Why does the state take an interest in education? The prevailing view, at least since the end of the last war, has been that the state takes an interest in education because it is the right of every child to receive it. Hence the state becomes the universal provider, and as such must treat all its dependents equally, and make no special favours on grounds of wealth, talent or social status. From this, by a kind of creeping egalitarianism, we edge towards the conclusion that the state must make no distinctions, that children should not be sorted by their abilities and aptitudes, and that even exams should be downgraded or at least not made to look as though they were the final goal. When it comes to schooling, the educationists add, we, the experts, are bound to be better informed than the parents, who should feel no qualms in surrendering their children to the beneficent care of a state that acts always on our wise advice.
The assumption has been, in other words, that education exists for the sake of the child. In my view the state takes an interest in education only because it has another and more urgent interest in something else — namely knowledge. Knowledge is a benefit to everyone, including those who do not and cannot acquire it. How many of our citizens could build a nuclear power station, judge a case in Chancery, read a grant of land in mediaeval Latin, conduct a Mozart concerto, solve an equation in aerodynamics, repair a railway engine? We don’t need to have the knowledge ourselves, provided there are others, the experts, who possess it. And the more we outsource our memory and information to our iPhones and laptops, the more those experts are needed. If that is so, then the state must ensure that education, however available and however distributed, will reproduce our store of knowledge, and if possible add to it.
There may come a time when children and their teachers cease to hear about the Dark Ages. People may then no longer understand that knowledge can be lost as well as gained, as our store of knowledge was lost for 400 years, before being slowly and painfully recuperated. Here, it seems to me, is where the educationists have misled us. The state, they have told us, has a duty towards each child, and no child must be made to feel inferior to any other. Although that is true, the state has another and greater duty which is a duty towards us all — namely, the duty to conserve the knowledge that we need, which can be passed on only with the help of the children able to acquire it.
To put the matter simply, knowledge benefits the child, but not as much as the clever child benefits knowledge. Hence the state has an interest in selection, so that those with an aptitude for knowledge can be given the chance to acquire it — to acquire it without the many distractions that come from being surrounded by others who have no interest in the life of the mind.
I was fortunate to attend a grammar school, which made available to me the kind of knowledge that people of my parents’ class did not easily have the chance to acquire. Hence I have played my own special part in absorbing, processing and passing on the knowledge that is still enshrined in our curriculum. I take this as a justification for my existence, that I have passed on to others something that, but for the kind of education I enjoyed, might have died.
Critics tell us that selection divides children into successes and failures, and that the failures are ‘marked for life’. I see no reason to believe that. Future generations need knowledge; but they also need skills, strengths and technical know-how. Schools that provide those benefits — like the German Technische Hochschulen — are as important as grammar schools: and if children have the possibility of freely passing between schools in the process of discovering their aptitude, then selection need in any case never be final.
In the world of education those thoughts are heresies. After years of ‘child-centred’ indoctrination the educational establishment has become lost in a kind of fairyland, believing that education is really a form of social engineering, and that its primary purpose is to boost the pupil’s ‘self-esteem’. Once we see that the primary purpose of education is to safeguard knowledge, all the fairy castles of the educationists tumble in ruins. Hence they are up in arms, and, as so often, in arms against the truth.
Roger Scruton is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.