Citizens: the product of a classical liberal arts education

By Michael Fordham, Assistant Headteacher
By Michael Fordham, Assistant Headteacher

“Nature requires that we should not only be properly employed, but to be able to enjoy leisure honourably”  (Aristotle, Politics, Book 8, Chapter 3).

Educating citizens was a central concern for Greek philosophers, and Aristotle took a clear line on what the purpose of education ought to be. Aristotle’s words can be contrasted sharply with the prevailing currents in twenty-first-century education which place preparation for employment, rather than leisure, as being the driving purpose of education.

We resist this trend at the West London Free School. This is not to say, of course, that employment preparation is not important: we expect every child from the West London Free School to go on to employment training and we are confident that we are preparing children for the world of work. But this is not our overriding mission. Children of today can expect to work into their late 60s or early 70s and as they progress through their careers they will be required to learn new skills and expertise. The few precious years of secondary education are not there to prepare children for the specific skills they need for employment: instead, we are here to provide children with the knowledge of the world that will allow them to lead fulfilling lives.

What might it mean to enjoy leisure honourably? At the West London Free School we would argue that this means having access to knowledge that allows one to make sense of the world in which we live. There are many things that it is helpful to know in order to participate in modern society, and some of those things are easily available to children: the trials and tribulations of Premier League football teams, the latest release from a singer or the next episode in a drama series being shown on the BBC. But there are other things in society which are not so readily available, not least because access to these depends in part on having a sufficiently large knowledge base on which to draw.

Let’s take by way of example some of the latest scientific discoveries, such as the feedback coming from the Philae probe as it sits on the surface of a comet orbiting our sun. To understand the significance of such discoveries, children need to have learnt about the basic tenets of physics and chemistry. The audacity of the mission and what makes the risks worthwhile can be grasped only through a grounding in these disciplines. Similarly, children will throughout their lives be bombarded with claims about the effectiveness of particular drugs or nutritional supplements, and it is only a grounding in biology and statistics that will enable them to evaluate the claims being put to them. Knowledge is not dangerous: it is the very thing that liberates us from the shackles of superstition, supposition and indoctrination.

But it would be wrong to see mathematics and the natural sciences as the only disciplines worthy of study. As Johnson once put it, ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’. All places have a rich history surrounding them, but few cities can match London in the richness of its history and geography. Again, however, it is all too easy to walk past a building or miss a monument where one does not have the knowledge needed to understand its significance. Knowledge breeds curiosity: the more we know about history, for example, the more we are able to spot, and the more questions we are able to ask. A grounding in British history makes a walk around London a much richer experience, in the same way as a good geography education allows one to read the landscape, spotting the striations on the rock that mark the passage of ancient glaciers.

We hear a great deal about how schools ought to be creating ‘citizens’, but it is our conviction that we do not make citizens by creating a period on the timetable called ‘citizenship’. We create citizens by providing children with a rich knowledge of the society and world in which they live. Mathematics and the natural sciences are as much a part of this as music, art, history and languages. It is through a broad education in these disciplines that children are able to participate as educated citizens in society. It is our aim to produce those citizens.


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