A Commentary: On Reading Official Reports
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672 ] A Commentary: On Reading Official Reports The New English Weekly, 15 (11 May 1939) 61-62 One of the most interesting, and in a way one of the most profitable forms of reading supplied by the printing presses today is the Report of any Official Commission. Such a Report is the result of periodical meetings, over a space of years, of a number of very busy people, some of whom are probably members of other commissions considering quite different subjects . They take the testimony of numerous selected witnesses, read and circulate amongst themselves innumerable interim reports, obtain a mass of documentation and evidence; and by some miracle, information and opinion is finally combined, boiled down, and arranged (probably by some one especially active and able member) into a large book which is bound in blue, grey or brown paper. Sometimes, as not long ago with the Report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Doctrine,1 the Report is headlined by the penny press and becomes a best-seller; more often there is reason to believe that it is read by nobody but a few specialists and Civil Servants. And a number of people buy copies which they do not read. The Reports which are unread, or unreadable, are sometimes the best reading: apart from one’s satisfaction in reading something which none of one’s acquaintance has thought of reading. Unless they are concerned with affairs in the Church of England, they may, by some obscure channel, lead to something happening. As the members of a commission may not have had the time to get down to fundamentals, and as they may not have enough similarity of outlook to agree if they did; and as their terms of reference generally preclude examination of that network of related problems which embarrasses the philosopher, the assumptions sometimes repay study. The Report of the Consultative Committee on Secondary Education, published by the Board of Education for three and sixpence (a price which only a very large sale could render remunerative) is an important document: it embodies the conclusions at which a body of qualified men and women, under the chairmanship of Sir Will Spens, has been able to arrive after five years’ work under the conditions assigned to them.2 The Committee itself considers the recommendations “far-reaching”: the question is, how far, under such conditions, the recommendations can reach.3 [ 673 A Commentary No one could consider himself entitled to criticise the whole report in detail who had not some experience of the operation of the various types of school under consideration, and some knowledge of the human material that goes into them. To the general reader a great many of the particular suggestions seem wise and right – such as the proposals for making the study of Latin more interesting to the intelligent, as distinguished from the merely linguistically gifted pupil (though I do not see why Latin should not be begun before the age of 12, especially considering the admission that the ability to learn by rote flags after the age of 11). But what interested me was the one question which I do not find answered, and which I do not suppose the terms of reference allowed to be raised: what is all this education for? A useful historical account of the English school system, which forms one section of the Report, reminds us how much more difficult this question has become. In the Middle Ages the answer was simple; when only a small number of persons received any schooling, the purpose was to supply the priesthood and the learned professions. This purpose was still pursued in the sixteenth century, though one remembers that in that century an over-supply of university men (the Report gives a pertinent quotation from Francis Bacon) began to constitute a problem.4 In the nineteenth century the notion of the “liberal education” became dominant, though this “liberal education” served primarily to educate the politicians and the Civil Service, as well as the old learned professions. The Committee insist quite rightly that no sharp distinction between vocational training and liberal education or education for “culture” – ought to be admitted. But in the present age, when we educate everybody, when some culture is supposed to be needed by everybody, when everybody needs a job, and when few can be certain of being able to earn a livelihood by the vocation to which they have been trained, what end have we in view? One cannot go very...