Why does the state take an interest in education? The prevailing view, at least since the end of the last war, has been that the state takes an interest in education because it is the right of every child to receive it. Hence the state becomes the universal provider, and as such must treat all its dependents equally, and make no special favours on grounds of wealth, talent or social status.
From this, by a kind of creeping egalitarianism, we edge towards the conclusion that the state must make no distinctions, that children should not be sorted by their abilities and aptitudes, and that even exams should be downgraded or at least not made to look as though they were the final goal. When it comes to schooling, the educationists add, we, the experts, are bound to be better informed than the parents, who should feel no qualms in surrendering their children to the beneficent care of a state that acts always on our wise advice.
The assumption has been, in other words, that education exists for the sake of the child. In my view the state takes an interest in education only because it has another and more urgent interest in something else — namely knowledge. Knowledge is a benefit to everyone, including those who do not and cannot acquire it. How many of our citizens could build a nuclear power station, judge a case in Chancery, read a grant of land in mediaeval Latin, conduct a Mozart concerto, solve an equation in aerodynamics, repair a railway engine? We don’t need to have the knowledge ourselves, provided there are others, the experts, who possess it. And the more we outsource our memory and information to our iPhones and laptops, the more those experts are needed. If that is so, then the state must ensure that education, however available and however distributed, will reproduce our store of knowledge, and if possible add to it.
There may come a time when children and their teachers cease to hear about the Dark Ages. People may then no longer understand that knowledge can be lost as well as gained, as our store of knowledge was lost for 400 years, before being slowly and painfully recuperated. Here, it seems to me, is where the educationists have misled us. The state, they have told us, has a duty towards each child, and no child must be made to feel inferior to any other. Although that is true, the state has another and greater duty which is a duty towards us all — namely, the duty to conserve the knowledge that we need, which can be passed on only with the help of the children able to acquire it.