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Adrian Hilton is a conservative academic, religious and political commentator, journalist and author. On his Daily Mail blog he is currently campaigning for Ann Widdecombe to be awarded a peerage. Follow Adrian on Twitter.

Matthew
Arnold – poet, essayist and Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools – famously wrote
that culture is concerned with knowing “the best that has been said and thought
in the world”. This has become the leitmotif of Michael Gove’s educational
revolution: if children are not exposed to the classics of literature, music,
theatre, dance, film, painting, sculpture – what we terms the “fine arts” –
then society is impoverished, civilisation declines and future generations are inculcated
with nothing but the banal, mediocre and vulgar.

Out
go TS Eliot, Wordsworth, Elgar, Monet and Mozart; in come Carol Ann Duffy,
Damien Hirst, Russell Brand and Madonna. Critical thought is abandoned for
formulaic answers – who needs epistemology when you’ve got a WH Smith’s
revision guide? And academic rigour is replaced with emotional intelligence –
what’s the point of straight-A*s if the child has low self-esteem?


Arnold
saw culture as a force for moral and political good. It is a fundamentally conservative
vision aimed at enlightenment, character development and social cohesion. It combines
“the best that has been said and thought in the world” with the pursuit of philosophy
in the context of Christian theology; the reasoned discourse around our
existence in a moral order which ordains the triumph of good over evil – in our
personal lives as well as the eschatological culmination of the age. Thus, children
should be taught not to steal, cheat or lie not only because it is wrong, but
because there is intrinsic value in being a “good person” and aspiring to be a “good
citizen”. The morality endures, even if the cohesive theology which gave birth
to the idea is gradually giving way to a fusion of multi-faith relativism,
new-age spiritualism and secular humanism.

Culture
transcends class, which is what makes it such a beneficial force for social
mobility. The daughter of a Grantham grocer can go to school and read the words
of Karl Popper; the son of a Welsh miner can join the choir and sing Fauré’s Requiem. A visit to Stratford-on-Avon can change the course of a
life; a trip to the cinema can transform a whole country. In these options lies
a sense of explored truthfulness: a journey through our customs and conventions
causes us to reflect on our shared social structures and institutions.

Culture
challenges and inspires. It is concerned with virtue and shared values, but
leaves space for rebellion and critical protest. It communicates and
perpetuates the moral code of community, challenging head-on the
self-generating and self-referencing cult of the individual, for whom there is
no right and wrong. But at the same time it evaluates what we might mean and
understand by right and wrong, constantly bringing the child back to the very
origins of their culture and morality.

The
ultimate purpose of education is the development of the “rounded individual”.
But this is not primarily a function of the state: indeed, whenever governments
attempt to impose a notion of citizenship or a uniform moral order, we are a
breath away from Fascism or Communism. Character education and academic
enlightenment are better promoted by small groups and particular communities,
each developing their own ethos and moral vision – religious or secular – which
adapts to the prevailing culture. Lord Adonis gave us Academies; Michael Gove
has given us Free Schools. The intrinsic devolution of power and liberation
from local authority control are irreversible. As our culture has become more
diverse, the common ground has shrunk. This has necessitated a fundamental
reconsideration of how we inculcate our common virtues of justice,
responsibility, compassion, courage, respect, honesty and tenacity.

The
better way, as Plato observed, is to inspire; to turn the eyes of the child to
the light so that they might see for themselves. This is infinitely preferable
to formulaic templates, model answers and the learning of rules and regulations
by rote. There is no point in professing an ethos of enlightenment if the
pedagogical culture is one of dull oppression.

As long as schools are concerned with shared culture,
character education and the virtuous society based on the principles of liberal
democracy, we will see academic progress in pursuit of the common good. When
they cease to be concerned with respect for authority, loyalty to ideals and
the commitment to participate in community, we will witness social
fragmentation and moral anarchy. The conservative is concerned with individual
responsibility – with treating others how they might wish themselves to be
treated. The liberal advocates that the government should not interfere with
the lives of others as long as these others do no harm. Both of these
philosophies are concerned with community, socialisation and moral development.
It is why this Coalition Government can agree on the necessary scale of the
educational revolution, if not always and entirely on the pace of reform.

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