Stop blurring lines in arts, says Tate

16th February 1996 at 00:00
The Government's chief curriculum adviser, Dr Nicholas Tate, has renewed his attack on relativism with a high-profile plea for a return to the study of "high art" and classical civilisation.

Schubert, he insisted, is worth more attention than Blur; Milton repays better than Mills and Boon; while Vermeer's work is superior to Damien Hirst's pickled sheep.

Having last month blamed society's "moral relativism" for the difficulty that schools face in teaching right from wrong, Dr Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, has moved on to "cultural relativism".

This, he said, is creating a rootless society without a sense of identity. Drawing on the ideas of Matthew Arnold, he called for schools to teach "the best that has been known and thought".

The speech came as he opened SCAA's London conference on "The Curriculum, Culture and Society". He set out four themes, described as "the underlying and unchanging principles which ought to guide us as we think ahead."

The first, he said, was the need to transmit the best what we have inherited: "We are not in the business of simply developing young people's skills, introducing them to 'an array of cultural delights' and then leaving them to make their own cultural choices, as if [such choices] were like one's taste in clothes or food. That would be to reinforce our current sense of rootlessness and confusion of identity."

The school curriculum, he said, should be a force for continuity "as a basis for a living, changing tradition, not to preserve some fossilised version of the past".

Dr Tate said that our sense of culture must be anchored in its classical roots, in European civilisation, and in Christianity. However, he acknowledged that Britain has not always been strong in recognising the value of very different cultures. He said that all students should leave school knowing, for example, that the Chinese were writing sophisticated poetry centuries before Christ.

He concluded by emphasising cultural and moral judgment.

"We should aim to develop in young people a sense that some works of art, music, literature or architecture are more valuable than others. Until recently hardly anyone would have doubted that judgments can and should be made about the intrinsic value of works of art.

"Today, however, cultural education takes place against a different background. The dominant intellectual current is cultural relativism. By this view there are no differences between, say, Schubert's Ave Maria and the latest Blur release, or between Vermeer's view of Delft and a brick wall or dead sheep at the Tate."

He asked schools and educationists to cast aside "romantic and consumerist notions of the individual". Education should be about developing the individual within a community. He also warned against abandoning the written word.

* The national curriculum cannot be used to promote a national identity, according to the Catholic Church's leading education spokesman in Britain.

The Right Rev David Konstant, Bishop of Leeds and chairman of the Catholic Education Service, told the conference that national unity could only be achieved if children were made aware of moral principles and personal responsibility.

"We should encourage unity by developing in our young people a proper understanding of the value of difference and of the need that the individual and society have for each other," he said.

Bishop Konstant went on to say that it might be possible to create a "national moral framework" to help non-church schools. This was proposed last month by Dr Tate.

But the key to teaching morality, said Bishop Konstant, is through example: "If we neglect our inner cities, we should not be surprised if youngsters deface buildings with their graffiti. If we wish to promote moral values in our schools, we have first to live them ourselves, whoever and wherever we are."

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