An education that does not provide the tools and the hunger to read beyond the narrow confines of a subject is, in the wider sense, no education at all.
John Newton, Headmaster of the independent (yet also public) Taunton School, fears that students’ literary diet is as bad as the convenience foods too many of them eat. Writing in The Telegraph this week, he adds that ‘current students are no longer inclined to read tougher texts; they are encouraged to read what takes their fancy rather than what nourishes the soul’. The sub-editor seems taken by this culinary metaphor, for the article is illustrated by a photograph of old cookery books. The same books in fact, including (the no longer very) Modern Cookery that illustrated the report, back in March, of Michael Gove’s 50-book challenge to students – and noted here at the time as a rather odd choice of image. Still, who are we to argue with the illustrious ones of the Telegraph and the noble Doctor Newton (no mere ‘Headteacher’ he)? So I’ve used the same image too – I’m sure they won’t mind, it keeps costs down for everyone.
It does nonetheless strike me that the Head is over-egging the pudding when he goes on to write:
The arts have always been an area where the mind should run free within proper limits. Now candidates work like automata. We are seeing the persecution of the independent learner; the reader who imbibes a range of classic texts simply because they are beautiful in themselves is a rare species.
Ah, the pursuit of beauty! How exotic – but, of course, only ‘within proper limits’. Who (even in North Korea) could disagree with that? Especially when we read his approving comments on the International Baccalaureate and the Pre-U, very largely taken by independent schools, where (of course) students ‘enjoy an education which leads to a fulfilled appreciation of what great minds have produced’. No doubt Michael Gove will soon share with us his own list of the works by great minds that all students should read. Except, of course, when they are roaming free, reading round the subject and seeking out fresh culinary delights in Modern Cookery.
(The alert reader will have noticed that I have eschewed the hyphen in ‘overcook’ but used it in ‘over-egg’. Pussyfooting again….)