The Barbarians at the Gates


Not so very long after I had left University proudly clutching a degree in Medieval History in my sticky paw, Charles Clarke (the Education Secretary of the time), publicly expressed the view that subjects like Medieval History and Classics were ‘ornamental’ and a waste of public money. The state, he argued, should spend its education budget on subjects that were of ‘clear usefulness’ rather than squander resources on what he saw as academic window-dressing.


That these were the thuggish views of a small-minded barbarian goes without question. Yet this was no one-off. Increasingly over recent decades the assumption amongst policy-makers seems to have been that education is only useful if it serves to prepare the student for employment. The idea of education applying to the whole person- preparing us for Life, and not solely for the world of work- seems to have become unfashionable, and this, I would argue, is a tragedy.


How we educate our young people is a clear indicator of what we value as a society. If we train our children purely for economic performance, it is because that is what we think is of chief importance. If however we value clarity of thought, creativity of expression, and the insight that comes from careful analysis of human experience, we may wish to give them a curriculum that stretches beyond the purely functional.


An education, properly understood, is a training not only in useful skills, but in virtuous habits of mind. It is concerned not so much with the acquisition of skills as with the development of character, and the pursuit of wisdom.


All these thoughts came to mind as I contemplated Education Sunday, which we will celebrate with the Junior and Infant schools this year at St Mary’s on the 9th February.


It seems to me that Education is an important thing to celebrate in church, not least because the education system in this country has its roots so firmly in the life of the Church. Schools grew from monastic communities, and universities and colleges from the necessity to educate priests in Theology – the ‘Queen of Sciences’. The Church was providing education long before the State became involved, and St Mary’s school began its life in the Bolton Chapel of St Mary’s.


Unless we take time in this way to value the education of the whole person, then we stand in danger of being led astray by those who would reduce a human being to a unit of economic productivity, and nothing could stand more contrary to Jesus’ promise of life in all its fullness.


God Bless you all,


Fr Alec.