Where is your spleen?
This week I started my lectures on Ancient History to first year students. Following a tradition invented by one of my colleagues 20 years ago, I kicked off the very first lecture by handing round a skeletal map of the Mediterranean – and asked them to mark several key places (including Athens, Sparta, Troy, Crete, Rome and Pompeii). The results are collected in for scrutiny, but entirely anonymously. No names are required,.
The idea is to demonstrate to the freshers that they really do need to get an atlas out before they start sounding off about the Peloponnesian War, or whatever. The accuracy this year was no better or worse than usual. Most of the my 100 or so clever first years could place Rome and Pompeii, but Sparta wandered dangerously (from time to time popping up in modern Turkey) while Alexandria was a mystery to many, and one at least appeared not to know that Crete was an island. Are they pulling my leg I wondered….?
Over the decades this little exercise has given the new students a wonderful feeling of shared ignorance. The dons on the other hand have enjoyed shaking their heads at the very idea that a student with straight (classical) As at A level still doesn’t know where Sparta is.
We don’t of course blame the students -- but the government or the national curriculum. Our students are, we believe, the crème de la crème. The trouble is that they have been let down by the “system” before they came to us. (Better not to ask if we, aged just 18, could have marked Alexandria on a map … but that’s another story)
For centuries, dons have combined a loving over-commitment to their students with a rhetoric that deplores the ignorance of those they are teaching. The “can-you-believe that-they-have-never-heard-of-Pericles?” line is one of the most primitive and powerful of all donnish bonding rituals.
This struck me very strongly this week when I rushed from that first year lecture to steal an hour of work in the University Library. I was there to look up some of the pamphlets of the 1860s written at the height of Victorian debates about what should or should not be taught in schools and universities. If anyone now thinks that education is over-politicized, they should try the nineteenth century. Those Victorian gurus debated even more furiously than our own the rights and wrongs of the curriculum. And they were just as ready to blame the “government”.
I found myself reading a tract by Robert Lowe (Chancellor of the Exchequer immediately before Gladstone), denouncing the tyranny of Latin and Greek over the school syllabus. He lingered, like me, to think of what the crème de la crème did not know – because, in his view, they had been kept to a narrow classical path:
“I will now give you a catalogue of things which a highly educated man may be in total ignorance of.” he wrote. “He probably will know nothing of the anatomy of his own body. He will have not the slightest idea of the difference between the arteries and the veins, and he may not know whether the spleen is placed on the right or the left side of his spine. He may have no knowledge of the simplest truths of physics and would not be able to explain the barometer or thermometer.”
Sounds familiar? My first thought was to get a new questionnaire up for next week to see how my students did on these central issues of basic science. Until I realised that I would be hard pressed myself to say on which side of my spine my spleen lay. In fact it was probably the likes of me (though you would have to change the gender) that Lowe had in mind.
As these Victorians saw, there is an issue here not just about what facts people should know, but about what education is for, and who is responsible for it. Our generation tends to think that we are the first to have wondered about this. Far from it.