Peter Strong

Ruskin, Woodhead, and the condition of British education:
Report on and response to an address by Chris Woodhead
(part 1)

Of what importance is the matter of British education in the forming of a long term conception for Eurocultural education? The answer must be that it is of critical importance. Few in Britain today would argue against the fact that their state education system has since the 1960s steadily descended into a dire condition - it is now, frankly, in a mess; consequently, I suggest that it would reward our continental brothers to look hard upon the British situation, this in order to see if there is something to be gleaned from out of the predicament - even if this gleaning might be only as a speck of wisdom plucked from a cautionary tale. My own background concern is that Euroculture might decide - or, as likely, drift - into following suit down a similar line of educational 'development' as the British have, thus only to realize itself into a comparable mess.

Here we might conveniently enter into the discussion on the condition of British state education by focusing upon an address which was given by Mr. Chris Woodhead to members of The Ruskin Society, and journalists, at a dinner at the New Cavendish Club in London, on the 15th November 2000. The address, titled Education today: why would Ruskin disapprove?, was delivered at a pivotal moment for Chris Woodhead: it came at the juncture of his resignation from the job as main expeditor of the Blair government's educational objectives; indeed, six years had elapsed since he, in September 1994, had been appointed Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools at OFSTED. By 2000 finally reduced to a state of deep frustration and despair at the nil prospect of ever seeing educational standards improve under the current Labour administration, he had decided to step down from the Chief's job in order to assume a more overtly critical role: his new platform is writing on educational issues for the national newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

John Ruskin in Woodhead's and in current British thinking

As it happened Woodhead's future employers were in the audience for his Ruskin address, so we all had a chance to hear for the first time publicly stated what were his foundational educational views. (Incidentally, this article stems from the fact that at an earlier date I had been asked by the Ruskin Society to provide a response to the address - a response specifically from an anthropologist's perspective. I therefore offer my apologies to Mr. Woodhead should any of my following remarks inadvertently misrepresent him.)

It came as no surprise that Chris Woodhead had accepted the invitation to speak before the Ruskin Society in the 100th Anniversary year commemorating Ruskin's death (Ruskin lived from 1819 to 1900). Woodhead is a Ruskinian who among other things has contributed some important reviews in the national press covering recent additions to the Ruskin corpus, works such as Tim Hilton's John Ruskin: The Later Years. Woodhead's thinking is therefore fully referenced to an understanding of Ruskinian principles. And here it is useful, I think, for continental Europeans to realize that Ruskinian thought and principles are today far from defunct in certain British thinking circles, and even political ones. Indeed, Ruskin who was a cultural prophet to his own age, has now become for many a patron saint and catalytic symbol to ours: the ghost of Ruskinhas, or so it seems, spontaneously arisen in Britain to fill the role of patron of the individual critical intelligence in regard to cultural matters.

Which is to say that Ruskin, by way of his being a clear past example, epitomizes today the independent yet socially commited individual critical intelligence; namely, the responsible mind, the mind which is disposed always to search with sincerity and to consider and judge the merits of any work of art - or, indeed, any course of action - before striking a commitment to the causes which these forms of manifestation might represent. On this score the Ruskinian approach is profoundly anti-demagogic. It is an approach required from an individual, an approach of a kind standing in marked contrast, say, to the current situation vis-a-vis the arts where the British masses (irrespective of class), sheep-like and content, allow themselves to be governed by politicized arts administrators whose work it is to designate art fashions, to canonize certain individuals to the role of bona-fide 'artists' of the day, and to dispense a popular circus of publicly funded entertainments - frequently defined as educational - to a largely 'dumbed-down' populace, or audience. What I present in this conflicting picture of Ruskin's approach versus the state art approach effectively describes a situation of opposites, which we can perhaps best illustrate in the shapes of two diametric men of culture: shall we visualize, then, John Ruskin standing at one pole: and Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate Gallery, at another.

Pole one, Ruskin, we can say represents an independent critical champion of art and ideas, ready even 'to put his own money where his mouth was', striving to awaken and to develop other people's views by the force and acuity of intellectual persuasion - always in reference to an audience of critically alive individuals; Pole two, Serota, in contrast, although in all respects, I'm sure, a fine man, nonetheless represents an administrative 'designator', a trusted instrument of a state establishment given license as a showman to stimulate the masses - not with any commitment of his own means, but with the power gathered behind his personal taste of a public purse far outstripping the resources of the Medicis and the Sforzas in their day.
'So what?', a consumer of state art queuing at the Serota pole might comment and we might answer. Well, this last arrangement is perhaps tolerable in the hands of a liberal non-demagogic establishment: but the danger is, in Britain, that we are edging towards an increasingly populist and demagogic social and political arrangement. Education, of course, is a vital ingredient to the enlarging, or indeed lessening, of this tendency, as Chris Woodhead well knows. Consequently, it was something to be expected, that he as a man operating with reference to Ruskinian principles, should have fallen foul of the forces of populism entrenched within his teaching force, as well as those who are marching on within the corridors of parliament. Accordingly, the argument behind the Ruskin versus Serota illustration is one which claims the social benefit of there being as many developed individual critical intelligences in a community as possible, on the Ruskinian model - specifically because individual critical intelligences can combine to provide a society with its sheet anchors against the dangers of popular frenzy. Leaving Oliver Cromwell aside Britain never had a Hitler, or a Stalin, partly perhaps, it might be argued, because it had the equivalent of a few million sheet anchor Ruskinians at the time of the European fascistic and communistic frenzy: Ruskin had devoted his efforts to educating and communicating to earlier generations through his many written works, not the least being his Fors Clavigera of 1871-84 written to the workmen of Britain. The argument for the nurturing in the student generations of the individual critical intelligence is implicit in Woodhead's Ruskinian influenced philosophy of education: needless to say, it has to be seen as an essential task for a healthy democracy; further, it is a very long term one requiring the efforts of wise and farsighted educationalists; but, certainly, in today's climate this is not a popular road to be taking.

25. April 2001
(to be continued)

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