Time to come back to earth

14th September 2001 at 01:00
"A REGROUNDED education system is absolutely essential," said writer Kenneth White in his brilliant Consignia Lecture at the Edinburgh Book Festival last month. What did he mean?

For White, modernity is finished. That means "the end of the age of mastery of man over nature" which started with Descartes but has dwindled into platitude and inanity (the mass media) punctuated by moments of catastrophe (Auschwitz, Chernobyl). This is, fundamentally, a problem of culture: the way the human being relates to the earth and thereby "makes a world".

So, in his "remapping of Scotland", White looked at the land itself in a remarkably visual evocation of its ancient volcanic ground rock, overlaid by sediment formed out of world river systems, petrified tropical forests and upheavals of oceanic mudbeds. Keep in vital contact with this earth-ground and a great culture could evolve.

He was indicating a larger sense of time and space, and a mind as complex as this landscape but also simple, clear and hard in its outlines. He raised the examples of "reality-thinkers" such as Duns Scotus or those philosophical adventurers in the geographies and economies of the world, the "wandering Scots". This is a huge field, but you could say that White restores a sense of content to the vacuous endgame of contemporary "culture".

So, does Scottish education inhabit the high terrain or does it, too, veer between platitude and catastrophe? The answer is obvious. Over the past 30 years all the energy in the system has been spent on structural technicalities, especially assessment systems. Content has found itself so squeezed that there barely remains any of serious worth.

Outdoor education? Disappeared. History? The study of catastrophes not enlightenments. English? Ten tired texts across the whole of Scotland. Languages? Too "difficult". Geology? Not taught in the country that invented it. Art and music? Marginalised. Physical education? A series of games. Social education? The same weary and limiting topics every year.

Great growth, though, in computing and business studies. But what, in the fundamental cultural context, are these subjects for? For "globalisation" perhaps. And globalisation - think of our politicians - prefers platitude.

Genuine global culture will begin with the study of the local and emanate out to Europe and the world in concentric circles. Like the earth-making seismic movements evoked by Kenneth White, a leading Scoto-European exponent of the type of really radical thinking we badly need.

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