Peter Strong

Ruskin, Woodhead, and the condition of British education:
Report on and response to an address by Chris Woodhead

(part 2)

The Ruskin Society

Clearly in Chris Woodhead and his educational battles we can discern John Ruskin as a continuing influence in the British arena. But, here we can ask: is Chris Woodhead simply a lone voice, a fossil reactionary, through his acknowledgement of Ruskin? Moreover: are Ruskinian ideas themselves not now both out of date and irrelevant to contemporary issues in Britain and Europe?

The fact that Woodhead was standing up to address a receptive body called The Ruskin Society indicates that there are other Ruskinians about. Woodhead is by no means alone. The Ruskin Society is itself a fascinating phenomenon of the current London scene. Its membership is drawn from all over the country, and from across the political spectrum (indeed, otherwise party opposed politicians frequenting its functions are to be seen getting on amicably). What, then, do they, and all, seem to have constructively in common throughtheir association with Ruskin? It is unlikely that a company made up of lively and intelligent people abreast on current issues would be wasting their time mustering under the standard of an anachronism. I would hazard that - either consciously, or intuitively - most who gather under the Ruskin auspices are there for two basic reasons: the British reason, and the Europe reason.
This, I suggest, is where Ruskin emerges in the role of an up-to-date catalyst, and definitely not as a moth-eaten anachronism. Ruskin as a critical champion of issues cultural was thoroughly British, yet was profoundly enamoured of Europe - both of its topography and its cultural heritage: who, after all, was the first modern discoverer and rescuer of Venice? And whose great enthusiasm put, it seems, even the Alps onto the map? Ruskin, of course. It was his intense Britishness plus his intense Europeanness with no conflict between the two which, I think appeals to the British today, and largely accounts for his resurgence in popularity.
There can be no doubt but that Europe is an issue still weighing heavily upon British minds. Many would like to be a part of Europe, but neither do they want to cease being what they are in doing so - because what they are inevitably holds what are their values. Conditions of concern (even such as this matter regarding Europe) often cause people to scan their hearts and histories for precedents which can allow necessary transitions to transpire. The precedent is sought as a deliverer of confidence, as a prototype shape for action. Ruskin's wholehearted approach both to Europe's heritage and to its physical domain, achieved without the slightest diminution of his British self, characterizes him as a precedent, as a pathfinder - and, I daresay, even as a talisman - for minds requiring to visualize with greater assurance the shape of their nextstep. Ruskin's embracing of Britain and Europe prior to our present times was accomplished as a confident stride into a fuller world: one which he comprehended brimming with satisfying projects, and aspects of absorbing variety. He entered enthusiastically, and with moral integrity, into this world on his own generous terms losing nothing in the process, yet gaining an appreciated interest. There is no other figure of this island, past or present, who could quite provide such a consolidating cultural symbol for Britain and continental Europe as Ruskin.

Today, in Ruskin's wake, we can look upon Ruskinians as the definitive British cosmopolitans: they consider themselves as particular guardians and aficionados of Europe's cultural wealth and its natural beauties; they stay happily British yet, nonetheless, are categorically un-jingoistic; their continental cousins are accepted as a grace to their company (One of us, dear).

And as regards the living edge of Ruskin-leavened thinking, there is much of it. The paths leading to Ruskin are numerous because of the abundance of his original topical interests. Many of these pathways to and from Ruskin are being maintained, improved and even constructively extended by able people, such as we see in Chris Woodhead in the avenue of education, to mention but one. However, as is the nature of pathways, they finally converge upon boundaries - or, in this specific context upon cultural frontiers. When this happens paths can either be left to stop dead, or else they need to be converted into bridges which can carry the construction vehicles of ideas further and back.

Some European cultural thinkers, not necessarily all of them Ruskinians, perceive the need for there to be bridge builders and are working indeed as such. It is these minds which constitute a contemporary 'bridgehead', so to speak. Ruskinian bridge and bridgehead designs as such ask to be wide and two-way, suitable to support a campaign on two fronts - namely at either end of the bridge: the campaign's overall aim is, of course, to secure on one front Britain for Europe, and on the other to secure Europe for Britain. Only given to such an endeavour does Ruskin's contribution make current sense, or can it continue - as it is doing presently - to be functioning as a going concern in the activities of the living. Ruskin's great contribution is, if nothing else, the broadening influence of a sensibility - it is hardly the gift of some abstract chess game, or an antiquarian's side-line; in short, or in long for that matter, it is always a confrontation with substantial cultural issues for the benefit of the many.


Woodhead on John Ruskin's views: the path of education

Chris Woodhead began his Ruskin Society address with an outline of some of Ruskin's views concerning education. What follows is, of course, a paraphrase as well as a commentary upon Woodhead's words.

First to be considered were some of the qualities which Ruskin believed were required of a good teacher. The teacher ought to be an authority as well as an enthusiast on his or her subjects. The teacher ought to have a genuine interest in the teaching of young people, and always to have a regard of each pupil as a human being. The teacher ought to be interested in the emotional development of the pupil.

The teacher has a role to fulfil. The role of the teacher is not to be a tyrant, nor to be a 'laid-back' contemporary companion to the generation being taught; nor to be a master of ceremonies - a facilitator, or provider, of a diet of amusements to keep pupils mollified. The role of the teacher is to be a guide and to act as a guide.

A guide is an experienced person who can assist an inexperienced one to reach a particular achievable destination without fatal mishap. To what destination or destinations, then, should a guide be qualified to assist a pupil finally to achieve? In order properly to answer this question it is first useful to know of two explicit themes in Ruskin: he made a distinction between 'science' - to which he gave the label Aesthesis; and 'higher contemplation' - to which he gave the label Theoria.

Aesthesis, or science, referred to things material, to things tangible, to man's physical nature, and to his localizing in upon mere pleasure in appearance. Theoria referred to man's capacity to develop some higher aspects of his nature such as spiritual and moral integrities, and a trained mind equipped to be able to survey for the truth, or the untruth of things, with analytical clarity - the aim of this attention to mental development being an intellectually steadier view (contemplation) of the broad picture and of man's place within it. This contrasts with aesthesis where the tendency would be to seek involvement (instead of overall view) with the particular tangible aspects of things. A guide, in Ruskin's estimation, would be a person who is altogether aware of the often countervailing experiences of aesthesis and theoria as these potentialities rouse within the pyches and determinations of developing young people. A guide is someone who can help the pupil to traverse the territories both of aesthesis and theoria within themselves, and, after coming to an appreciation of these territories, then so to decide - of their own informed volition - where upon any part of these grounds they should aim to start building their lives. Needless to say, a good guide performs a most consequential task in the lives of the young.

The most essential skills which a pupil requires to develop at the initial stage of schooling are the capacities for concentration and absorption - or, that is, of being able to bring attention to a subject and then to get engrossed within the matters of it. Nothing subsequently in schooling at any level can ever be learned satisfactorily without these skills. To help to instil them is a guide's first responsibility.


The paradoxical matter of equality

Woodhead pointed out that Ruskin was an unbeliever in the notion of the equality of all individuals - such a theoretical assertion being plainly at odds with rational observation. Thus, for anyone to assert that everyone was of equal mental capacity, would be analogous to declaring all individuals to have uniformly equal bodies: certainly, we have only to look about us to see that this last is clearly not true. Why, therefore, should many officialdoms of today insist so adamantly that, educationally, all people have equal mental potentials if it is obvious that we humans display a great range in our bodily developments and aptitudes?

The topic of equality and ability raised by Woodhead warrants discussion for the simple reason that if we can comprehend the issues involved here we are then, in terms of our understanding, as likely to be near to the very heart of the British educational predicament - if not inside it.

(to be continued)

10. Mai 2001

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