Knowledge is keeping our time-ship afloat;Another Voice;Opinion

19th February 1999 at 00:00
When my father was terminally ill, because I'm self-employed I had the privilege of being able to make the time to be with him during his frequent stays in hospital.

It was a teaching hospital. As in the endless television medical dramas flocks of young doctors assembled around my father's bed being taught by Mr Big, the consultant. He asked them questions - always a little hurriedly, so that the patient would not understand. He needn't have bothered, it was always a flow of medical gobbledegook.

What was extraordinary was how often the trainee doctors did not know the answers, or seemed to get things wrong, despite being prompted by - in my father's case - a very affable consultant.

Were the students ignorant? Then, having a break during a particularly long vigil - they were changing my father's blood, and the transfusions took all day - I was told by a kindly nurse I could get a bite to eat in the hospital's canteen, not usually open to members of the public.

It must have been an exam time. The Formica tables were covered by textbooks opened among the yoghurt pots and greasy plates. Students were questioning each other, rehearsing catechisms of the body, its ills and treatments, with a chant-like rhythm.

It hit me forcibly that an extraordinary thing was happening in the hospital. A massive body of knowledge and experience had to be transmitted every year, year in and year out.

It was also always picking up research and discoveries in medicine to teach. The hospital was like a vast library of know-how, time-travelling. It had been on its voyage since the Renaissance in the 16th century, when Paracelsus began modern medical practice in Frankfurt.

Then came the frightening thought: this could be lost. To do a routine operation, taking out tonsils, let alone transplanting a kidney, needs a transmission of complex knowledge. Students and teachers put themselves through horrendously rigorous training needed to acquire it and to continuously pass it on.

We should not take it for granted that the transmission will always happen. Knowledge can be lost, the time-ship that carries medical knowledge can founder; lose one generation of medical teaching and we would be dying of appendicitis again.

As with medical practice, so with the arts. It is not easy to play a violin. You have to be taught, you have, indeed, to be able to get your hands on a violin in the first place. The Berlin Philharmonic and our own Birmingham Symphony, or Alfred Brendel's glorious playing of Beethoven's piano sonatas, do not spring out of nowhere. It takes a teaching culture for players to reach such standards even if they are, like Brendel, of the stature of a genius.

Sir Simon Rattle, in his fiery advocacy of universal music education, makes the point that because the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, has told schools they will not be assessed or inspected on the national curriculum programmes of study in music, it will inevitably be cut.

"Most teachers," Sir Simon argued in a TES interview last year, "are overworked and underpaid and have been told they are crap for years, so it is hardly surprising if they welcome any reduction in their workload."

Sir Simon's anger is, I suspect, driven by the very real fear that the transmission of knowledge will be broken and the music schools will empty because state schools do not encourage music.

When I hear people attack opera, I think "Don't worry. The way things are going with the arts in our culture we soon won't have singers or players capable of singing Mozart or Wagner."

This alarm is widespread, as the group planning Radio Einstein, a station to be devoted unashamedly to propagating the best in high culture and the arts, is finding out. A coalition is forming to back the idea across the boundaries of left and right.

I must admit, however, that I had to rub my eyes when I opened the New Statesman and read George Walden, a Tory ex-minister of education, praising Radio Einstein by quoting the French Marxist guru Pierre Bourdieu: "In fact I am defending the conditions necessary for the production and diffusion of the highest human creations."

The great theatre of Epidaurus, in Greece, was constructed in the third century BC as a shrine dedicated to Assclepius, Apollo's son, the patron god of doctors. The theatre was part of a hospital complex.

You attended the play, then slept in the hospital where, in dreams inspired by the drama you had seen, the god appeared and whispered your cure to you. Not exactly NHS treatment, but the coalition of so many different-minded people around Radio Einstein is driven by a shared conviction: that our dumbing-down, market-driven culture is sickly and that the arts are essential to the public health of our democracy.

Howard Brenton is a dramatist and author of 'The Romans in Britain' and 'Pravda' (with David Hare)

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