Magazine article The American Conservative

De-Education Campaign

Magazine article The American Conservative

De-Education Campaign

Article excerpt

A radical playwright misremembers the meritocratic schools that made Britain great.

IF THERE ARE ANY serious historians left by the time this history-hating era comes to an end, they will have much to say about our civilization's determined attack on education and knowledge. It may well be that, as they survey the ruins of Western civilization, they will conclude that it was in the schoolroom, not on the battlefield or in the courts, or in the councils of politics, that the decisive struggles took place. There discipline was abandoned and authority dismantled; there Christianity was first robbed of its supremacy and then treated as a dead faith to be examined coldly, as if on a slab, rather than to be believed; there the new hedonist anti-marriage morality was taught; there the idea of a hierarchy of authors and poets was dissolved; there poetry was abandoned; there national and patriotic myths were dethroned and replaced by globalism and generalized optimistic idealism; there egalitarianism survived, persisted and eventually emerged victorious, just as politicians and diplomats were congratulating themselves that they had defeated the great egalitarian powers and persuaded them to abandon their ideology.

Yet this colossal battle has been too little noted, either in journalism, literature, or in history. Some authors, some academics, some journalists, have attempted to warn of the scale of the danger. They find their audience small and fickle. Most of us care about schools only when we or our children are attending them. Our understanding of what goes on in them is often hopelessly outdated.

But perhaps the most distressing feature of this cultural catastrophe has been the complaisant silence of the intellectual Left, all of whose members surely know the importance of rigorous education as a pillar of civilization and many of whom owe their own eminence and comfort to it. I will return to some aspects of this later, but this seems to me to be well illustrated by the successful play "The History Boys," which recently won an extraordinary array of Tony awards for its performance on Broadway and is now being made into a movie.

The play is the work of Alan Bennett, also the author of "The Madness of King George" and a revered British cultural figure. It is not a very good piece of work, by Bennett's standards or by any standards. It is full of four-letter words that could easily have been avoided, and its narrative is both crude and bizarre. It also contains slabs of unlikely sexual eccentricity, a preoccupation of Bennett's that must have left many in the Broadway audiences wondering what on earth they had come to see. But Bennett is held in such regard that his works are always directed by the best available person and acted by shining talents who could make an insurance policy sing and dance. Perhaps that is why nobody shouts "rubbish" from the stalls.

The play has a ridiculous plot about an eccentric but inspiring schoolmaster who sexually molests his young charges while taking them for rides on his motorcycle, an act almost certainly physically impracticable. It seeks to endear itself to the cultural mainstream through some fairly crude agitprop. The hero's position is threatened by the arrival of another teacher, an unscrupulous sort who later ends up as a spokesman for an illiberal government, an unlikely career switch, even in these days of blurred boundaries between the professions. Its targets are government lying (who could be in favor of that?) and perhaps the school of historians who make reputations and fortunes by taking deliberately contrary views. The astonishing thing is that Bennett sets his play in a school (for the second time in his career) but manages to miss a far more important target-the debauchery of education by the radical cause he affects to support. In his role as British National Treasure and cuddly radical, he recently took part in protests against the Iraq War and often makes grumpy remarks about the Blair government's lack of principle. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.