It is a pity that the debate about raising educational standards – an effort that no sensible person can be against – becomes fogged with dreamy thoughts about making things the way they were (or how journalists and politicians imagine they were). The latest example of this is to be found in the latest Sunday Times, which advocates making children learn poetry by rote, and included a list of poems that should be learnt. The list included Wordsworth’s autobiographical work “The Prelude”, a book I know something of having been put to it for ‘A’ level. I am not an expert on this, having got a very moderate English grade after spending a couple of terms in hospital: I do know, however, that it is very, very long. The good old internet (invented after the standards had slipped so woefully) confirms that the “The Prelude” is 7882 lines long. The problem could be that the Sunday Times’ experts had never read the book, or never met a child, but it has to be one or the other. The only institutions that value such heroic feats of memory are Islamic madrassas – it’s how you become a hafiz – and we know of their contribution to the modern world.
To repeat. I am in favour of rising standards in education, and (another debate, I know) I do think that general knowledge is a part of high standards. I am often shocked by the brainless replies of radio & TV quiz contestants. Have we really got to a stage where (after conferring) a team agrees that the Mona Lisa was painted by Picasso ? Indeed we have. But I recall a recent edition of University Challenge where teams of four could not name the Prime Minister at the time of the 1929 Great Crash, thought Delft was in Northern Ireland and believed Herschel worked in the twentieth century. Oh, perhaps I need to add that this was a celebrity edition, with teams of (yep) middle aged journalists and politicos representing their former institutions. There are many ways to approach raising educational levels, but nostalgia isn’t one of them.