Unashamed elitists argue that there is an established body of knowledge, a cultural heritage, that every child should learn. This includes a canon of literary works and an understanding through history of how we got to where we are today.
The idea began in the 19th century. Mass education ope More…ned up the horrifying vista of a people who didn't want to learn Greek, and who were uninterested in how paradise was lost. Instead, they had penny dreadfuls full of rubbish by that bloke Dickens, and even women.
A bewhiskered proto-Woodhead called Matthew Arnold found the working-class movements of the age disturbing. Society was too materialistic, and there was too much talk of rights. The public school teacher and school inspector thought that the answer lay in the pursuit of perfection, via great literature.
This torch was taken up with enthusiasm in the Thirties by Oxford intellectuals such as F R Leavis. They were worried about the new mass media of film and radio which, in their eyes, represented passivity and discouraged people from thinking for themselves. Today's elitists include ex-chief inspectors and Daily Mail columnists, but the message is the same. True learning should focus on culture, history, the classics, literature and art. The more practical a subject, the less it is valued. All will be well if children are offered a curriculum that has been preserved in aspic. The teacher is there to instruct and guide.
The idea is quite attractive. Education should prepare people to enter society, and that surely includes an understanding of how it evolved. But the wheels come off when you consider the huge amount of material that has to be left out.
Which great literary works? Which periods of history? Do we leave children ignorant of the richness of other cultures? Critics argue that what's needed is a skills-led curriculum that allows young people to take responsibility for their own learning. But the leap of faith is unlikely. The current system affirms the superiority of the cultural elite who bathe in the glow of an appreciation of opera and Proust while dialling for a plumber to fix the the leak they have not a clue how to repair.