What is the purpose of education? The question is rarely asked as school funding dominates the debate along with the ever repeated lament about falling standards as measured by national and international science, mathematics and literacy tests.
And on the rare occasion the topic is raised it usually involves meaningless clichés and empty rhetoric about ‘21st century skills’, ‘life-long learning’, ‘collaborative, negotiated, goal-setting’ and making science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) a priority.
Ignored is the vital function schools have as cultural guardians ensuring students leave school with a substantial and enriching knowledge and appreciation of the Australia’s cultural heritage and the debt owed to Western civilisation.
While parents are central and society more broadly is influential schools are the only place where students are taught subjects like history, literature, music, dance and art over an extended period. Knowledge of what the Victorian Blackburn Report describes as ‘our best validated knowledge and artistic achievements’ does not happen intuitively or by accident; it has to be taught.Matthew Arnold’s expression ‘the best that has been thought and said’ embodies this view of the purpose of education as does Michael Oakeshott’s metaphor of a conversation; one ‘begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of the centuries’.
This cultural view of schooling, otherwise known as enculturation, is essential for a society’s survival as each generation has to be initiated afresh into what makes its culture unique and what aspects need to be jettisoned, revised or safeguarded.
The Australian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans, who taught at the Australian National University, in his 1996 Boyer Lectures argues ‘the luxury which no country can ever afford, in any circumstances – and more specifically when it is hard pressed by the challenges of the time – is to dispense with its memory and its imagination’. As argued by the American academic Christopher J. Lucas ‘It is man’s capacity to create, sustain, and perpetuate culture that sets Homo sapiens apart from the lower primates’. Lucas goes on to observe that a vital element of culture includes ‘Philosophical systems, religious ideologies, political theories, language and art’.
Education as enculturation also deals with how individuals define themselves, how they relate to the wider world and how they address existential questions about the purpose of life, what constitutes right and wrong and how they might best contribute to the common good.
No amount of rhetoric about living in a digital age and having to prepare students for the STEM-dominated world of the 21st century can escape the fact that human nature has not changed since the time of the Iliad, the Odyssey and Greek tragedies such as Oedipus, Antigone and Medea.
If students are to be fully alive, emotionally, spiritually and morally, they must have encountered the great works of literature, music, art and dance that constitute what D. H. Lawrence describes as revealing ‘the relation between man and his circumambient universe at the living moment’.
Such a view of education is also closely associated with a liberal view of education; one that is inherently ethical and moral and that values continuity as well as change and that is not restricted to what is immediately contemporary, local and relevant. Contrary to the current mantra about diversity and privileging cultural relativism it is also true that a liberal education is culturally specific. A liberal education that Australia inherited from the UK can be traced back to the great universities including Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Glasgow and public schools like Eton, Rugby and Harrow.
As I argue in The Culture of Freedom, Christianity has also had a pervasive influence on the origins and evolution on what constitutes a liberal education. Whether the monasteries and abbeys of the Middle Ages that preserved so much learning or the belief that each individual has a God-given ability to seek truth and wisdom, there is no doubt that a liberal education is a child of Western civilisation.
As noted by T. S. Eliot in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, Western civilisation, while taking from a variety of sources, can be traced back to ancient Rome and Greece, the birth of Christ and epochal events like the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Eliot also argues that European culture is unique both historically and geographically and that it owes a special debt to Christianity when he writes ‘The Western world has its unity in this heritage, in Christianity and in the ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome and Israel, from which, owing to two thousand years of Christianity, we owe our descent’.
While much of the current debate about education embraces a utilitarian view, one where the focus is on improved productivity, making the economy more efficient and producing so-called 21st century life-long learners, Eliot also argues in favour of a more enriching, noble and transcendent view.
Similar to Cardinal Newman’s ideal of a university education embracing a particular frame of mind, one that cultivates ‘freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom’, Eliot argues that education ‘should stand for the preservation of learning, for the pursuit of truth, and in so far as men are capable of it, the attainment of wisdom’.
Judged by the review of the national curriculum I co-chaired in 2014 it is clear that students are being subjected to a superficial, fragmented and politically correct curriculum that denies them an understanding of Australia’s cultural heritage and the on-going debt owed to Western civilisation.
Ironically, while those responsible consistently argue that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture must be taught as a priority, scant attention is given to Australia’s mainstream culture.
Judged by the refusal of academics at the Australian National University and the University of Sydney to allow the establishment of a Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation it’s also clear that the cultural-Left controls the academy and the barbarians are no longer at the gates – they have stormed the citadels.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free