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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Melanie McDonagh

OPINION - Lord Chartres is right: an education without culture is no education for a human at all

It is the fate of many speeches by bishops in the House of Lords to escape notice but it would be our loss if we didn’t take on board a really important contribution this week by Lord Chartres, the former bishop of London. In a contribution to a discussion on education in the King’s speech, he got straight to the heart of what is missing from the Government’s focus on core subjects and technology skills.

“Education for the long term”, he said, “has to recognise that the great question for the 21st century centres on the meaning and value of human life and to encounter the already powerful current of thought that sees human beings as little different from machines, or, even worse, as rapacious bipeds bent on consuming the planet.”

And that’s exactly it: the meaning and value of human life should be at the heart of what we do in schools. For the most part, the Government has focused on education in terms of skills and technology rather than the education of the human person. No one disputes that STEM subjects matter; but they’re not enough as the point of education.

The bishop tells us why. “We also need the wisdom and humility that translate into service, as well as love. Failure to grasp this elementary point will lead to a new ice age for humanity. Technical knowledge enables us to know how to do something, but humane wisdom enables us to know why it is good for this thing to be done.”

In some countries such as Finland, music is at the core of the school curriculum

How often does a speech in parliament mention that little word, “love”? And the question of why it is good to do something goes to the heart of our whole philosophy of education which politicians rarely do, at least if they are, like the PM, technocrats themselves. We don’t think enough about how to educate rounded, happy human beings, not just more or less effective units of production and consumption.

As for technology, the bishop sees its dangers as a tool which is shaping a new kind of human person: “As we flick from screen to screen, constantly diverted by what is presented as new—but is in reality just more of the same—there are trends, spasms of the hive mind and gusts of indignation, but nothing accumulates. Cultivation, which is essential to culture, becomes impossible”. In other words, the mind created by smartphones, which jumps from one subject to another, surfing waves of social media outrage, isn’t really a focused or creative mind.

How do we change? Richard Chartres, a friend of the King, is profoundly interested in the arts, and they’ve been a casualty of the government’s overly narrow focus: “alongside the acquisition of skills and knowledge, there needs to be at every level a fresh and profound attention and investment in the creative arts—music, for example, which unites numbers and harmony. Music should not, at any level of education, be just a divertissement.”

He's right; music matters. In some countries such as Finland, it’s at the core of the school curriculum.

But he also wants us to engage with “the texts of the great wisdom traditions of world culture, all of which teach that humility—being close to the humus as human beings —is the beginning of wisdom”. The Bible is fundamental here, but so too, differently, are the great novelists – Dostoyevsky comes to mind.

Most of all the bishop wants us to stay human, to stay connected, but not in the way we’ve come to think. “We cannot genuinely grow up online; we grow up in communities, where we can make one another our work of art and learn profoundly what it is to be human.”

He’s right. Technology has made us atomised, not actually connected, and education, properly conceived, can help restore our sense of what it is to be human. Now that it’s a fashion for members of the Lords to join the Cabinet, any chance Lord Chartres could be Education Secretary?

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