AT THE BEGINNING of each new school and college year, there is now an almost ritual cry to get "back to basics." It is exactly the kind of cry that will not help us. I am all for the "basics," understand; it is the "back to" that worries me. When a traditional value has been abandoned -- in this case, drilling a child into the ability to read, write and count -- it cannot be recovered by just going back to it. There has been a break with the past; we cannot rejoin ourselves to it with a few staples.
Unless we understand this, there will be disappointment. Discipline in the schools will be reasserted. Grades will be stiffened again. Children will be reminded that the Three Rs consist of rules. Here and there some progress will be made. A young mind will be rescued from its natural waywardness, and from its deterioration into little more than stupor. But generally the effort will fail. People will conclude that there is indeed nothing to be done, and the public schools will be left to rot once more.
If the social critic can perform any useful function it is to resist every new faddishness. Lord Hailsham once put it another way. The task of the philosophical conservation is to extract the truth which lies in each succeeding heresy, he said; and there is perhaps no area in which the temper of the philosophical conservative is more needed than in education. But there can be as much faddishness in the cry to get back to basics as there was in the cry to get rid of them.
The fad which governed so many educational experiments in the past few decades was the inane idea that the purpose of education is to enable the child to express itself. One of the unfortunate results of this could be seen on the refrigerator doors of most kitchens. One went from home to home and there were virtually the same daubs of untutored infants, stuck to the refrigerators with magnets, and one lined up with other adults to admire them as if we were all tourists at the Louvre.
Child psychologists took them with an awful seriousness. Piaget clapped his hands at them with his own childish wonder, and almost everyone thought that they must clap their hands with Piaget. I was once forced by one of his disciples to watch a film of Piaget. I have seldom been so bored in my life. Of children's paintings and poems one may say that, except to the parents, when you have seen one you have seen them all. Aren't children beautiful, adults simpered aloud, haven't they beautiful souls? Children can indeed be beautiful, in their own appealing but limited way, but they do not know how to paint. Their pictures and poems are basically alike because their personalities have as yet very little to express.
Eventually this fad was summarized in the phrase "learning experience," which my own observation tells me may now be on its way out. Clearly one will talk of a learning experience only if one has abandoned the more stringent notion of learning. A learning experience can be anything which anyone chooses to say is one. Life might be described as a learning experience. But school is not life, and is not meant to be. One goes to school not to experience but to be taught. A learning experience can be had without teachers, whereas to learn one must be taught.
One has to be taught, for one thing, how to seize what one learns, and build it into oneself. A learning experience is usually no more than the gentle lapping of the sea over one's consciousness; being taught and so ready to learn will sometimes be like an ocean pounding in storm at a sea wall. If the sea wall gives way, then it will have to be rebuilt. I once had the occasion to be the object, so to speak, in as great an example of teaching as I have known.
Among three cardiac defects with which I was born, my heart has a hole in it; it leaks when it pumps, and so has to pump harder than most hearts. It also makes peculiar noises which make cardiologists get very excited. I once went for a checkup by a great cardiologist at one of the teaching hospitals in London. He listened and looked very pleased, and asked if he could teach his class over my outstretched body, an invitation which I found irresistible.
The students came one by one to listen with their ears and feel with their fingers. The cardiologist told them to "rely on your ears and your fingers. Use the stethoscope only after that. Use the machines only to confirm." One by one the students stood up at their desks to say what they thought was wrong with my heart. One of them muttered something about a hole between the left auricle and right ventricle -- or whatever it was -- and the cardiologist turned to the rest of the class with all the contempt he could muster. He was a very gruss Scot, rather like James Robertson Justice, and he pointed witheringly to the one student. "How can you be such a loon as to make that diagnosis. Come up and use your ears and fingers on the patient again."
The student examined me once more. He returned to his desk. "Do you now have a sensible diagnosis to make?" The student stood up, and repeated his first suggestion. I raised my head to watch the cardiologist. He turned to the class again, and James Robertson Justice was never more withering. "Not only is Mr. . . . a loon in his diagnosis, he is a loon enough to stick to it when he had a second chance. It so happens that he is, gentlemen, the only one of you who is right."
That was teaching. Thumping the thing in. Not least of all, Thumping in what it means to learn, what it means to be taught. He showed my hole to his students on the X-ray. "No' a big one, gentlemen, but a hole. And you could ha' found it wi' your ear." By this time I felt elevated but forgotten. "What about me?" I asked at last, as he dismissed his class. "Och, you! . . . " -- he seemed to have difficulty in recalling me -- "Och, you! . . . You had better be a wee bit careful wi' that hole. Avoid sudden and violent exercise. But dinna fash yoursel' overmuch. You're as strong as an ox . . . Good morning, sir."
The cry to get back to basics is a cry to get away from the learning experience and back to teaching. But it cannot be done simply by bringing back the old rule books. There kinds of authority have to be restored before the rules can be taught well again. The life of education is no more only in them than the life of a language is only in a dictionary.
First, the authority of teaching must be restored: the authority of teaching, not of the teacher. You cannot simply say to the teacher, "Exert your authority again," if the authority of the function is not accepted. The whole society has to believe that there is a function of teaching in a school which is quite unlike that of any other kind of teaching in the home or elsewhere. Children are sent to school to have things drummed into them.
One of my daughters once came home full of complaint about her first experience of school in America. I asked her what was wrong. "They want us to be happy at school," she said. "I thought one was meant to be happy at home, and to be made unhappy at school." Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings! In her 8-year-old words, she had uttered a truth. The authority of the teacher is not just a matter of discipline; it depends on acknowledging that all school teaching is a form of pressure on the child.
Linked to the authority of teaching is an acknowledgement of the authority of the subject. We cannot expect the teacher to teach unless we believe that each subject is a body of knowledge, which we cannot tamper with without draining all vitality from it, and among which the student cannot be allowed to pick his or her own way in selecting what to study. Any elective cirriculum is a denial of the authority which any subject has in itself if it is to be worth teaching at all.
You cannot teach ancient history by not teaching ancient history; and by teaching instead some woolly interdisciplinary "overview" of ancient history which makes it seem relevant. The subject is there, formed over years, and we cannot make rags of it. What is more, it is only when a subject is allowed its authority that it is able to excite.
Behind both of these is the authority of the civilization. We cannot hope to get back to basics if we do not believe that those basics are transmitting a civilization and its culture which are of infinite value. The reasons for learning grammar are not only to think clearly and then state clearly what one has to say. We learn grammar also because it puts us in touch with the past. The remarkable constructions of the English language are a history lesson in themselves which we can use every day.
Someone once pointed out that the word "civilized" is derived from the word in Greek which means "tamed . . . cultivated . . . grafted." He went on to say that "the civilized man is the grafted man"; he grafts himself with what his civilization teaches. Wtihout such a belief in the grafted man, the return to basics will be like a plant in a breeze, waving this way and that and meaning nothing. There are no basics to go "back to" if they are without their taproot.
Our civilization is the anvil. Teaching is the hammer. Put the student in between, and let him be forged: As my daughter said, let him be unhappy as he is taught. Then the basics will look after themselves, and how glad the student will be later in life.