The news that England is to have its first new grammar school in 50 years elicited a hostile reaction from almost the whole of the left. This was predictable. For there is a tension between our democratic culture and the kind of traditional education you’d expect to find at a good grammar school. We are often told that a system that ‘discriminates’ between those capable of receiving a rigorous, academic education and those who are not is ‘elitist’ and therefore at odds with the egalitarian principles of a true democracy. This is especially true in the realm of high culture. If this culture is not available to everyone, the egalitarians believe, then it should be marginalised, as a private concern that has no place in public education.
It is difficult to argue against that view. It is hard to persuade someone who has grown up without culture that culture is a thing of value, and argument with egalitarians is pointless, since it presupposes that good reasons are superior to bad, and that is an elitist opinion. All we can do is to go on making a space for culture in a world of noise and inviting students to enter. Often it might seem as though the task is hopeless. But I am convinced that it is not hopeless and that the rewards, both for the teacher and the student, outweigh the costs.
We should reject the view that high culture, as the possession of an elite, is of no use to those who don’t possess it. This is as false as the view that science or higher mathematics are useless to those who don’t understand them. Scientific knowledge exists because a few talented people are prepared to devote their energy to pursuing it. That is what a university is for: and since you cannot pass on difficult knowledge without discriminating between the students who can absorb it and those who cannot, discrimination is a social good. The same is true of high culture. Those able to acquire it will be a minority and the process of cultural transmission will be critically impeded if that teacher must teach Mozart and Lady Gaga side by side to satisfy some egalitarian agenda.
But how does the uncultured majority benefit from the cultured few? This is the crucial question. And it parallels the age-old question asked of aristocracies — namely, what good do they do for the rest of us? Why should we support a way of life of leisure and refinement just so that an exclusive clique can enjoy it? That question was asked at the French revolution, and it was not until Napoleon’s defeat, two million deaths later, that people began to understand that a leisured class, able to engage in diplomacy and to communicate with its peers across Europe, had played a part in avoiding the large-scale destructive wars which immediately followed its downfall.
All of us have an interest in the existence of a cultivated elite who can ensure that the imagination plays a proper part in decisions that affect us. Maybe a knowledge of literature and history was of no immediate benefit to a soldier in the ranks during the second world war; without it, however, it would have been impossible for Churchill to exert the kind of leadership that distinguished him, and which aroused even in the most uneducated the sense that far more was at stake than he could easily define. Such examples help us understand what we would really lose if our high culture disappeared from memory. We would go under in some future crisis without even knowing why.
Knowledge gained is a gain for all of us; knowledge lost a loss that all must bear. It does not matter who has the knowledge: the important thing is that it should be there, publicly available, and that people should know how to recuperate it from the common fund. Education keeps knowledge alive by endowing people with the ability to summon it, either because they have internalised it, or because they can unlock the books and records in which it is kept. But unless someone really ‘knows this stuff’, books and records are no better than the book of nature, which stares at us mutely until we rediscover the spell that makes it speak.
You don’t impart a culture by teaching about it. You impart it through initiation; presenting an example, an invitation, an opportunity to join. We teachers must show young people not only what we admire and why we admire it; we must show our admiration. We must make it obvious that the art and literature we admire have changed life for us, and we must invite our students to join in the experience we were granted. By doing this we show our respect to all our students. This, surely, is what the democratic ethos really requires of us.