History is Bunk

But it’s not very surprising if we don’t value learning, effort, apprenticeship, craft, if we’re not eager to spend years learning to play the cello or write real poetry that rhymes and scans, or to read Gibbon or Montaigne or The Tale of Genji or any of those long-winded books people used to write because they had nothing better to do – it’s not all that amazing if we don’t want to do that, when our leaders have such a squalidly practical, utilitarian, narrow, worm’s-eye view of the value of education. School is for job training, and that’s that. At least, that’s that when it comes to publicly funded education: they don’t mind our getting purely curiosity-driven education if we pay for it ourselves.

This recurring issue came up yet again a few days ago when the Times Higher Education Supplement reported that

Education secretary Charles Clarke has again attacked learning for learning’s sake by saying that the public purse should not fund “ornamental” subjects such as medieval history. Mr Clarke told a gathering at University College Worcester that he believed the state should pay only for higher education that had a “clear usefulness”. He reportedly said: “I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them.” This follows his earlier comments that studying classics is a waste of time.

Clarke disputed the account given in the Guardian, saying his remarks had been taken out of context. But he has made comments of a similar import, and historians are not pleased; one unnamed Cambridge medievalist is quoted as calling him a ‘Philistine thug.’ And a spokesman for the Department of ‘Education and Skills’ (ominous name) delivered an impeccably utilitarian elucidation of the Secretary’s remarks:

He is basically saying that universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change.

But a long article in the Guardian detailing the historical interests and education of many prominent Labour figures, including four colleagues of Clarke’s in the Cabinet, showed up that blinkered argument for the impoverished thing it is.

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