How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?
(William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65)
Perhaps the most pressing attack upon the Romantic position is the one voiced by my pupil Alan in that GCSE lesson on Tennyson's Mariana described in the previous chapter - the plea for what Jürgen Habermas described as 'instrumental rationality' (Habermas 1970). Alan did not want to read Victorian poetry anymore because he regarded its concerns and its discourses as irrelevant to the concerns and discourses of the working adult world he was about to enter.
Alan is in powerful company. In 1976, the then Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, initiated what was to become known as the 'Great Debate' on education when he called the service to public account: 'I take it that no one claims exclusive rights in this field [of education]. Public interest is strong and legitimate and will be satisfied. We spend £6 billion a year on education, so there will be discussion' (Callaghan 1976:332).
Callaghan's words offered an implicit threat to the Romantic educational agenda and its quasi-religious belief in the powers of the liberal arts to restore and even transform the social fabric. Proponents of that agenda had, for over a century, demanded teachers of exceptional spirit and personality. In the words of the nineteenth-century educationalist, Henry Sidgwick, the 'schoolmaster' was to be nothing less than a 'missionary of culture' (Sidgwick 1868:106). The burden of expectation was placed most heavily upon English teachers. As Mathieson puts it:
At every stage of the subject's growth, during which new hopes have been invested in it as a liberalising force, fresh demands have been made for inspirational teachers. In response to what they have seen as a worsening cultural crisis, educationalists have recurrently called for exceptional teachers to face unsympathetic conditions in the schools and the 'forces' of modern urban society.