The real case for independent schools
Society needs an educated elite, insists Roger Scruton, and the best way to achieve that is to take the child out of the equation to instead focus on what’s important: the transmission of knowledge
In the conditions in which we in Britain now live, it is undeniable that education at an independent school is a privilege, secured as a rule by those who can pay for it, and not available to all. And our prevailing culture is one in which privileges are frowned upon, especially if they are earned by wealth rather than by hard work or talent. Moreover, education has been absorbed into national policy, to be regarded as a right of the child rather than a duty of the parent; the assumption is therefore that education should be available to all in the same way and to the same effect, and that the one provider is the state.
Undeniably, the existence of independent schools – which enjoy substantial budgets delivered by parents who can afford the fees, and are able to employ the best teachers – is going to offend the egalitarian temper of our times. The education provided by such schools is not merely a privilege, but one that disadvantages those who do not possess it. It ensures that pupils leaving independent schools confront opportunities that are open to them, but not to the remainder.
Whatever we think of those arguments, they are now deeply embedded in the political culture and cannot be shrugged off. As a result, the real case for independent initiatives in education is seldom made.
There are those who defend independent education on the grounds of freedom. To prevent people from associating for an educational purpose, they argue, merely because the result is to confer an advantage on the people involved, is to strike a blow at the heart of society. The freedom to associate for purposes of our own is fundamental to our civil liberties: in the US, it is guaranteed by the constitution; and in the UK, it is deeply rooted in the jurisprudence of the common law. To withdraw that freedom merely because it confers a privilege is to rely on an argument that might be applied to virtually all the advantages of society. The result would be an intolerable tyranny.
Powerful though that argument is, it does not, to my mind, get to the heart of the matter. It does not consider what is so special about education; we should be both wary of forbidding it and anxious to make it available as widely as we can. Those who worry about the unequal benefit think only of the benefit to the child. The argument that education is a child’s right focuses on this feature, so it emphasises equality. Focusing instead on the interests of the parent opens the way to another conception: “My duty towards my children is a duty to them as individuals. They are my responsibility and I am obliged to do what is best for them. If this means spending money on their education, then that is what I must do”. The fact that some parents can spend more than others surely cannot affect the moral argument, which assumes that we are all under a duty to do what we can for those who depend on us.
From this point of view, independent education arises from a natural duty. Even if the schools were all in the hands of the state and devoted to treating their pupils equally, parents would still have the duty to use their money and influence to do what was best for their children. And that might mean paying for extra education. You could prevent this from happening, but only by making it a crime to associate for an educational purpose unless in an institution controlled by the state. To go down this route would be to move towards a totalitarian conception of the relation between the citizen and the state.
But even that argument does not, in my view, get to the heart of the matter. Children have an interest in education, yes. Their parents have an interest in education, yes. But there are two other interests that we must consider: those of society and of knowledge. Society needs an educated elite, and there is a question about how best to produce such a thing.
‘Child-centred’ is flawed
It could be that, in our efforts to give every child an equal chance, we impede the flow of talent to the top. But society depends on that flow. It needs the bar, the judiciary, the civil service, the diplomatic corps, the teaching profession, and all those professions must recruit the people who have the most to offer. How do the people whom we need at the top get there? That is an extremely complex question that can be answered only by exploring the motives and the social circumstances that impede or advance the desire of children to learn and the desire of adults to teach them.
Independent schools, with an ethos of their own, have evolved in response to those desires. They embody knowledge of the learning process that cannot be easily taught from scratch. Over the past two centuries, they have proved themselves able to produce an educated elite that saw us through bad times, during which we were challenged to compete in all fields – intellectual, military, ethical and economic. And that elite has proved decisive for our national survival.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the interest of knowledge, which is the one most important thing at risk in all our educational experiments. Knowledge is an intrinsic value that cannot be weighed in terms of cost and benefit. It is the value on which civilisations are built and to which, as Aristotle said, our faculties naturally aspire.
Education involves the transmission of knowledge, and knowledge is often lost in the attempt. Educationalists influenced by Rousseau and Dewey have insisted in recent times on the rights of the child, emphasising “child-centred” teaching – that is, teaching that engages with the interests and abilities of those who as yet have no education. But there is precious little evidence that such a method of teaching succeeds in the main goal, which is not about the interests of the child at all, but about the transmission of knowledge. Knowledge not transmitted is knowledge lost. And regardless of whether the knowledge transmitted is – or thought to be – useful, it creates a duty that lies on all of us to see that it is preserved and, if possible, amplified.
In any case, we cannot know in advance which bits of knowledge will be the most useful in the ongoing march of history. Latin, Greek and ancient history, condemned for their futility by all the progressives of the Victorian period, turned out to be exactly what was needed in the task of governing an empire acquired in a “fit of absence of mind”. How else do you prepare yourself to govern countries with competing gods, strange languages and a tribal conception of obligations than by studying the only civilisations that have been able to write the matter down?
Conversely, the crazy mathematicians of the time, such as Boole, seemed to their classicist contemporaries to be lost in futile problems about nothing: what hangs on knowing the contours of the empty set or the sequence of transfinite cardinals? In fact, this wonderful store of knowledge turned out to be exactly what was needed by the science of computation.
Knowledge over politics
It is not necessary to labour the point. But it is important, nevertheless, to insist on the conditions in which new knowledge is acquired and old knowledge conserved. Cooperation, free enquiry and the right to choose the students and assistants with which to collaborate are all necessary, and when it comes to teaching, the natural right of knowledge is to choose the brain that can contain it rather than those provided by the state. It is surely one of the advantages of independent education that it can make the space for that brain, through scholarships, subsidies and the facilities provided by people who realise that knowledge is more important, in the end, than politics. The interest of knowledge might sometimes require setting aside the demand for equality in favour of the right of teachers to decide who their pupils should be.
In conclusion, let me say this: I am a teacher. I have acquired much knowledge, and I long to impart that knowledge. But, after a lifetime of struggling against egalitarian prejudice, I have decided that I can impart my knowledge only to volunteers. Conscripts are a total waste of time. Whether I make a sacrifice by offering my knowledge gratis, or they make one in paying for it, the important thing is that the deal is a free transaction in which the state plays no part. My duty is to impart the stuff in my head; the privilege of my pupils is to absorb it. And so should it be. But the thing that benefits most is neither me nor my students: it is the stuff in my head.
This is one of a series of essays that can be found in The State of Independence: Key Challenges Facing Private Schools Today, edited by Jane Lunnon and David James and published by Routledge. It is available for pre-order at bit.ly/LunnonJamesBook
Sir Roger Scruton is a philosopher and writer
This article originally appeared in the 22 March 2019 issue under the headline “My struggle against egalitarian prejudice”