How Free? Roger Scruton and Michaela Free School

In what way should schools be free? In the Spectator there is a fascinating interview with Roger Scruton, here’s an excerpt:

“The big battle to maintain a proper educational system which will be continuous with the old curriculum and passing on what we have while adapting to all the changes, that big battle was lost, I think.’ When? ‘Over the past 20 years. Certainly by the time that New Labour were in they didn’t have much work to do. When people first raised the question about integrating the new communities it was in a spirit of hope — that one would be able to maintain the core of what we have. It’s the other side who actually want to destroy that core. Certainly the multicultural activists in the Labour party and the universities wanted to destroy the old white Anglo-Saxon education system as they saw it, and produce something completely different — with no conception of what that completely different thing would be, of course. It’s always easier to destroy than to create, and I think that’s what we’ve seen. But then people start again.’

What are the signs of rebirth? ‘I was very impressed visiting Katharine Birbalsingh’s free school the other day — 110 faces, all of them black except for a little handful of Romanians — in which there was real discipline and they were being taught the old curriculum and the teachers were really trying to integrate these children into what they saw as the culture to which they were destined.’

So the battle is for continuity? ‘Yes, and for the survival of western civilisation. It’s not as though we’ve lost it completely. We still have got this civilisation — it’s all we’ve got, and it’s not as though we’re going to be able to replace it with any other.”

Katherine Birbalsingh published the picture (above) on twitter and she couldn’t believe some of the responses: “London Zoo is a brilliant day out. Didn’t know you were allowed in the monkey cage now, booking my tickets online as we speak!” Is but one of the most blatant. Maybe this shows that despite the efforts of multiculturalism the “old white Anglo-Saxon education system” remains intact?

A truly free school should educate children to be free. Scruton wrote here: “Education, we must remind ourselves, is not about social engineering, however laudable that goal might be. It is about passing knowledge from those who have it to those who need it.” Now, a Marxist would point out that the passing on of knowledge is social engineering, without critique it is about reinforcing as ‘common sense’ the narratives that reflect the power structures in a given society. Scruton mentions ‘whilst adapting to changes’ and it is this tension between stability and change, tradition and critique that is at the heart of a liberal arts education.

Raymond Williams wrote that: “Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these in institutions, in arts, and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing themselves into the land.” Culture is fluid, its growth is an active debate, not an imposition of the old but a conversation with it and through this discussion we make and remake our sense in common. Tradition gives us the constraints that enable this conversation to flourish.

As Scruton said here a school:

“…Ought to be a place of free co-operation, in which each member has a shared commitment to the collective purpose. It should be a place of teams and clubs and experiments, of choirs and bands and play-acting, of exploration, debate and inquiry. All those things occur naturally when adults with knowledge come into proximity with children eager for a share of it. It is in the classroom that the relation of trust between teacher and pupil is established…”

The most extraordinary feature of the Western Education tradition is that of freedom of thought. The relation of trust between teacher and pupil is established because what we pass on to our pupils is not a closed narrative but one that we deliberately open up to dispute. In an education for freedom children are taught how to think freely and question the tradition. Community and its conflicts are negotiated within the tradition and authority of the institution. The classroom is a dialectical space in which pupils are invited to believe in and argue with knowledge, ideas, rituals and ways of thinking and doing. They are slowly initiated into a world in which they can have ‘freedom’ to the extent that any person can truly be free.

Oakeshott wrote that: “A human art is never fixed and finished; it has to be used and it is continuously modified in use.” It is tradition that tempers the speed of change and allows us to judge its quality within the constraints of our tradition. Knowledge, beauty, aesthetics and the liberal arts are central to what an educated person needs in order to lead a flourishing life and they are fertile areas for discussion and debate. Schooling should not be sacrificed to the whim, whiles and wherefores of the market, cultural relativism and utilitarianism, for if this were to be allowed we would lose a sense of real value in education.

Scruton talked to the children of Michaela School about philosophy, art and also fox hunting. I would loved to have been there. Living in London, I can see the importance of talking about fox hunting, it can serve as a metaphor for how culture can change: Walking home late one night I happened upon two foxes who have taken up residence in my part of south east London. Ripping apart black bin bags and living on a diet of remnants of fast food detritus these ‘beautiful’ rural animals are, like their scavenging cousins, the ‘urban pigeon’, more battered and less colourful than their country versions… Wouldn’t it be a delight to see horse and hound darting along the ancient streets of London and ridding our streets of these pests of the night? I can see the children of Brent delighting in the thought of the hunt trumpeting up and down the North Circular, hurtling through the concreted over back yards of their suburban terraces and the bugle call reverberating around the tower blocks. What a joy it will be to witness the parkour horses and riders clambering up Wembley Stadium and down the other side! The anti-hunt brigade would be left seething, needing to destroy these Anglo-Saxon pastimes, but finding out that the newly born urbanites had embraced the old ‘civilised’ ways of killing. There is not much romance attached to the flee-bitten urban fox not like the Beatrix Pottered image of the beautiful countryside fox of yore. In an urban environment the hunt would be seen as a gracious gang, a bizarre clockwork orange-lite opportunity for the poor and under-privileged to stop killing each other and, instead, learn horsemanship and rid the city of the four legged red furred detritus inhabiters. Could our urban youth become 21st century heroes ridding our city of the hyena-like creatures who wake us up from our slumbers with their howling calls…? I can see Prince Charles writing a spidery letter to a future prime minister demanding that ‘we let them hunt fox’ to develop character…

Scruton says: “Hunting… dissolves the boundaries between species, dissolves the boundaries between people too.” In our global village we all live cheek by jowl, in border countries between differing cultures, views, ideals, and we need to learn to negotiate across them. In Philosophy, Principles and Problems Scruton wrote: “People depend on others, and also need to be free from them. Freedom means conflict; community requires that conflict to be peacefully resolved. Hence negotiation, compromise and agreement form the basis of all human communities.” Schools have an important role to play in initiating young people into dealing with the responsibilities of freedom.

All schools should be truly free schools, schooling for freedom.

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