The London Review of Books has published what Alan Bennett describes as a ‘sermon before the University, Kings College, Cambridge’. It’s available here both in text form and as a podcast. His point is quite plain, even if he takes a somewhat rambling and entertaining journey to get to it. ‘My objection to private education,’ he says, ‘is simply put. It is not fair.’
He’s writing about Britain, of course, and so he’s also talking about deeply ingrained traditions of class and privilege, but what he says of that country could equally be said of education in Australia. He continues: ‘… to say that nothing is fair is not an answer. Governments, even this one, exist to make the nation’s circumstances more fair, but no government, whatever its complexion, has dared to tackle private education … I am not altogether sure why … [one] reason why there is a lack of will and a reluctance to meddle – a reluctance, one has to say, that does not protect the state sector, where scarcely a week passes without some new initiative being announced – is that private education is seemingly not to be touched. This I think is because the division between state and private education is now taken for granted. Which doesn’t mean that it is thought to be fair, only that there is nothing that can or should be done about it.
But if, unlike the Daily Mail, one believes that the nation is still generous, magnanimous and above all fair it is hard not to think that we all know that to educate not according to ability but according to the social situation of the parents is both wrong and a waste. Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should. And if their education ends without it dawning on them then that education has been wasted.’
Exactly. But this is the point. For unexplained reasons we keep harping on the idea that a private school education has advantages over a public one. Be it smaller class sizes, better teachers, more resources, or possibly the social network which is, literally, bought into, which pays off throughout life. But an education is something much more complicated than any of these things. When I was at a British boarding school in the 1960s, one of the elite schools of Scotland, they kept telling us that the subject matter we were studying, be it Latin, History, English, Maths, Biology, Physics, while important, was not the essential thing; that what they were trying to instil in us was a way of thinking, of looking at the world and being able to question it in an intelligent way.
That’s as maybe, except that this ability to question also came with its own severe restrictions. Not only did our teaching, as Mr Bennett says above, fail to awaken in us the idea that a privileged education ‘based not according to ability but according to the social situation of the parents is both wrong and a waste,’ it almost demanded we believe the opposite of that, while at the same time imposing structures of thought which led those of us unfortunate enough to be subject to their ministrations to conclude through the very way that they made us live and taught us that it was more than okay to live a life without love; that, amongst other travesties, women belonged firmly to the second sex and that to express support for any of their concerns was to show weakness.
If the western world has found itself in trouble over the last few decades it is, primarily, because it has insisted on taking its leaders from this stock, believing them suited to the task of ruling despite having been ruthlessly cut off from their feelings as small children. An education which does not include an understanding of what it means to be human is not an education.
Alan Bennett is, of course, primarily a playwright. Just last week, however, I had the opportunity to rewatch a copy of his wonderful film, ‘The History Boys,’ starring the extraordinary and now late-lamented Richard Griffiths. A film so rich in both anecdote and in its own delight in language and learning (and their eventual incapacity to ever really help us to understand what we’re doing here), that I wanted to start watching it again as soon as it finished. Treat yourself to the article or the podcast; here is someone with the capacity to say what needs to be said in words that are hard to argue with.