The Culture of Education

The word ‘culture’ seems to be endlessly fascinating, and very often quite confusing. We talk about ‘high culture’, middle class culture, working class culture, the culture of schools, the culture of homes, the culture of the workplace, and so on. Thoughts about culture invariably spark arguments about elitism, snobbery, value judgements and post-modernist relativism.

Melvyn Bragg’s “The Value of Culture” on BBC Radio 4 this morning was the first programme in a new series of five:

Culture and Anarchy

Melvyn Bragg presents the first in a series of programmes examining the idea of culture and its evolution over the last 150 years. In 1869 the poet and critic Matthew Arnold published Culture and Anarchy, a series of essays in which he argued passionately that culture – ‘the best which has been thought and said’ – was a powerful force for good.


According to Wikipedia,

Matthew Arnold (24 December 1822 – 15 April 1888) was a British poet and cultural critic who worked as an inspector of schools. He was the son of Thomas Arnold, the famed headmaster of Rugby School, and brother to both Tom Arnold, literary professor, and William Delafield Arnold, novelist and colonial administrator. Matthew Arnold has been characterized as a sage writer, a type of writer who chastises and instructs the reader on contemporary social issues.


Arnold’s career in education began as a teacher at Rugby School, after which he did various odd jobs, such as Private Secretary to Lord Lansdowne. Wikipedia goes on to say,

Wishing to marry, but unable to support a family on the wages of a private secretary, Arnold sought the position of, and was appointed, in April 1851, one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools.

Clearly this was how things were done back in the 19th Century. Snog, marry, get a proper job – and become an inspector of schools. Come to think of it, there’s many an Ofsted contractor/inspector out there these days simply making ends meet and earning a crust. Very different to the good old 20th Century HMIs who were real professionals and true masters of their craft.

Arnold often described his duties as a school inspector as “drudgery”.

There’s many a current and former Ofsted contractor/inspector who’s been there, done that and got the teeshirt; especially in the brave new world of pre-loaded laptops and data analysis wherein visits to actual classrooms are few and far between. Still, some people seem to revel in that kind of thing, and in any case they often have very little idea about what children and teachers ought to be doing. It’s important to remember that in this century, at least, inspectors are told that teachers are free to teach in any way they want – it’s results that matter. Measurable results, obviously. Yes, we’re talking test scores. (And by the way when we say they can teach in any way they want, that’s like – teach reading in any way you like, just as long as it’s taught through and by the “synthetic phonics” handbook. Worksheets, interactive whiteboards, computer screens, drama, dance, whatever. Ch ch ch ch; sh sh sh sh; th th th th; f f f f f f)

The inspectorship required him, at least at first, to travel constantly and across much of England. “Initially, Arnold was responsible for inspecting Nonconformist schools across a broad swath of central England. He spent many dreary hours during the 1850s in railway waiting-rooms and small-town hotels, and longer hours still in listening to children reciting their lessons and parents reciting their grievances. But that also meant that he, among the first generation of the railway age, travelled across more of England than any man of letters had ever done. Although his duties were later confined to a smaller area, Arnold knew the society of provincial England better than most of the metropolitan authors and politicians of the day”.

He read constantly, widely, and deeply, and in the intervals of supporting himself and his family by the quiet drudgery of school inspecting, filled notebook after notebook with meditations of an almost monastic tone.

Arnold’s view of ‘culture’ concerned the best that can be achieved – intellectually, aesthetically and morally. He quoted Goethe on the unfortunate British tendency towards mere ‘practicality’ – “To act is easy; to think is hard.”

Arnold famously wished for the “raw masses of humanity” to be “touched by sweetness and light” – by which we can assume he meant enlightenment, knowledge, virtue and grace. He saw “people of culture” as the true “apostles of equality”. Interestingly he saw the majority of the upper classes as barbarians and the majority of the middle classes as philistines. He recognised that materialism could never be an end in itself.

He said that to become “cultured” is to “see things as they are” – which is interesting, since this is exactly what Zen and Buddhism set out to promote in every individual. Arnold realised that a great many beliefs that abound in the world are delusional.

Arnold and others (such as John Ruskin) started to re-think what universities were FOR, and what they should teach. English literature began to creep in, alongside the Classics. Also science.

“Self-realisation” and “creativity” were also beginning to be seen as desirable elements of a modern education. Ruskin said that industrialisation had “stolen” men’s creativity and their ability to “express themselves” – the things that “make us fully human”.

Education should not be limited to “handing over a body of facts” but should concern itself with the “formation of character”. Arnold understood that education must be more than a mere utilitarian process – whether that process and practise was concerned with turning out gentlemen, rulers and vicars, or with preparing people for lives of work in factories and offices. Education must provide an intellectual, spiritual and moral resource for all children who participated in it – not just equipping them to join the workforce. People like Arnold, Ruskin and Newman agreed that education must be a process that enables young people to develop in every possible way to the fullest of their capacity and to achieve their maximum potential – creatively, spiritually, socially and intellectually. [Clearly they saw human development and human intelligences as being “three dimensional”.]

Arnold also saw the value of contemporary literature and poetry, and indeed Shakespeare, in spreading ‘culture’, enlightenment and a proper understanding of the human condition.

Education, to him, should be about ‘cultivating’ the whole of the person – using the best and the most stimulating resources. The noun “culture” then became attached to that “collection of resources”. In our time, unfortunately, many influential people see these ‘resources’ as a fixed ‘inventory’ of supposedly great works of art and literature.

As an egalitarian Arnold believed that, given the right opportunities, anyone can achieve ‘great things’. “Culture” is not something to be kept for a narrow clique – presumably the ‘best and the brightest’ – the kind of individuals who will take higher exams and degrees, whilst the plebs, so to speak, get on with a far more utilitarian and pragmatic diet of learning.

“Everyone has the potential within them to develop their own capacities”, said someone on Mr Bragg’s programme, as a summary of Arnold’s thinking on education and self-development.

Speaking as a kind of auto-didact who resented hugely not being able to follow my own intellectual pursuits – as a result of having to follow someone else’s predetermined programme of learning – I believe it’s important that we have a sense of the history of education, and an awareness of the key figures who have attempted to change the way we see education in this and other countries.

Sadly, very little has changed since Arnold’s time. We still have a government that believes in forcing children to learn Latin and Greek, and the Classics of literature, along with the so-called ‘greats’ of British poetry and literature. We still have a government that sees children as sheep and goats, and wants to use education as a kind of sorting mechanism. They even see no problem in running an academic rat race with clear winners and losers. And they see no problem in giving the ‘losers’, so to speak, nothing but a meagre diet of practical and work-related ‘skills’.

I’ve seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears Primary headteachers who say quite openly and bluntly that they’re in the business of preparing children ‘for the world of work’, and I’ve seen Secondary headteachers who say there’s nothing wrong with teaching to the tests. I’ve seen Directors of Education and their henchmen who maintain that the new mantra should shift from ‘education, education, education’, to ‘attainment, attainment, attainment’.

I’m sick of it to the pit of my stomach, and so are thousands of good teachers and many of their headteachers – some of whom intend to leave what they believe is no longer a profession.

One hundred and fifty years on from Matthew Arnold, and a hundred years on from John Dewey and the other ‘progressives’, and so little has changed in the way our politicians and our power elites see education. Successive generations of teachers and headteachers have allowed themselves to be brainwashed into pre-Victorian thinking about education and ‘culture’ – partly because they never bothered to read beyond what was prescribed for them during their training, and partly because they were anxious to fit in with the prevailing ‘culture’ of education.

Meanwhile, there are other places in the world where a radical vision of what education and learning should be about has taken root, and where young people do better at every kind of test and every kind of assessment across a broad range of their abilities and aptitudes – where children are given the opportunity to become three-dimensionally intelligent and also the opportunity to be co-creators of their learning processes using all of the resources that are available to them.

We wish you a very Happy New Year.


More on culture tomorrow and every morning this week on Radio 4 at 9.00am.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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3 Responses to The Culture of Education

  1. Plish says:

    Happy New Year, and abundance of all good things in 2013 and beyond!


  2. Karen Wan says:

    Wishing you a very happy new year too! Karen


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