The Dumbing of Britain    
    Peter Strudwick bemoans the decline of knowledge and memory    

A recent survey conducted by Encyclopaedia Britannica reveals an astonishing (but in no sense surprising) ignorance of significant historical events in Britain. Christine Hodgkin, marketing manager of EB, recently told The Times: "As a nation where history has shaped the face of the world, it seems incredible that the younger generation has decided to dismiss it. Britain is envied for its rich history. I thinks it's time for all of us, not just young people, to hit the books again."

Such lack of knowledge of landmark events as revealed by the survey - for instance D-Day; the names of Henry VIII's wives; the length of Queen Victoria's reign; the significance of the Battle of Hastings; that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone; or that Galileo invented the telescope - is less a commentary on young people and their priorities than testimony to the pervasive influence of the liberal educational establishment - from primary school level to secondary schools, to local education authorities right through to university vice-chancellors - which collectively have wrought such a disastrous decline in standards over the past 40 years or so.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica survey has been replicated a hundred times by other surveys. According to research by Professor Loreto Todd at the University of Ulster, echoing statistics produced by the National Skills Task Force, seven million adults today are functionally illiterate. They cannot speak properly; they cannot construct sentences which are comprehensible; they cannot write letters, and their listening attention-span is less than two minutes.

Is it any wonder, then, that these deficiencies are so sharply reflected in our national life - particularly in television? The most challenging and interesting programmes that one can view invariably commence at times when most people have to retire to bed. A good instance of the general point made is that of the evening news bulletins. The process of reading and digesting these is thought to be such an intellectually demanding exercise that it requires two persons to perform it - no one item lasting more than a minute before the other reader takes over so as not to lose the viewer's attention.

I have no doubt at all that the principal cause of decline has been the downgrading, if not displacement, in the scale of priorities of knowledge, listening and memory - three interdependent faculties. This has occurred either as a deliberate policy stratagem or through appalling negligence in the devising of syllabuses at all levels of the curriculum.

‘A dangerous thing’

Alexander Pope, the 18th century poet, novelist and literary master, author of The Rape of the Lock and verse translator of Homer's Iliad, is noted for the famous aphorism: "A little learning is a dangerous thing." It was as axiomatic in his time as it is today that peripheral or incomplete knowledge is as dangerous as total ignorance, especially where it is used as a basis for the construction of policy, because it is destined to lead to a blinkered, obsessive approach which denies the possibility of rational and wholly viable alternatives.

Whether opinion-formers and policy-makers are sincere, ideologically motivated or just plain misguided cannot conceal the truth, which is that their influence, the product of inadequate knowledge allied to disingenuity, has been nothing short of a catastrophe for British education.

Traditionally, even in the most specific activity at vocational or professional level, competence has been determined by knowledge: its acquisition, absorption and distillation. Take, for example, the technical exercise of will-drafting. In the case Banks v. Goodfellow (1870), Chief Justice Cockburn stated the requirement of testamentary capacity to be an appreciation of the nature of the exercise, a full recollection of the extent of one's property and a recognition of the claims to which the testator should give effect. The Chief Justice went on to include the need for "a sound mind, memory and understanding." English case law is full of examples of the invalidity of wills in consequence of a failure to satisfy these rigorous tests.

The rationale of the above illustration is that knowledge and memory should be ineradicable values at the centre of any scheme of learning endeavour. For many of us, what we learned in our earliest schooling had a pattern and a clear purpose to it; for those of the younger generation that may not have been their good fortune. Four instances will exemplify what was, but no longer is, part of the curriculum, the loss of which in each case has been thoroughly retrograde:

  1. Dictation in English classes, which had immense benefits. It taught the pupil to listen carefully, to transfer what he heard into writing and to learn how to spell accurately. For generations of pupils, dictation would form a very useful preparation for note-taking at lectures, something at which too many students today are totally deficient;

  2. In geography lessons, identifying the countries of the world and learning their capitals was never questioned as being of enduring value;

  3. Placing historical events in date order in history lessons was always the first question in the common entrance examination to independent schools, an exercise in developing memory skills and of clear usefulness;

  4. Learning two verses of a poem and making a recitation in front of the class, an activity promoting accuracy and self-confidence. Apart from developing an interest in poetry, it also enhanced the faculty of memory.

Although it should not be supposed that the development of a retentive memory is, necessarily or inevitably, an indication of basic intelligence, it is a generally accepted truth that a person with innate intelligence usually carries with that asset a good, if not capacious memory.

Loathing by modernists

The traditional attributes and educational customs, incorporating so many undeniably valuable qualities, are loathed by modernists, who regard them as relics of the old world with no place in the new educational agenda. The modernist perception is that the acquisition of knowledge is not an absolute value in itself at all, but something which is inherently useful only when placed in a social context. So the Norman Conquest or the Battle of Agincourt should not be taught purely as momentous events in history, but as a source for examining how, for example, the French treated prisoners of war in 11th century Britain or 11th century France, or how women were deployed as auxiliaries on the battlefield. Such matters may of course be genuine subjects of research in a university course devoted to social history, but they remain subsidiary, relatively unimportant issues; at the primary and secondary education phases they have nothing whatever to do with the exposition of knowledge. Nor do they have any education value for schoolchildren.

When Tony Blair intones the ridiculous mantra "education, education, education," he is, of course, echoing the modernist view. He utters these words with vigour, usually in front of susceptible, uncritical audiences. But what does he actually mean? Assuredly not that people should become genuinely more knowledgeable or better educated in some useful discipline; or that they should become more literate or less philistine in their tastes in the arts, particularly music. What he wants is that greater numbers should fall into line with politically correct liberal dogma in keeping what the brave new world order of multi-cultural, internationalist ideology. Objections to such a creed have to be snuffed out and people ‘educated’ into a state of total receptiveness.

Obsession with upping the numbers

Labour party higher education policy, from which neither the Liberals nor the Tories have uttered very much dissension, is that university numbers should be increased from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of school-leavers. This utter folly confirms the prevailing orthodoxy, which dictates that the more students you put through higher education the better equipped they will turn out to be to face life's challenges, embark on useful careers and become conscious of their civic responsibilities.

The truth is, of course, the reverse. More means worse - not that this unduly bothers the collegiate of university vice-chancellors. For them, what counts is the need, to use the modern idiom, "to put bums on seats" so as to sustain their own jobs, maintain the government subsidy through the block grant and satisfy the Higher Education Funding Council which sets the targets and fixes the quotas. The idea is to invent ever more ridiculous, useless honours courses to add to ‘media studies’, ‘multi-culturalism in 21st Century Britain’, ‘dance in contemporary society’ and heaven knows what else! Such programmes of alleged study accommodate the need to ‘celebrate diversity’ and ‘widen access’ (i.e. create lower standards) - the buzz-phrases of educational political correctness.

The end product is indisputably familiar - the bending of regulations to allow manifestly unfitted people, many from ‘disadvantaged communities’, to partake of a university education, however poor their entry qualifications may be, when their time would be better spent getting work experience in a trade.

It is in the field of professional education that modernist theory has most recently done untold damage. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the solicitor's qualifying examination course. The public has a strong vested interest in wanting the very highest professional standards from its lawyers. It is the public who pay the bills, often inflated fees for mediocre advice. It is not surprising that complaints of professional incompetence and inadequate service are today running at very high levels - and in many cases in respect of solicitors who qualified in the last five years.

Making things easier

It was in 1992 that the General Council of the Law Society, the solicitors' governing body, decided to ditch the qualifying examination known as the Law Society Finals (LSF) and replace it with a course untried in concept, virtually experimental and fiercely opposed from within the profession by those who saw in it, quite rightly, the likelihood of a much easier course and a frontal assault on knowledge as the basis of legal learning.

The year-long LSF course had been in place since 1979, and was generally regarded as rigorous, academically testing and demanding of very hard work and effort. It had the clear virtues of disciplined learning: the absorption of large amounts of detail and preparation for regular written tests in eight core subjects leading to eight tough examination papers spread over 11 days. All the papers were unseen and the pass-mark was set at 50 per cent subject to the usual adjustments in cases where students dropped below that standard in two papers, but had compensating strength elsewhere to take the average over the requirements for a pass.

Now none of this may seem at all remarkable. To many readers, knowledge acquired through digestion of expansive legal texts accompanied by practical skills, such as will-drafting, negotiating divorce settlements or drafting deeds of conveyance, would probably reflect what would be expected of a candidate hoping to become a trainee solicitor. The main practical learning skills would be acquired during articles of clerkship.

The method of teaching was one of proven excellence and durability. The lecture, which would usually last for one and a half hours, would consist of the lecturer giving notes, the student transcribing the notes and suitable explanations being shown on the blackboard/whiteboard. A good, clear authoritative voice was part of the lecturer's craft. The educational theory behind this didactic method was that students learn best ‘through the pen’, that is that the diligence required to take notes accurately would in itself improve concentration and promote a desire for wider reading and preparation for the weekly seminar or tutorial session.

Generations of students went through this syndrome of learning with no evident educational disadvantage associated with it. Surprise, surprise - the most intelligent, dedicated and hard-working prospered and came out top, while the least intelligent, least hard-working, most complaining and feckless would end up failing. The proportion of pass to fail was approximately 68 per cent to 32 per cent. Most students studied at the well-known law-training centre, the College of Law, a highly respected institution founded in 1962 and affectionately dubbed ‘The College of Knowledge’ because of its long-held conviction of the need to inculcate into students knowledge as the indispensable precondition for success in the examination and a sound background for entry into articles.

The same enemies of knowledge would become the driving force behind the destruction of the LSF and the introduction of the new course, pompously called the ‘Legal Practice Course’, in September 1994. The central thesis of these knowledge-haters is that what really counts in the world of legal education is not reading, learning and absorption of detail, but that students should become sufficiently canny to know what to look up in the books and where to look it up. They shouldn't be required to burden themselves with too much in their head. From the outset of the new course, content would be reduced by 40 per cent; normalised, structured learning would disappear; the three-hour unseen examination would be replaced by ‘open-book’ examinations; tutorials would be replaced by ‘workshops’; the central examining authority would be replaced by individual institutions setting their own papers, with variable standards.

Disastrous results

After seven years of this ideologically-driven leftist social engineering, the results have been disastrous. Candidates of very moderate ability in many cases are now entering the profession, and standards are declining every year. The rigour and toughness of the old course have been obliterated. Fairly recently, some of the top firms in London made known their objections to the Law Society very firmly. Their trainees did not know enough law and the LPC was a deficient foundation. Modest changes for the better have been introduced, but the net effect remains unchanged; the course has failed and has been seen to have failed - except, that is, by the ideologists of the education committee of the Law Society and their hangers-on.

Tinkering with the present structures will not even begin to address the national education malaise at all levels that besets Britain. What is required is a revolution of insight, and action by the best brains, enthused by a truly nationalist ideology. I hope to be able to set out such a programme in a future article.

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