Thursday, December 04, 2008

Culture is not a barometer of education

Over on The Times Online comment section, Tim de Lisle argues that attendance at cultural events and institutions is proof that we're not "dumbing down" in education.

The evidence is all around us that intellectual standards are rising and that we shouldn't believe the doom-mongers.

Our appetite for culture is growing. Last week Malcolm Gladwell, a successful journalist and author but hardly a household name, gave a pair of talks at a West End theatre to promote his new book. He charged up to £25 for tickets and sold out. A writer was being treated like a rock star.

De Lisle misses the point entirely. In fact, so many seem to miss the point of this that I wonder if it is deliberate? The point is this - nobody is suggesting that today's young people are any more or less intelligent or curious than they were 30, 40 or 50 years ago. What we are suggesting - and what is quite apparent - is that we are not teaching them as well as we did 30,40 or 50 years ago.

De Lisle seems to think that more people going to cultural events is evidence of growing intelligence - but is it? First of all, you'd have to carry out a significant survey of the demographics at each event to ascertain who is going to these events. Malcolm Gladwell may have sold out his tickets, but so do The Rolling Stones and most of those who go to see them are over 50!

You could equally argue - and I do - that rising attendance at cultural events is actually evidence of dumbing down. Starved of culture in schools and universities; fed up with the poor coverage given on the mainstream media such as television it is natural for those who have that curiosity to explore high culture to search for it elsewhere.

There is no doubt that education standards have declined - but that is not the same as saying that people today are more stupid than they used to be. What it is saying is that we are not making the most of the talented young people that are obviously out there and if we are to halt the decline of this nation that has to change.

Importantly, though, there are plenty of morons who love opera and countless intellectuals who love pop music - there are plenty of people like me who are neither morons nor intellectuals who enjoy both. An appreciation of high culture is not evidence of intelligence. To suggest otherwise is outright snobbery.

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