of the nation, while modern thinking would have them disregarded altogether.
Arnold recognised that culture could be 'an engine of social and class distinction', but that is exactly why he wished to spread it out as far as he possibly could. He called this propagation of education the extension of 'sweetness and light'.
'Sweetness and light', to the modern ear, sounds almost twee. But he could not have chosen a better metaphor and it is Arnold's most famous phrase. It conveys the brightness and warmth of true civilisation: what Winston Churchill, describing the counterpoint to Hitler's chill darkness, called the 'broad sunlit uplands'. For Arnold, sweetness and light, or learning for learning's sake, had a religious purpose. It was 'to make reason and the will of God prevail'. Or, as Montesquieu put it in more secular terms, 'to render an intelligent being yet more intelligent'.
Non-vocational education is about more than just ancient civilisations; it is about recent history, modern languages, and our own literature, language and art. It equips people to appreciate and to think. As Arnold put it, the purpose of culture is to enable people to question their 'stock notions and habits'. Once this was appreciated, he said, 'the moral, social and beneficent character of culture becomes manifest'.
Despite this, Arnold realised that some would always continue to see the pursuit of sweetness and light, or learning for the sake of learning, as something to be disparaged. Many contemporary educationists, like Mr Gradgrind, feel learning is all about utility. But it is not just those who shape our country's education policy who have no proper conception of the true purpose of education. There is still an institutionalised resistance among many people to the very thought of being cultured. Once they have got their basic education, the skills that allow them to survive in the world of leisure or work, they have no further intellectual interests. They are without curiosity and, what is more, the system in which they are brought up encourages them to remain militantly so.
It is not just that they don't know about art and literature and history; it is that they expressly don't want to know. For Arnold, curiosity wasn't enough. For us, it would be a start. It is true that we have vastly improved the material welfare of our people since 1869. But has their moral, intellectual and spiritual welfare improved one iota? If not, this is the fault of politicians of all parties in the last 40 years who have confused elitism with exclusivity, and have made the mistake of refusing to believe that egalitarianism could be achieved by levelling upwards. As a result, our age is darker than it need be, our people have been made vulnerable to cynical manipulation. They have been duped into thinking that the superficial extension of liberties is a substitute for the real power that comes with knowledge and understanding.
Simon Heffer is a Daily Mail columnist. This is an adapted version of a talk in the Culture & Anarchy series broadcast on BBC Radio Four, Sunday at 10.45 p.m.