Wednesday, 6 April 2011
The Tyranny of Relevance
The reason I stayed in Sheffield was because of the Leeds Salon continuing debate on the subject of this post. Leeds was coming to Sheffield on Monday night. The discussion was strongly led by David Bowden of The Institute of Ideas, the speakers being Michael Schmidt, Michele Ledda and myself, each of us speaking for some 7 minutes, then launching out on a discussion.
The relevance to what? might be the first question, though by this time I had understood that the subject was really education and the place within it of the arts, particularly poetry. But MS started by talking about the relevance of poetry to public affairs and, inevitably, Auden's line in his In Memoriam W B Yeats poem about poetry making nothing happen, the suggestion being that poetry's relevance was not quite in the public field: the poet does not have a message as such.
My first task then was to be relevant to MS's statement with which I was broadly in agreement while pointing out instances where poetry did make things happen - the revolutionary poets of the nineteenth century, particularly in Europe, and my part of Europe above all. I also mentioned that while Auden said that poetry makes nothing happen, he qualified it by saying it was a way of happening.
Michele kicked us off into the proper subject with a properly considered set of points, chiefly reflecting on various government statements - in fact rather more the last government then this one - on the importance of all school subjects being relevant to jobs, economics, and the needs of industry (citing Estelle Morris, among others. And indeed it is Michael Gove who recently used the term 'the tyranny of relevance' to suggest the importance of traditional subjects, including Latin and so forth. John Carey might have been the very first, thoughy Michael had a claim on it too.
I think Michele is probably regretting some of the same losses as Gove, though possibly for different reasons. It is not because he wants any specific form of school revived, but that the importance of the humanities and of the difficult arts should be at the core of our values. But if he reads this he might correct me.
The discussion then responded to Michele, which was as it should have been. I wish Michele had started so as to focus us earlier. MS has what I imagine is an Arnoldian view. He is looking for a broad education in which the arts have no special place but are part of a good overarching culture. I have a more redemptionist view of the arts, if only because I myself was redeemed by art and poetry so, as James Brown cries, I have seen the light. My approach is less institutional than MS's probably is. I like the idea of appealing to the poetic instinct over and above the institution, perhaps even counter to it. I suspect MS believes in the higher possibilities of the institution.
Much of this is instinctive and we can both quote good back up sources. Michele is looking to fix this properly in educational philosophy and theory, an I imagine he'll keep beating at those doors. There are libertarian principles there, and he is keen on Füredi.
The audience grew into the debate with some passion. One young man told us how too early contact with Macbeth ruined his life. Another woman talked of educating her own children, and how one of them, twelve year old, adored Dryden. Yet another spoke of having taught in schools for several years and of the loss she felt in terms of language and literature in her last years of teaching. Someone referred to Oakeshott and tried to keep us on the straight and narrow. There is nothing particularly straight or narrow to be had here, I suspect
Then off to the Showroom for a drink and a bite, and more talk with Anne and Peter Sansom and MS and Michele. Then I walk home to the hotel up a fairly straight and narrow road as it happens.