Friday, 27 March 2009

Don't Tell Oslo!

There is an excellent piece by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian today, inspired by the opening of the British Museum’s new medieval gallery. In it, Jenkins, winner earlier this year of our Trustees’ Award, tackles the scandal of our museum’s hidden treasures, locked away in basements and storerooms, as well as the complexities of loaning items out to museums in countries that have a claim on a particular item; most famously, the Elgin Marbles. Following in the footsteps of Melina Mercouri, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond is seeking the return of the Lewis Chessmen, inspiration of Noggin the Nog and centrepiece of the new gallery. Jenkins points out that they are in fact Norwegian. Don’t tell Oslo or they might stop sending us the Christmas tree.

Jenkins, nuanced, original and provocative, is plainly the product of a very good education. In his case, Mill Hill School and St John’s College, Oxford. His erudition has been placed in the service of the public, through his books, columns, and now as chairman of the National Trust, with its 3 miilion plus members. Ed Balls also received an outstanding education – Nottingham High School, Keble College, Oxford and a Kennedy scholarship at Harvard – but one wishes his mother and father (who once taught at Eton) had saved their money. The Education Minister, sorry, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, seems determined to reduce our children to blithering idiots with attention spans of goldfish. That is unless their parents can afford private education, tutors to get their children into one of the few remaining grammar schools or, often the most expensive option of all, buy a house in the catchment area of a comprehensive school that works. He appears to think that our children are more in need of lessons in technological fads, of which Twitter is the latest and soon to be outmoded by necessity, than in history (or science, maths, English, foreign languages etc). In the immortal words of another clown, Eric Morecambe, the man’s a fool. I personally couldn’t care less whether our children study Churchill or not. I would prefer them to tackle classical or medieval history, or the history of south-east Asia. But without a knowledge of history, one becomes a very passive citizen. Perhaps that is the plan. It is not one we can afford.

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