On 28th April, Cranleigh held its first educational conference, one of the central events of its 150th Anniversary Celebrations. The focus of the summit was culture, arising out of Cranleigh?s motto, ‘Ex Cultu Robur’. This blog is based on my introductory address with the addition of some of the quotations and ideas that time and the format did not allow. ?In short, it emphasises the central importance of a broad, cultural, holistic education to ensure young people are equipped to shape future culture and lead fulfilled lives as human beings. It resists a narrowing government agenda.
Cranleigh was founded as the Surrey County School in September 1865 by the Rector of St Nicholas Church in Cranleigh, Rev John Henry Sapte, and the MP for West Surrey, George Cubitt, later Lord Ashcombe
to provide a sound and plain education, on the principles of the Church of England, and on the public school system, for the sons of farmers and others engaged in commercial pursuits.
Whilst religious instruction was central, the motto chosen for the School was more liberal, suggested by Edward Benson, one of the School’s founding Council and first Head of Wellington College who later went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury: Ex Cultu Robur, from culture comes strength; itself a cultural echo of some of the mottos adopted by schools founded in the first thirty years of Victoria?s reign (Cheltenham College?s, work overcomes all, and Framlingham?s, wisdom grows through study as examples). It is a little more nurturing than the King?s School in Rochester, founded in 604. Its motto is quite punchy by comparison, Learn or Leave. The Victorians had clearly gone soft!
The events chosen to mark our 150th anniversary have been intended as a celebration and demonstration of how Ex Cultu Robur is interpreted and realised within Cranleigh?s education today and they have touched upon and involved the intellectual, spiritual, physical and creative lives of Cranleighans and the wider community.
The purpose of the summit?was threefold. Firstly it?was to continue that celebration of culture as an integral part of a vibrant education and human flourishing. Secondly it?was to reflect upon what we actually mean by the word ?culture? today and each of the speakers brought different and challenging perspectives. Thirdly, it was to act as a rallying call to continue to speak up for a broad, cultural holistic education in the face of those who either intentionally or unintentionally reduce education to mere utility.
For my part, I want to offer briefly a perspective on what culture means for education. Tellingly, our motto makes a connection between culture and its impact on the human being: from culture comes strength. This is significant. ?Culture? precisely because it shifts and changes through and within generations is difficult to pin down or define precisely. Because of its more slippery characteristics we have begun to use terms such as monoculture, multiculturalism, institutional culture, contemporary culture, cultural identity. When I was studying for my MBA, the agreed definition of culture was put simply, ?the way we do things around here?.
Whatever terms we use or characteristics we identify, at the very heart of the word culture is a human narrative – the story of individuals and societies grappling with the essential personal questions of identity and purpose as part of their complex interactions with other human beings and the world in which they live, shaped by nationality and experience; a manifestation of a shared spirit which is curious and wants to imagine and create and challenge and refuse to accept.
Then there is most simply the enjoyment of what our culture and our environment gives to us. That inexpressible joy we feel as we hear a piece of music, perhaps new, perhaps familiar. Or when we read the lines of a poem, admire the brush strokes of an artist or a scientific equation and we are struck by beauty. Or we see and begin to understand the world in an entirely new light. Somehow our thoughts and feelings are captured in words or images or symbols that we could not express ourselves.? I am reminded of Scott Fitzgerald’s description of the discovery of America in The Great Gatsby:
For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
Of all the periods in a person?s life when they are searching to find an identity, growing into a developing strength, with their capacity to wonder at its height, it is the period of adolescence. As adults, the responsibility for this period of their lives is ours. As a society we neglect it our peril, for uncertainty breeds uncertainty. If our young people are going to lead and shape a successful future culture, then their education must equip them. It must help them to find a sense of identity and what it is to be human being. They need to understand their culture and to have a developed sense of purpose; an impression of the fullness and diversity of humanity before they influence its progress. It is why we must continue to champion an education which is broad and holistic and one that is as much to do with the development of feelings as it is knowledge. I am not convinced the current direction of travel is entirely in agreement.
The government has introduced the EBacc, ?a measurement of performance? masquerading as a curriculum, where the ancient disciplines of divinity and philosophy, or even Classical Civilization are not included and where there is no room for music or drama or art.
?English? suggests something national (and therefore unique with plenty of cultural overtones); ?Baccalaureate?, a curriculum. Contrast the performance measure definition with that of the IBO, a vision for education within the international baccalaureate: An international education to develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills needed to live, learn and work in a globalizing world. The opportunity to unite a vision for the education of children with changes to assessment methods?has been missed and the result is prosaic and uninspiring.
Why as a nation renowned for its innovation and creativity are we making decisions which do not promote the development of creativity?
In November 2014, Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, spoke in support of the Your Life Campaign which aims to increase the number of students studying maths and physics at A level warning young people that choosing to study arts subjects at school could, I quote ?hold them back for the rest of their lives?. Do not get me wrong, I will and continue to promote STEM as long as I am involved in education but I will also kick hard against any move which reduces the purpose of education to utility.
And lastly, in February, David Cameron made a personal commitment to mental health sufferers and set up a task force to understand and tackle the issues. At the risk of oversimplifying, so many of the mental health problems we see at school arise out of young people seeking and failing to find identity ? the very questions a cultural education seeks to raise and answer. Are we really going to restrict that opportunity? Who is joining the dots?
This is not a new phenomenon. There are some striking parallels between the time of? Cranleigh?s foundation and our own. Not only was the growing Empire and shrinking world challenging the way national identity was understood and asserted, there was a philosophical view of the world which was deemed to provide practical answers but was denying the fullness of the human experience. Measurement and utility and fact were kings.? Writers and cultural commentators such as Carlyle, Ruskin, Newman, Arnold wrote against it. Dickens did so famously in the satirical figure of Gradgrind: Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.
It was within such a context that Benson suggested Ex Cultu Robur to Merriman. He was a correspondent of Matthew Arnold, son of the founder of Rugby School, Thomas Arnold, and most familiar with the conflict of ideas. Two years after the School?s foundation, Matthew Arnold, wrote the following in Culture and Anarchy:
The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.
No-one in the period had been more immersed in a hothouse factual education to the extent of John Stuart Mill under the influence of his father?s friend Jeremy Bentham. Between them they are two great proponents of Utilitarianism. Yet in his autobiography, and the chapter entitled ?A crisis in my mental history? Mill describes, aged 21 and in the depths of his depression, that he can only find explanation for his feelings in the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. He began to see that something essentially human had been neglected in his education; a constant focus on analysis and the scientific method had not been corrected by a proper attention to the cultivation of feelings:
For I now saw, or thought I saw, what I had always before received with incredulity?that the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings: as indeed it has, when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analysing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives.
Now Mill does not abandon his intellectual culture, nor the importance of analysis and scientific method. Rather he makes the point that his education had neglected balance. It would be just as wrong to propose an education based solely on feelings or to say that the arts and humanities are somehow more important at reaching an understanding of who we are than the sciences. Of course it is important for education to provide for the future economic prosperity of a nation but attributing value only to those things which are measurable, or are shaped to provide statistics to win power in an election, is deeply flawed.
I do not want to go as far as Arnold in insisting the ?sweetness and light? of high culture is the only answer, especially in a world with so many diverse influences and ideas. However, I think it important that we take up a similar baton to that laid by some of our Victorian forbears to champion a broad cultural, holistic education.
We must not lose sight of the meaning of ?educere?, to draw out not to stuff in. We must steer a course to draw out those qualities of the mind and spirit, the qualities of humour and friendship, teamwork, leadership and service which are at the heart of what it is to be a human being. Focus on those and there will be good citizens, academics, innovators, businessmen, parents and those in whom we can have confidence to shape future culture.