It’s a rare opportunity when I get to both introduce a wonderful new blog and announce that OUP authors will be guest blogging there all week. Moreover: Life and Art is The Economist’s new culture blog headed up by Emily Bobrow. Everyday this week Michael and Diane Ravitch, authors of The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs To Know, will be blogging there. Diane is Professor of Education at the Steinhardt School of Education, New York University. Her books include “The American Reader”, “The Language Police”, “Left Back” and “The Troubled Crusade”. Michael Ravitch is a freelance critic and writer, his work has appeared in The New Republic, Yale Review and other publications. Below is the first blog in the series.
So the British education authorities have decided to drop Winston Churchill—along with Hitler, Stalin, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.–from the national curriculum for secondary students. As we watch this story develop from the other side of the pond, we are saddened but not surprised. In the US in the late 1970s, leaders in the social-studies field moved to oust history from the curriculum, replacing it with themes taught non-chronologically (“power,” “justice,” “technology,” etc). In most states, the time allotted to studying history contracted. Even today, the history curriculum in most states does not mention the names of any significant individuals.
In literature, the same levelling spirit ousted much of classic English and American literature from the nation’s classrooms, to be replaced by whatever seemed immediately “relevant” to the lives of students. Instead of John Donne or Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Blake or Henry David Thoreau, students in high school were reading stories about teenagers and their problems. There are even essays in the “literature” textbooks written (allegedly) by teens, as well as articles about contemporary social issues and how to solve such urgent problems as completing a job application.
The young must have heroes; they must have stories that stir them. When the schools strip the history and literature curriculum of significant ideas, people and writings, replacing them with fluff and contemporary concerns, then the future of our culture is jeopardised. Unfortunately, such acts of cultural vandalism leave our youngsters with nothing but the popular culture and its vacuous icons. Some defenders of the latest corruption of the history curriculum in Britain say that it still includes coursework on the second world war, so surely Churchill will get appropriate attention then. That’s the excuse one expects. More likely, the time allotted to the study of world wars and other historical events will continue to shrivel, and young people will emerge from school utterly ignorant of everything that preceded their own lives.
Better to see our young people learning about Churchill, studying the genius of his rhetoric, and understanding his historical importance, than to leave them with no figures to admire but the empty-headed stars of television and videos.