On Education | Edward Gifford


‘The noblest of all studies is the study of what man is and of what life he should lead’ opined Plato in Republic. Nothing can be of higher and more enduring value than to, by learning about the whole, understand oneself, and be immersed into the flow of human consciousness which runs for thousands of years. What remains of this torrent only remains, whether it be music, art, literature, sculpture, architecture, or theory, because it relates to the eternal, unchanging soul. All possess this soul; indeed, it was breathed into man by God, thus education is not about implanting previously unknown facts but is the unearthing and channelling of human nature via the proper orientation and direction of the pupil. 

Our narrow, technical, purely contemporary ‘education’ system on the other hand churns out siloed, close minded individuals completely unplugged from the stream of human history, and all the wonders contained therein. Broadly looked at education is an ever-narrowing funnel; one begins with basics, literacy and numeracy, then strikes out to a broad but incoherent and non-chronological mix of history, science, geography, English; then decision time, narrow your field of view for O-levels, after this intense period of essentially learning to pass exams, one is again asked to narrow. Then A-levels, just three please – a correct choice here is made in light of having already chosen what one wishes to do at University; another means to another future end, as the degree is to the job. Indeed, schooling as it is now constructed actually works best if one knows what career one wants before O-levels, then the narrowing may actually be justified, so long as one’s mind does not change. 

Of particular concern are the young men who arrive at school as children and leave school for the most part still as children. Crises follow – look at suicide rates amongst this demographic – and most take the wrong course of rebuilding themselves, leading to a continual dissatisfaction whose potential remedy is hindered by modernity’s disdain for inherited wisdom.

Our world is fast paced, constantly changing, so the young need to be taught about the now, about the most recent, the most current developments so they won’t be left behind, so they can be employable – right? No statement could be further from the truth. If the world is so fast, then of what relevance is a niche theory of 2015 related to the technology of 2015 to the world of employment in 2025? None. What could be of less value to the individual, or the prospective employer, or wider society, than young people trapped in silos drowning in a sea of technical, abstract academic jargon. 

Of far higher value would be an education which promotes broad knowledge, critical thinking, and a stronger understanding of ethics, values and civil society, fostering this via challenging encounters with important, eternal issues; pursuing an understanding of what we are. It must be of the upmost importance then, for both public and private institutions, uncodified as they are, to be led by individuals who are broadly educated, capable of thinking about other ways, and knowing it has previously been done so; and if technical skills are required then let the companies who need such proficiencies train their employees in this. 

I find no answer to the question of ‘what are you studying at university?’ more depressing than a response along the lines of ‘business; accountancy; media’. Perhaps these students know what they want and are out to get it; well, if so, they are doing their future employer a great favour by saddling themselves with the debt of learning a technical skill that that employer would have taught its new intake anyway. The majority of employers do not require a specific degree for acceptance onto their graduate program. This situation was recently confirmed by a friend who decried the way firms he was applying to were recruiting ‘non-cogs,’ people who were not studying the industry-specific degree as he is. Thus, those who have chosen a route, such as the one mentioned above, have missed two better opportunities: either to join the firm directly from school as an apprentice; or, to read a subject of genuine interest at university, then apply to the firm’s graduate scheme anyway. The latter being beneficial to those who wish to understand the world they live in better; whilst the former wishes to get stuck in straight away.

The broader point in relation to technical degrees like these is whether a course should be put on simply because someone will pay for it? I say no; who could on that basis object to a degree on ‘techniques of fascistic rule’, or ‘methods of genocide.’ As money is not the true measure of value, rather more convincing is to acknowledge the existence of great things that those in education should at least be aware of. 

A reading of Huxley and Solzhenitsyn is a worthwhile endeavour in itself but may as a happy side effect inoculate more of the young against the dangerous fantasies of the pursuit of paradise and its real-life effects; dipping their toes back into the icy waters of human history to remind them that the people ‘back then’ are, fundamentally, the same, and the events could easily repeat themselves. A Beethoven symphony, and a biography of the composer, will open a cathartic door onto human emotion, of rage and frustration, of yearning and striving. A Rembrandt portrait will reveal the beauty that is hidden in our everyday existence, negating the distinctly modern feeling that one has to go somewhere else to experience beauty because the world as a whole could not possibly be so. And then to pause on the pavement and stop and look around, aware that one does not now exist in a tiny slice of time, alone and disconnected, but is a part of the astounding tapestry of human life. 

So, what to do? Evidently not everyone would find such an education enjoyable – the desire must come from within once the outline has been sketched out – and we would cease to function as a society were everyone to become a philosophical hermit. But such considerations do not annul the ambition for a proper system of education. 

At a macro-institutional level, a major change to higher education is needed: all the former polytechnics that are now labelled as universities would revert to their previous state, to provide a technical education in specific, specialized degrees. The majority of those remaining which are neither Russell group nor Ancient (Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews) would be abolished totally – exceptions are up for debate. Thus, once again there would be a distinct hierarchy to higher education rather than the disparaging, behind-the-back snobbery that exists now. 

At a micro-institutional level, the universities would continue to provide professional degrees such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary sciences, engineering, law, alongside others in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences but all would be taught in spirit of the liberal education which was once on offer. A politics degree, for instance, would approach the Whole from a conventional starting point but would not be restricted thus, and would touch on everything from ancient civilization and the big bang, through history, literature, art, music, economics. Whilst in an atmosphere that crucially does not churn out graduates in this and that but produces young men and women who know their own mind, who can speak, write, read and think for themselves, and who wish to contribute from whatever field they choose to the common good. 


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