Tag Archives: Aristotle

The Left has worked itself into an apoplectic fury against free schools, but why the silence on private schools?

21 Oct

In recent weeks, it seems I can’t get away from my old school, Ardingly.  Reading an article in the Sunday Times, I find a description of Ardingly as a private school which is “less well-known but equally grim”.  Half-way through a book on the Victorians, I find a passage on the founder Nathaniel Woodard.  The author describes Ardingly as a “third-class Woodard school”, to which parents send their boys so that “these boys might better themselves in later life that they could aspire to send their own sons to grander Woodard establishments, such as Lancing”.  Bloody Lancing.  That’s not all – Ardingly was to be aimed at parents who were “not, strictly, respectable”: for instance, the keepers of “second-rate retail shops, publicans, gin-palace keepers”… (Woodard’s own words)

I can’t say I saw all this in those Ardingly brochures.

But this got me thinking.  How similar were the ambitions of the founders of the greatest private schools in the land, Eton, Westminster, St Paul’s, et al. to the ambitions of the founders of free schools now?  There was certainly no profit motive at the root of their ambitions.  They were guided by an instinct, in some cases snobbish, in some cases pompous, but always altruistic.  The instinct was to improve the child.  The first step was to make them virtuous – polite, public-spirited, honourable, self-confident – altogether more “Christian” gentlemen, in their eyes.  In so doing, the boy could improve their income and social status.

The Tories’ free schools scheme taps into a similar instinct.  The scheme is simple in its design: it makes it easier for individuals and organisations to set up their own school.  They may be parents unhappy with state schools in the area, teachers, charities, religious or voluntary groups.  The same altruistic motivation is at heart.

There are some differences in ambition.  For one, snobbery plays no role in their ambitions.  Unlike Victorian private schools, free schools are open to anyone, not just children of the rich.  Girls may be admitted of course.  But apart from these things, the instinct is essentially the same.  No profit motive is at play, since profit-making enterprises are banned.  A glance down the list of the 24 new free schools reveals an instinct to make the child more virtuous.  Some schools aim to make the child more “Christian” as before; many more offer to make the child more “Sikh”, more “Jewish”, more “Hindu”.  Others, supported by charities, offer to turn inner-city youths into honourable adults.  All aim to make children excel.

The creation of schools with noble ambitions seems to me a good thing.  Yet there is an increasing host of individuals, mostly on the Left, who are convinced that free schools are a Very Bad Thing.  I can understand the objection against religious schools.  I can understand the objection against stripping cash from local schools to finance free schools.  (It would be nice if no school budget were being cut.)  But these are different objections from the challenge that free schools in themselves are bad.

Labour finds itself in this curious position.  The party has no truck against religious schools.  The party opposes slashed school budgets.  But the party also opposes the concept of free schools.  This is not because they believe free schools will be bad schools; bizarrely it is the reverse.  They oppose free schools because they fear free schools will be good.  This is no exaggeration.  Ed Balls has struck out against a “two-tier education system” in which some schools are allowed to do better than others.  In this “social apartheid”, please note, the free schools are the good schools.

In the midst of this confused dottiness, there is a silence over one particular issue.  Labour rails against the privatisation of the NHS – in spite of the fact that it is a continuation of the health reforms conducted under Thatcher, Major and Blair.  Labour rails against the privatisation of universities – despite that it was the party to usher in tuition fees in the first place.  Labour even rails against free schools as the “privatisation of education”.  This misses out one key thing: education is already private.  Where are the angry mobs shouting about that?  Where are the effigies of Nathaniel Woodard?

Don’t mistake me – I don’t want flaming torches to descend upon Ardingly.  My point is merely this: we already have a two-tier system.  It works as follows: the rich pay for their kids to go to the best schools; the rest either get bursaries, or are stuck with the state system.  The private schools have more money, so can afford smaller classes, larger grounds, better teachers.  The best teachers would prefer to work in the private schools, because these schools can kick the bad kids out, and y’know, they don’t have to deal with all the misery and dysfunction that comes with poor kids.  Thus social inequality is entrenched!

I don’t suggest this is a fair system.  But it’s the system we have, and no-one much likes to talk about it.  To some extent, social inequality will never diminish until every private school shuts.  No-one is prepared to do that.  The only way we can change things is to improve state education.  If we leave things as they are, poor kids will always be poor, rich kids will always be rich.  Having people who propose to create good schools for us – this is an opportunity that cannot be missed.

The New Aristotelians, Ed and Dave: will we ever accept their ideas?

29 Sep

To what extent can the state change a culture? It is a question that has dogged politicians since, well, since we started sinning. David Cameron believes that society is broken and that he has the power to make us less impregnated, less intoxicated, less riotous and more benevolent. Ed Miliband believes that he too can change a culture and make us less greedy, less lazy, less individualistic.

We Brits can only laugh. No politician can make us moral, we are likely to say. We have always sinned and will always sin: we have always been a beer-swilling, tavern-brawling nation, through Medieval times to Dickensian, and no poncy French noble or Gladstonian high priest can make us stop. We have always been a multi-bonking, hasty-breeding group, whether the gals who catch our eye be buxom Georgian beasts or ravenous Pre-Raphaelite floozies. And greed wasn’t invented by Thatcher: the rich have always desired a lavish life of luxury; the last 60 years have made us all richer and so greedier.

Human nature remains constant. We are driven by the same lusts, desires, hungers as we were a century ago. No politician can change that.

Or at least, this is what I believed until recently. A conversation I had with a close friend made me think twice. I was arguing that the Victorian age was a strange period in British history, because in the midst of a long tradition of good ol’ British sin, we all collectively started being hypocrites. We may have preached and believed in being virtuous, but we continued to act in the same way; we carried on sinning. Prostitution was rife, pornography boomed due to the growth of printing and photography, and British gentlemen still had affairs. It was just hushed up.

My friend was not persuaded. He was convinced that Britain had gone through a moral decline. But he had no evidence for this. So he tried to persuade me through pure reason, like those odd twelfth-century theologians who try to prove, without any reference to evidence, that God exists.

Look, he said, Britain has gone through a moral decline. I told him that it depends what you mean by “moral decline”; he had a definition of “moral” which was different from mine. “And I suspect,” I told him, “that by moral decline, you really mean religious decline. There has undoubtedly been a religious decline, but not a moral decline.”

He was flummoxed. “So you think there were beliefs these people held, that did not influence them one iota, not one jot?” Yes, I said. “But surely on an individual level,” he said, “you believe that you can be restrained by beliefs? That we are not just animals, and our desires can be restrained by our morals?” Yes, I said. “And there are such people, even today, who are restrained from acting in a certain way by their religion?” Yes, I said, thinking there might be a trap along the way. He scoffed. “So you think we can be restrained on an individual level but not on a social level?!?”

Bruised that I had lost another argument, I reflected. Perhaps he was right. Vices and virtues will always exist, but perhaps they can be restrained or encouraged by culture. Human nature is constant, and we will always be greedy and lustful and slovenly, but different cultures can encourage or restrain us. The benefits system is a good example of a system which can encourage idleness and dependency. I’m sure that a sexualised culture can only nudge us into more promiscuity. A greed-is-good culture can only encourage financial recklessness.

This is an idea which hasn’t been given much prominence in the past 60 years. The central goal of our age has not been to make us more virtuous, but to make us more free. In the sixties, politicians made us free to have gay sex, abort the baby and divorce more easily, and then write an uncensored play about how horrific the gay-sex-dead-baby-divorce thing was. In the eighties, politicians unleashed the free market on not just the economy, but schools, hospitals and even the police force, in the hope that it would make us more free. It is an experiment in which all have conspired: the media, the internet, advertising, music, all urging us to be more free.

What happened to the political ideal of creating a virtuous society? Its death was marked by Isaiah Berlin’s demand that we reject values from our political discourse: the truly liberal thing to do is allow people freedom to pursue their own values, not the state’s values. Terrible things will follow if governments urge people to behave a certain way, as we have seen from tyrannous states in the grip of socialist ideology or religious fervour.

We have forgotten Aristotle‘s ideal that a state can, and should, seek to cultivate virtues in its citizens. This is why we react with ridicule to any politician who thinks they can make us more moral. When David Cameron said that the tax system should be changed to nudge us into marriage – for the reasons that marriage fosters virtues such as commitment and companionship, and loving parents are more likely to instil virtues in their children – he was greeted with near-universal derision. When Ed Miliband said recently that the state should nudge businesses away from amoral business practices and nudge benefit-claimers towards virtuous actions that would benefit the community, he was near-universally panned.

It is an old idea: the idea that virtue is more important than freedom. I can only wonder if we will ever go back to it.