One of the things which we can explore

Sir Alec Clegg, then Chief Education Officer of the West Riding of Yorkshire, giving the presidential address to the Association of Chief Education Officers in 1965, asked whether localities going comprehensive should retain direct grant schools when their grammar schools disappeared. He said:

If we believe that it is a good thing to get rid of selection for the 20 per cent who go to the grammar schools but to retain selection for the top 2 per cent or 3 per cent of the ability range and we think this should be done on principle, we should say so, stating the principle. I must say that personally I should deplore it if we did this because it might induce a vicious kind of cramming in the junior schools, because I dislike intensely the exaltation of the intellect above other great manifestations of the human spirit which seems to me a twentieth century disease and because I don’t care for the Führerprinzip.

I do not want to comment directly on this. What interests me is that, whether or not the intellect has been over-valued in the twentieth century and since, there are surely two ways of putting an intellect through its paces and any over-valuation may well come from emphasising one at the expense of the other. We can undertake a slow march through a body of knowledge that simply has to be learned or we can have, to borrow a title of Whitehead’s, “adventures of ideas”; and the latter is likely to appeal to people left cold by the former. The novelist Joyce Stranger once complained that although we all want to encourage children to acquire a habit of reading, too often reading is presented to them as “a chore to be fostered as a sort of daily do your stint”. Reading is not alone in this: academic work has all too often been given the same treatment.

On the other hand Conrad Russell, in a radio tribute to C V Wedgwood, once said that he became a historian because he enjoyed exploring and “her books taught me that the past was one of the things which I could explore.” Although in many languages “history” and “story” have the same word, I believe that exploration of the past is a better root metaphor for the subject. For one thing it subsumes the story aspect: explore the past thoroughly and you will have a sense of the story, you will have covered the body of knowledge. And the exploration is enjoyable in a way that mere coverage is not.

Now archives are par excellence material for exploration. They encode the events of the past in a different way from the narrative history derived from them – I intend some time to examine the nature of the difference – and we explore their often disjointed ways in order to construct a whole. It is our search for integration.


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