magic beans, magic bullets and crypto-pathologies

In the previous post, I took issue with a TES article that opened with fidget-spinners and closed with describing dyslexia and ADHD as ‘crypto-pathologies’. Presumably as an analogy with cryptozoology – the study of animals that exist only in folklore. But dyslexia and ADHD are not the equivalent of bigfoot and unicorns.

To understand why, you have to unpack what’s involved in diagnosis.

diagnosis, diagnosis, diagnosis

Accurate diagnosis of health problems has always been a challenge because:

  • Some disorders* are difficult to diagnose. A broken femur, Bell’s palsy or measles are easier to figure out than hypothyroidism, inflammatory bowel disease or Alzheimer’s.
  • It’s often not clear what’s causing the disorder. Fortunately, you don’t have to know the immediate or root causes for successful treatment to be possible. Doctors have made the reasonable assumption that patients presenting with the same signs and symptoms§ are likely to have the same disorder.

Unfortunately, listing the signs and symptoms isn’t foolproof because;

  • some disorders produce different signs and symptoms in different patients
  • different disorders can have very similar signs and symptoms.

some of these disorders are not like the others…

To complicate the picture even further, some signs and symptoms are qualitatively different from the aches, pains, rashes or lumps that indicate disorders obviously located in the body;  they involve thoughts, feelings and behaviours instead. Traditionally, human beings have been assumed to consist of a physical body and non-physical parts such as mind and spirit, which is why disorders of thoughts, feelings and behaviours were originally – and still are – described as mental disorders.

Doctors have always been aware that mind can affect body and vice versa. They’ve also long known that brain damage and disease can affect thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physical health. In the early 19th century, mental disorders were usually identified by key symptoms. The problem was that the symptoms of different disorders often overlapped. A German psychiatrist, Emil Kraepelin, proposed instead classifying mental disorders according to syndromes, or patterns of co-occurring signs and symptoms. Kraepelin hoped this approach would pave the way for finding the biological causes of disorders. (In 1906, Alois Alzheimer found the plaques that caused the dementia named after him, while he was working in Kraepelin’s lab.)

Kraepelin’s approach laid the foundations for two widely used modern classification systems for mental disorders; the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, currently in its 5th edition (DSM V), and the International Classification of Diseases Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders published by the World Health Organisation, currently in its 10th edition (ICD-10).

Kraepelin’s hopes for his classification system have yet to be realised. That’s mainly because the brain is a difficult organ to study. You can’t poke around in it without putting your patient at risk. It’s only in the last few decades that scanning techniques have enabled researchers to look more closely at the structure and function of the brain, and the scans require interpretation –  brain imaging is still in its infancy.

you say medical, I say experiential

Kraepelin’s assumptions about distinctive patterns of signs and symptoms, and about their biological origins, were reasonable ones. His ideas, however, were almost the polar opposite to those of his famous contemporary, Sigmund Freud, who located the root causes of mental disorders in childhood experience. The debate has raged ever since. The dispute is due to the plasticity of the brain.  Brains change in structure and function over time and several factors contribute to the changes;

  • genes – determine underlying structure and function
  • physical environment e.g. biochemistry, nutrients, toxins – affects structure and function
  • experience – the brain processes information, and information changes the brain’s physical structure and biochemical function.

On one side of the debate is the medical model; in essence, it assumes that the causes of mental disorders are primarily biological, often due to a ‘chemical imbalance’. There’s evidence to support this view; medication can improve a patient’s symptoms. The problem with the medical model is that it tends to assume;

  • a ‘norm’ for human thought, feelings and behaviours – disorders are seen as departures from that norm
  • the cause of mental disorders is biochemical and the chemical ‘imbalance’ is identified (or not) through trial-and-error – errors can be catastrophic for the patient.
  • the cause is located in the individual.

On the other side of the debate is what I’ll call the experiential model (often referred to as anti-psychiatry or critical psychiatry). In essence it assumes the causes of unwanted thoughts, feelings or behaviours are primarily experiential, often due to adverse experiences in childhood. The problem with that model is that it tends to assume;

  • the root causes are experiential and not biochemical
  • the causes are due to the individual’s response to adverse experiences
  • first-hand reports of early adverse experiences are always reliable, which they’re not.

labels

Kraepelin’s classification system wasn’t definitive – it couldn’t be, because no one knew what was causing the disorders. But it offered the best chance of identifying distinct mental health problems – and thence their causes and treatments. The disorders identified in Kraepelin’s system, the DSM and ICD, were – and most still are – merely labels given to clusters of co-occurring signs and symptoms.  People showing a particular cluster are likely to share the same underlying biological causes, but that doesn’t mean they do share the same underlying causes or that the origin of the disorder is biological.

This is especially true for signs and symptoms that could have many causes. There could be any number of reasons for someone hallucinating, withdrawing, feeling depressed or anxious – or having difficulty learning to read or maintain attention.  They might not have a medical ‘disorder’ as such. But you wouldn’t know that to read through the disorders listed in the DSM or ICD. They all look like bona fide, well-established medical conditions, not like labels for bunches of symptoms that sometimes co-occur and sometimes don’t, and that have a tendency to appear or disappear with each new edition of the classification system.  That brings us to the so-called ‘crypto-pathologies’ referred to in the TES article.

Originally, terms like dyslexia were convenient and legitimate shorthand labels for specific clusters of signs or symptoms. Dyslexia means difficulty with reading, as distinct from alexia which means not being able to read at all; both problems can result from stroke or brain damage. Similarly, autism was originally a shorthand term for the withdrawn state that was one of the signs of schizophrenia – itself a label.  Delusional parasitosis is also a descriptive label (the parasites being what’s delusional, not the itching).

reification

What’s happened over time is that many of these labels have become reified – they’ve transformed from mere labels into disorders widely perceived as having an existence independent of the label. Note that I’m not saying the signs and symptoms don’t exist. There are definitely children who struggle with reading regardless of how they’ve been taught; with social interaction regardless of how they’ve been brought up; and with maintaining focus regardless of their environment. What I am saying is that there might be different causes, or multiple causes, for clusters of very similar signs and symptoms.  Similar signs and symptoms don’t mean that everybody manifesting those signs and symptoms has the same underlying medical disorder –  or even that they have a medical disorder at all.

The reification of labels has caused havoc for decades with research. If you’ve got a bunch of children with different causes for their problems with reading, but you don’t know what the different causes are so you lump all the children together according to their DSM label; or another bunch with different causes for their problems with social interaction but lump them all together; or a third bunch with different causes for their problems maintaining focus, but you lump them all together; you are not likely to find common causes in each group for the signs and symptoms.  It’s this failure to find distinctive features at the group level that has been largely responsible for claims that dyslexia, autism or ADHD ‘don’t exist’, or that treatments that have evidently worked for some individuals must be spurious because they don’t work for other individuals or for the heterogeneous group as a whole.

crypto-pathologies

Oddly, in his TES article, Tom refers to autism as an ‘identifiable condition’ but to dyslexia and ADHD as ‘crypto-pathologies’ even though the diagnostic status of autism in the DSM and ICD is on a par with that of ADHD, and with ‘specific learning disorder with impairment in reading‘ with dyslexia recognised as an alternative term (DSM), or ‘dyslexia and alexia‘ (ICD).  Delusional parasitosis, despite having the same diagnostic status and a plausible biological mechanism for its existence, is dismissed as ‘a condition that never was’.

Tom is entitled to take a view on diagnosis, obviously. He’s right to point out that reading difficulties can be due to lack of robust instruction, and inattention can be due to the absence of clear routines. He’s right to dismiss faddish simplistic (but often costly) remedies. But the research is clear that children can have difficulties with reading due to auditory and/or visual processing impairments (search Google scholar for ‘dyslexia visual auditory’), that they can have difficulties maintaining attention due to low dopamine levels – exactly what Ritalin addresses (Iversen, 2006), or that they can experience intolerable itching that feels as if it’s caused by parasites.

But Tom doesn’t refer to the research, and despite provisos such as acknowledging that some children suffer from ‘real and grave difficulties’ he effectively dismisses some of those difficulties as crypto-pathologies and implies they can be fixed by robust teaching and clear routines  –  or that they are just imaginary.  There’s a real risk, if the research is by-passed, of ‘robust teaching’ and ‘clear routines’ becoming the magic bullets and magic beans he rightly despises.

Notes

*Disorder implies a departure from the norm.  At one time, it was assumed the norm for each species was an optimal set of characteristics.  Now, the norm is statistically derived, based on 95% of the population.

§ Technically, symptoms are indicators of a disorder experienced only by the patient and signs are detectable by others.  ‘Symptoms’ is often used to include both.

Reference

Iversen, L (2006).  Speed, Ecstasy, Ritalin: The science of amphetamines.  Oxford University Press.

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white knights and imaginary dragons: Tom Bennett on fidget-spinners

I’ve crossed swords – or more accurately, keyboards – with Tom Bennett, the government’s behaviour guru tsar adviser, a few times, mainly about learning styles. And about Ken Robinson. Ironic really, because broadly speaking we’re in agreement. Ken Robinson’s ideas about education are woolly and often appear to be based on opinion rather than evidence, and there’s clear evidence that teachers who use learning styles, thinking hats and brain gym probably are wasting their time. Synthetic phonics helps children read and whole school behaviour policies are essential for an effective school and so on…

My beef with Tom has been his tendency to push his conclusions further than the evidence warrants. Ken Robinson is ‘the butcher given a ticker tape parade by the National Union of Pigs‘.  Learning Styles are ‘the ouija board of serious educational research‘.  What raised red flags for me this time is a recent TES article by Tom prompted by the latest school-toy fad ‘fidget-spinners’.

fidget-spinners

Tom begins with claims that fidget-spinners can help children concentrate. He says “I await the peer-reviewed papers from the University of Mickey Mouse confirming these claims“, assuming that he knows what the evidence will be before he’s even seen it.  He then introduces the idea that ‘such things’ as fidget-spinners might help children with an ‘identifiable condition such as autism or sensory difficulties’, and goes on to cite comments from several experts about fidget-spinners in particular and sensory toys in general. We’re told “…if children habitually fidget, the correct path is for the teacher to help the child to learn better behaviour habits, unless you’ve worked with the SENCO and the family to agree on their use. The alternative is to enable and deepen the unhelpful behaviour. Our job is to support children in becoming independent, not cripple them with their own ticks [sic]”.

If a child’s fidgeting is problematic, I completely agree that a teacher’s first course of action should be to help them stop fidgeting, although Tom offers no advice about how to do this. I’d also agree that the first course of action in helping a fidgety child shouldn’t be to give them a fidget-toy.

There’s no question that children who just can’t seem to sit still, keep their hands still, or who incessantly chew their sleeves, are seeking sensory stimulation, because that’s what those activities are – by definition. It doesn’t follow that allowing children to walk about, or use fidget or chew toys will ‘cripple them with their own ticks’. These behaviours are not tics, and usually extinguish spontaneously over time. If they’re causing disruption in the classroom, questions need to be asked about school expectations and the suitability of the school provision for the child, not about learning unspecified ‘better behaviour habits’.

mouthwash

Tom then devotes an entire paragraph to, bizarrely, Listerine. His thesis is that sales of antiseptic mouthwash soared due to an advertising campaign persuading Americans that halitosis was a serious social problem. His evidence is a blogpost by Sarah Zhang, a science journalist.  Sarah’s focus is advertising that essentially invented problems to be cured by mouthwash or soap. Neither she nor Tom mention the pre-existing obsession with cleanliness that arose from the discovery – prior to the discovery of antibiotics – that a primary cause of death and debility was bacterial infections that could be significantly reduced by the use of alcohol rubs, boiling and soap.

itchy and scratchy

The Listerine advertising campaign leads Tom to consider ‘fake or misunderstood illnesses’ that he describes as ‘charlatan’. His examples are delusional parasitosis (people believe their skin is itching because it’s infested with parasites) and Morgellon’s (belief that the itching is caused by fibres). Tom says “But there are no fibres or parasites. It’s an entirely psycho-somatic condition. Pseudo sufferers turn up at their doctors scratching like mad, some even cutting themselves to dig out the imaginary threads and crypto-bugs. Some doctors even wearily prescribe placebos and creams that will relieve the “symptoms”. A condition that never was, dealt with by a cure that won’t work. Spread as much by belief as anything else, like fairies.”

Here, Tom is pushing the evidence way beyond its limits. The fact that the bugs or fibres are imaginary doesn’t mean the itching is imaginary. The skin contains several different types of tactile receptor that send information to various parts of the brain. The tactile sensory system is complex so there are several points at which a ‘malfunction’ could occur.  The fact that busy GPs – who for obvious reasons don’t have the time or resources to examine the functioning of a patient’s neural pathways at molecular level – wearily prescribe a placebo, says as much about the transmission of medical knowledge in the healthcare system as it does about patients’ beliefs.

crypto-pathologies

Tom refers to delusional parasitosis and Morgellon’s as ‘crypto-pathologies’ – whatever that means – and then introduces us to some crypto-pathologies he claims are encountered in school; dyslexia and ADHD. As he points out dyslexia and ADHD are indeed labels for ‘a collection of observed symptoms’. He’s right that some children with difficulty reading might simply need good reading tuition, and those with attention problems might simply need a good relationship with their teacher and clear routines. As he points out “…our diagnostic protocol is often blunt. Because we’re unsure what it is we’re diagnosing, and it becomes an ontological problem“.  He then says “This matters when we pump children with drugs like Ritalin to stun them still.

Again, some of Tom’s claims are correct but others are not warranted by the evidence. In the UK, Ritalin is usually prescribed by a paediatrician or psychiatrist after an extensive assessment of the child, and its effects should be carefully monitored. It’s a stimulant that increases available levels of dopamine and norepinephrine and it often enhances the ability to concentrate. It isn’t ‘pumped into’ children and it doesn’t ‘stun them still’, In the UK at least, NICE guidelines indicate it should be used as a last resort. The fact that its use has doubled in the last decade is a worrying trend. This is more likely to be due to the crisis in child and adolescent mental health services, than to an assumption that all attention problems in children are caused by a supposed medical condition we call ADHD.

Tom, rightly, targets bullshit. He says it matters because “many children suffer from very real and very grave difficulties, and it behoves us as their academic and social guardians to offer support and remedy when we can”. Understandably he wants to drive his point home. But superficial analysis and use of hyperbole risk real and grave difficulties being marginalised at best and ridiculed at worst by teachers who don’t have the time/energy/inclination to check out the detail of what he claims.

Specialist education, health and care services for children have been in dire straits for many years and the situation isn’t getting any better. This means teachers are likely to have little information about the underlying causes of children’s difficulties in school. If teachers take what Tom says at face value, there’s a real risk that children with real difficulties, whether they need to move their fingers or chew in order to concentrate, experience unbearable itching, struggle to read because of auditory, visual or working memory impairments, or have levels of dopamine that prevent them from concentrating, will be seen by some as having ‘crypto-conditions’ that can be resolved by good teaching and clear routines. If they’re not resolved, then the condition must be ‘psycho-somatic’.  Using evidence to make some points, but ignoring it to make others means the slings and arrows Tom hurls at the snake-oil salesmen and white knights galloping to save us from imaginary dragons are quite likely to be used as ammunition against the very children he seeks to help.

Clackmannanshire revisited

The Clackmannanshire study is often cited as demonstrating the positive impact of synthetic phonics (SP) on children’s reading ability. The study tracked the reading, spelling and comprehension progress, over seven years, of three groups of children initially taught to read using one of three different methods;

  • analytic phonics programme
  • analytic phonics programme supplemented by a phonemic awareness programme
  • synthetic phonics programme.

The programmes were followed for 16 weeks in Primary 1 (P1, 5-6 yrs). Reading ability was assessed before and after the programme and for each year thereafter, spelling ability each year from P1, and comprehension each year from P2. After the first post-test, the two analytic phonics groups followed the SP programme, completing it by the end of P1.

I’ve blogged briefly about this study previously, based on a summary of the research. It’s quite clear that the children in the SP group made significantly more progress in reading and spelling than those in the other two groups.  One of my concerns about the results is that in the summary they are presented at group level, ie as the mean scores of the children in each different condition. There’s no indication of the range of scores within each group.

The range is important because we need to know whether the programme improved reading and spelling for all the children in the group, or for just some of them. Say for example, that the mean reading age of children in the SP group was 12 months ahead of the children in the other groups at the end of P1. We wouldn’t know, without more detail, whether all the children’s scores clustered around the 12 month mark, or whether the group mean had been raised by a few children having very high scores, or had been lowered by a few having very low scores.

At the end of the summary is a graph showing the progress made by ‘underachievers’ ie any children who were more than 2 years behind in their test scores. There were some children in that category at the end of P2; by the end of P7 the proportion had risen to 14%. So clearly there were children who were still struggling despite following an SP programme.

During a recent Twitter conversation, Kathy Rastle, Professor of Psychology at Royal Holloway College London (@Kathy_Rastle), sent me a link to a more detailed report by the Clackmannanshire researchers, Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson.

more detail

I hoped that the more detailed report would provide more… well, detail. It did, but the ranges of scores within the groups were presented as standard deviations, so the impact of the programmes on individual children still wasn’t clear. That’s important. Obviously, if a reading programme enables a group of children to make significant gains in their reading ability, it’s worth implementing. But we also need to know the impact it has on individual children, because the point of teaching children to read is that each child learns to read.

The detail I was looking for is in Chapter 8 “Underachieving Children”, ie those with scores more than 2 years below the mean for their age. Obviously, in P1 no children could be allocated to that category because they hadn’t been at school long enough. But from P2 onwards, the authors tabulated the numbers of ‘underachievers’. (They note that some children were absent for some of the tests.) I’ve summarised the proportions (for boys and girls together) below:

more than 1 year behind (%)

P2 P3 P4 P5 P6 P7
reading 2.2 2.0 6.0 8.6 15.1 11.9
spelling 1.1 4.0 8.8 12.6 15.7 24.0
comprehension 5.0 18.0 15.5 19.2 29.4 27.6

more than 2 years behind (%)

P2 P3 P4 P5 P6 P7
reading 0 0.8 0 1.6 8.4 5.6
spelling 0.4 0.4 0.4 1.7 3.0 10.1
comprehension 0 1.2 1.6 5.0 16.2 14.0

The researchers point out that the proportion of children with serious problems with reading and spelling is quite low, but that it would be “necessary to collect control data to establish what would be typical levels of underachievement in a non-synthetic phonics programme.” Well, yes.

The SP programme clearly had a significantly positive impact on reading and spelling for most children. However that clearly wasn’t true for all of them. The authors provide a detailed case study for one child (AF) who had a hearing difficulty and poor receptive and expressive language.  They compare his progress with that of the other 15 children in P4 who were one year or more behind their chronological age with reading.

Case study – AF

AF started school a year later than his peers and his class was in the analytic phonics and phonemic awareness group.  They then followed the SP programme at the end of P1.  Early in P2, AF started motor movement and language therapy programmes.

By the middle of P4, AF’s reading and spelling scores were almost the average for the group whose reading was a year or more behind, but his knowledge of letter sounds, phoneme segmentation and nonword reading was better than theirs. A detailed analysis  suggests his reading errors are the result of his lack of familiarity with some words, and that he’s spelling words as they sound to him. Like the other 15 children experiencing difficulties, he needed to revisit more complex phonics rules, so a supplementary phonics programme was provided in P5. When tested afterwards, the mean scores for the group showed spelling and reading above chronological age, and AF’s reading and spelling improved considerably as a result.

During P6 and P7 a peripatetic Support for Learning (SfL) teacher worked with AF on phonics for three 45 minute sessions each week and taught him strategies to improve his comprehension. An cccupational therapist and physiotherapist worked with him on his handwriting, and he was taught to touch type.  By the end of P7, AF’s reading age was 9 months above his chronological age and his spelling was more than 2 years ahead of the mean for the underachieving group.

conclusion

The ‘Clacks’ study is often cited as conclusive proof of the efficacy of SP programmes. It’s often implied that SP will make a significant difference for the troublesome 17% of school leavers who lack functional literacy.   What intrigued me about the study was the proportion of children in P7 who still had difficulty with functional literacy despite having had SP training. It’s 14%, suspiciously close to the proportion of ‘functionally illiterate’ school leavers.

Some teachers have argued that if all the children had had systematic synthetic phonics teaching from the outset, the ‘Clacks’ figures might be different, but AF’s experience suggests otherwise.  He obviously had substantial initial difficulties with reading, but by the end of primary school had effectively caught up with his peers. But his success wasn’t due only to the initial SP programme. Or even to the supplementary SP programme provided in P5. It was achieved only after intensive, tailored 1-1 interventions on the part of a team of professionals from outside school.

My children’s school, in England, at the time when AF was in P7, was not offering these services to children with AF’s level of difficulty. Most of the children had followed an initial SP programme, but there was no supplementary SP course on offer. The equivalent to the SfL teacher carried out annual assessments and made recommendations. Speech and Language and Occupational therapists didn’t routinely offer treatment to individual children except via schools, and weren’t invited into the one my children attended. And I’ve yet to hear of a physiotherapist working in a mainstream primary in our area.

As a rule of thumb, local authorities will not carry out a statutory assessment of a child until their school can demonstrate that they don’t have the resources to meet the child’s needs.  As a rule of thumb, schools are reluctant to spend money on specialist professionals if there’s a chance that the LA will bear the cost of that in a statutory assessment.  As a consequence, children are often several years ‘behind’ before they even get assessed, and the support they get is often in the form of a number of hours working with a teaching assistant who’s unlikely to be a qualified teacher, let alone a speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or physio.

If governments want to tackle the challenge of functional illiteracy, they need to invest in services that can address the root causes.

reference

Johnston, R & Watson, J (2005). The Effects of Synthetic Phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment: A seven year longitudinal study. The Scottish Executive website http://www.gov.scot/Resource/Doc/36496/0023582.pdf

“the best which has been thought and said…”

This quotation was used liberally by the previous Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, and by a number of teacher bloggers, as a guiding principle for the content of the school curriculum. It comes from the preface of Matthew Arnold’s essay Culture and Anarchy. Arnold says:

The whole scope of this essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which must concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.” (p.5)

The appeal of “the best which has been thought and said” is immediate. Who, after all, would advocate ‘the worst’ or ‘the most mediocre’? But the problems of applying it as a guiding principle are obvious. How do we know what’s ‘best’? Who decides on the criteria?  I assumed these questions must have occurred to Matthew Arnold too, so I read Culture and Anarchy to see how he tackles them.

In the summer of 1867 Arnold delivered his last lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. It was entitled Culture and its Enemies and published in the Cornhill Magazine shortly afterwards. In the lecture, Arnold complained that his contemporaries tended to be too practical and not theoretical enough; his critics accused him of the opposite.   In response he wrote a series of essays that were published in book form as Culture and Anarchy in 1869. The chapters in the second edition (1875) were given titles: Sweetness and Light; Doing as One Likes; Barbarians, Philistines, Populace; Hebraism and Hellenism; and Our Liberal Practitioners.

anarchy

The choice of anarchy in opposition to culture wasn’t just a literary device; anarchy was a real threat to the stability of society at the time, as exemplified by the French revolution and the American civil war that had only just finished. A recurring complaint throughout the essay is the idea of “the Englishman’s right to do what he likes; his right to march where he likes, meet where he likes, enter where he likes, hoot as he likes, threaten as he likes, smash as he likes. All this, I say, tends to anarchy…” (p. 57).

Many of the examples of the ‘Englishman’s right to do what he likes’ were the result of demonstrations in support of the second Representation of the People Act (Second Reform Act), eventually passed in 1867, which doubled the number of men entitled to vote and which had met with robust opposition in some quarters.

culture

Arnold proposed culture as the only way to avoid anarchy because the alternatives (e.g. religion, philosophy, politics) had failed to do that. Arnold’s culture is the study of perfection (p.34). It originates in the individual being the best they can be, but results in practical outcomes that, if applied collectively, could make a significant difference to society. For Arnold, culture is characterised by sweetness and light which he equates with ‘reason and the will of God’, and by the endeavour to make reason and the will of God prevail.

He characterises the aristocracy, middle class and working class as Barbarians, Philistines and Populace respectively, but recognises that individuals within each class were “led, not by their class spirit, but by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection”. Although tempered by ‘class instinct’, that humane instinct could be propagated by the authority of ‘a commanding best self’ or ‘right reason’ (p.81).

the best which has been thought or said

Arnold sees the human striving for perfection as influenced by two forces which he labels Hellenism and Hebraism; Hellenism is the desire to see things as they really are, and Hebraism a desire for good conduct and obedience. Characterising culture in this way allows Arnold to refer to literatures with which he is very familiar; classical Greek texts, the Bible, and the Church Fathers.

Those cited by Arnold are many and varied. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle rub shoulders with the prophet Zechariah, the Church Fathers, Liberal politicians, Nonconformist preachers, and columnists in The Times and the Daily Telegraph. The Liberals, Nonconformists and columnists are included presumably because Arnold was responding to criticisms that his writing was detached, and wanted to demonstrate the relevance of culture to contemporary challenges such as free trade, the extension of the franchise, and the disestablishment of the Irish Church. Some appear to be there only so Arnold can ridicule them.

To me, despite Arnold’s lofty aspirations for culture, his model came across as rather superficial and parochial. He cites great thinkers, but they are primarily from the Hebraic, Greek, and Christian traditions he’s familiar with and approves of. He doesn’t unpack their ideas or critique them, despite there being no shortage of thinkers who were unpacking Hebraic, Greek, and Christian ideas and critiquing them at the time.

Arnold’s argument is based on the assumption that Hebrew, Greek, and Christian thinking must be right and that the three strands were all striving for a form of perfection that existed – at least as an ideal.  His worldview undoubtedly raises the reader’s gaze to higher things than the sordid practicalities of everyday life. But I felt that he looked straight past the sordid practicalities that many people have to deal with in order to start striving for perfection. He seemed more concerned that people trying to gain (prohibited) entry to Hyde Park for a Reform League demonstration had broken railings and smashed windows, than that that many of the demonstrators didn’t have a vote (p.57). And more concerned about a theological misconception that children were sent from God, than that those in East London ‘had hardly a rag to cover them’ (p.140).

I can see why Culture and Anarchy might appeal to Michael Gove. It’s full of high ideals and the names of Great Thinkers. It’s also very wordy; Arnold essentially says what he has to say in his 30-page Preface; the other 150-odd pages are, in my view, superfluous. And the entertainingly critical references to contemporary pundits would be familiar territory to Gove, previously a columnist for The Times.  But it’s all too easy, if your basic needs are being met and you’re highly literate, to assume that the really important thing in life is striving for high ideals via conversations that take place in the news media, rather than knowing where your next meal is coming from and having some control over your day-to-day existence.

I felt Culture and Anarchy didn’t address the root causes of the challenges facing English society in the mid 19th century, or how they could best be tackled. Nor that ‘the best which has been thought and said’ comes close to telling us what education should look like.

Note

I read the Oxford World Classics edition of Culture and Anarchy, published in 2006. It has a useful introduction and chronology of Arnold’s life, and excellent historical explanatory notes. Irritatingly, there’s no index, but the cover image, London Street Scene by John Orlando Perry (1835) is superbly well chosen.