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1st January 2020

A charity called Youth Music recently recommended the introduction of new types of music to schools. According to Sky News, such a move ‘could transform lessons and also help diversify the entertainment industry in the future… More popular modern genres like grime and hip-hop are said to remain completely absent from most UK classrooms, despite artists like Stormzy using his work to address social issues.’

In other words, the reasons for studying music are to promote diversity, to legitimise the children’s own choice and to applaud the left’s efforts on social reform. While it’s understandable that a youth charity might hold such views, Sky News’s uncritical assumptions crassly undermine the whole point of education. Like the other arts, music gives us insight into the human condition. It also confers an understanding and appreciation of our culture.

It is not for schools to necessarily provide their charges with greater access to Stormzy. It is rather the school’s responsibility to introduce them to Beethoven and Shakespeare, to art that explores and defines our civilisation. And there is one particular art form that should be utilised to teach our values to children in schools and indeed to immigrants in integration programmes.

The power of movies to shape consciousness was recognised by DW Griffith (Birth of a Nation) in America, Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin) in the Soviet Union and Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will) in Nazi Germany, but not so much here. Directors in Britain have never enjoyed the acclaim of their Hollywood counterparts nor the intellectual cachet of French auteurs. ‘Powell and Pressburger’ or ‘Lindsay Anderson’ won’t break any ice with the man on the Clapham tube train. If only we were better at blowing our own trumpet, we would recognise the wealth of heritage in British films, and be more inclined to show off our image on the big screen.

In an age of decreasing attention spans and the reluctance of children to commit to a novel, we should exploit their addiction to screens. Movies should be to literature what T20 cricket is to five-day Tests. You can’t expect children to read Chaucer, but they can be taught to appreciate the movies.

Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale portrays a green and pleasant land of thatched roofs and oast houses, haystacks and rolling fields in which ‘orchards bloom with blossom on the bough’, strangers become instant friends and the sight of Canterbury is heralded by celestial voices. Stranded in the village of Chillingbourne, an American GI goes from ‘Don’t tell me this whistle-stop is a town’ to ‘Sure is a surprise to me how much I like everything over here’ to ‘What wouldn’t I give to grow old in a place like this’. Patriotic but not nationalistic, humble in its idealism and gentle in its spirituality, A Canterbury Tale serves to characterise the nation’s moral depth.

By contrast, Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! depicts a country in which the police are corrupt, northern working-man’s clubs are irredeemably sleazy and private hospitals perform horrific experiments on patients. This fantastical, picaresque tale updates the libertarian narratives of those Irish giants Swift and Sterne. ‘If knowledge hangs around your neck like pearls instead of chains you are a lucky man’, sings Alan Price, as though channeling his inner David Hume. O Lucky Man!’s lyrical nihilism ought to resonate with the young and disaffected in particular.

Of all the nation’s back catalogue of movies, one stands out as a testament to British maturity. The release of Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1979 prompted protests, bans and outrage from Malcolm Muggeridge but ultimately marked the end of the road for blasphemy as surely as the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial did for literary censorship. The difference between the two cases is that, whereas any novel with explicit erotic content was liable to wind up in the courts, there is only one Life of Brian. It remains unrivalled in its satirical, humorous irreverence, upholding the tradition of freedom of thought that has sustained us since Elizabeth I declared, ‘I will not open windows into men’s souls’.

The truths conveyed in great art transcend the lamentable bias of our media. The BBC’s children’s service recently offered this woeful example of the politically correct distortions that misrepresent history. Providing the background to Dunkirk, Newsround described World War II as ‘a huge war between 1939 and 1945 involving many countries around the world, who were fighting each other for power.’ Not a war fought for freedom. Not a war against the most heinous evil imaginable. Just a struggle for power.

Clearly staff at the BBC would benefit from mandatory screenings of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.

This article first appeared in Uncommon Ground

​David Isaacson studied philosophy at Sussex University, was arts editor at the Jerusalem Post and foreign news editor at the Daily Telegraph's Weekly edition.

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