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The BBC’s adaptation of Howards End, starting at 9pm tonight, is sure to be more than a niche period drama. For this novel speaks to us now just as pointedly as it spoke to England in 1910.  It was written for a nation where the opportunities of global expansion, business and material growth seemed to dominate – and for a society too busy to value anything else.  Sound familiar?

Male office worker eating lunch at computer

Office worker eating lunch at computer — Image by © David Burton/Corbis

If so, then pay close attention as E.M. Forster’s novel unfolds on the small screen.  It shows a cultural void that was opening then, and is even wider now.  For in a society that allows itself to value nothing more than commercialism, and interprets success in that light, human existence becomes grey and empty of what really matters for human flourishing.  And it happens without us noticing.  The cultured character Margaret Schlegel complains how easy it is to get sucked into the mindset: “I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin.”  Margaret sees the danger and can avoid it, because her eyes are open to greater things.  She was lucky to receive through her education “a heritage that may expand gradually,” helping transcend the world’s utilitarian hurry.

Others are not so lucky, and in one particular character we should see a timely warning.  Leonard Bast is a tragedy of frustration. He senses that there must be more to life than work.  Yet, unversed in culture and ideas, he cannot put this sense into words. He desperately turns too late to self-education, but only fills his brain ‘with the husks of books’, unable to ‘go to the real thing’.  He continues a dull life, unfulfilled in spirit and ultimately rejected by a society that values utilitarian means and material outcomes.

Leonard could have been saved from a dreary existence – if only he had been educated earlier and deeper in what matters. Too late in life, he finally seeks culture and ideas to “push his head out of the grey waters and see the universe,” but “with an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women who had been reading steadily from childhood?  His brain might be full of names, he might even have heard of Monet and Debussy; the trouble was that he could not string them together into a sentence, he could not make them ‘tell’.” It is not enough for education to help us achieve outward, material comfort. It must improve the inner life too.

Thus E.M. Forster reminds us of the importance of an education full of meaningful art, moving literature, inspirational history, enlightening science.  Through which “by collisions of this trivial sort the heavens may be shaken open.” This is the kind of schooling promoted by liberal educator Matthew Arnold.  He wrote in Culture and Anarchy that students should know “on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” With this basic literacy of ideas and culture, they are free to flourish in personal as well as economic life.  They can avoid the fate that Forster warns us about: that of the businessman who is “eternally tired.  He has worked very hard all his life, and noticed nothing.” Or worse, the grey existence of Leonard Bast, “one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit.” And while we are at it: the fact that all this can be explored through the medium of a century-old novel surely proves the mind-expanding potential of a liberal education.

We have already seen that Leonard did not receive any of this.  Worse, today’s youngsters are not getting it either.  Our state education system seems completely caught up in the utilitarian hurry that Forster described in Edwardian England, and that we see all around us in the computerised information age.  It is at all levels implicitly directed towards material ends.  Parents, Ofsted and government understandably expect students to reach their academic potential as a preparation for gainful employment.  This expectation is enforced by the influence of league tables on parental choice, and the power of Ofsted to damage a school’s reputation or even to put it in special measures. School leaders therefore cannot afford to ignore what is measured: examination data.  And so they gear the entire school machine to ensure this data shows progress. In many schools, teachers’ jobs depend on the performance of their students at GCSE and A-Level.  Whatever their personal ambitions to enhance general flourishing, teachers find themselves forced by circumstance to point all their time and effort at exam proficiency.  And the eventual goal of all this?  The reductive, utilitarian push towards employment is inescapable.

The difference between these two approaches is subtle. A utilitarian history lesson on the Peasants’ Revolt might still include a dramatic narrative to pick out the most exciting moments. Maybe pupils will get to enjoy John Ball’s revolutionary speech in full, asking “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” But they will too quickly have to turn to analysing the mark scheme at every point, practising the skills of source analysis, or re-writing parts of their last essay in green pen to prove to a senior observer that examinable progress has been made. Adding more or wider knowledge is not valued in itself as precious and life enhancing – only insofar as it will gain more marks.  In many schools it will not be valued very highly at all: in the most ‘progressive’ classrooms, ‘teacher talk’ is frowned upon. Students are encouraged to discover information (inevitably less effectively) for themselves, or have it imparted in roundabout ways designed to develop generalised skills. Young people might be better prepared for the workplace this way, but it comes at the cost of a deeper and more coherent grasp of the web of humanity.

Not to say that examination grades are unimportant. But they should not be the goal. We can see a good analogy of this in the way Leonard Bast tries desperately to make meaningful conversation, but succeeds only in naming books and authors. He knows the minimum to get by, but has such a generally impoverished general understanding that he cannot grapple with the writers’ ideas.  “No disrespect to these great names.  The fault is ours, not theirs.  They mean us to use them for signposts, and are not to blame if, in our weakness, we mistake the signpost for the destination.”  In our weakness, we have fetishised measurable exam outcomes so much that grades are now the destination. In fact, they would be better seen as signposts, to signal a certain standard on the route to a full education in the things that matter.

In their hurry to signal exam competence to future employers, today’s students “collect facts… but which of them will rekindle the light within?”  They are at best only vaguely aware of ‘the best which has been thought and said’: the great human conversation through the ages. They are likely to finish their schooling ready for employment, but grasping unaided for deeper personal fulfilment. For as long as we continue to treat exam grades and employment as the primary goal of education, we risk creating a whole generation of Leonard Basts.