“The world felt big”

The autodidact is a rare creature these days. I really enjoyed listening to this Talking Politics interview with Tara Westover, who grew up in rural Idaho as one of seven children in a strict Mormon family. Her father did not allow her to go to public school, but she taught herself, ending up studying at both Harvard and Cambridge.

I loved this passage, describing her first year at Brigham Young University, which captures her hunger for knowledge and the way education can ‘set one’s feet in a large room.’

I learned about Margaret Thatcher and the Thirty-Eighth Parallel and the Cultural Revolution; I learned about parliamentary politics and electoral systems around the world. I learned about the Jewish diaspora and the strange history of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. By the end of the semester the world felt big, and it was hard to imagine returning to the mountain, to a kitchen, or even to a piano in the room next to the kitchen.

What sort of knowledge..?

From H W Household’s Reminiscences about Charlotte Mason, courtesy of Charlotte Mason Poetry:

What sort of knowledge? Well, they want to hear of Odysseus and Nausicaa, to read the immortal stories of Herodotus, and Plutarch’s Lives; they want to listen to the tale of Thermopylae and Salamis and to learn how democracy raised Athens to her height of glory and then ruined her, and why; to learn about the majesty and fall of Rome, and the meaning and heritage of both for good and ill; about Merovings and Carolings, Seljuks and Ottomans, about the Crusades and the making of Europe (for he who knows not history, as Cicero said, remains a child); about Buddha and Mohammed; about Rembrandt and Beethoven; about Edmund Spenser, Dr. Johnson, Ruskin and Carlyle; about the wonders of the heavens and the earth, and all the romance of science—which the laboratory too often misses.

Montaigne on Education

Jacques Barzun’s wonderful book, From Dawn to Decadence, has been a companion for more than a decade. Dog-eared, covered in indecipherable marks and notes, its front cover long since torn away, I dip in whenever I can and always emerge refreshed.

I’ve just re-read this great passage on Montaigne’s views on education and thought I would post. I love ‘severe gentleness’ and the idea of the ‘double mind.’

Jacques Barzun, Montaigne

Scoop – Spring 2020

I write a newsletter each term, and thought it would be a good idea to include them on my blog too. Here is my latest,

Swanky new online tutoring video

With online tutoring becoming ever more popular (and a lifeline to many of our families who are trapped by the coronavirus) we thought it was time we swanked up our video showing the online experience in all its glory. We commissioned an old prep school friend, fresh from a documentary with Greta Thurnberg, to produce the goods and are really happy with how it’s come out. Check it out here.

Keystone University Scholarship Programme 

We are offering 12 fully-funded scholarships on our Top University preparation programme. However, we are finding it quite hard to get the opportunity in front of the right candidates. If you know of any deserving students, or places we can find them (heads of Sixth Form / pupil premium / academic enrichment in the state sector) perhaps you could forward them this link and/or put them in touch?


We had some great successes this year but certainly felt, as was widely reported (e.g. Telegraph) that there was an unprecedented leap in difficulty for independent school candidates. As one of our most experienced Oxbridge tutors put it, “My overall feeling is that it has become significantly tougher for averagely able students from private school backgrounds to get offers, which is only to be expected given the sharp rise in offers being made to state school students.” Would be interested if others felt the same.

Tutor News

Our English tutor James Mumford recently had this excellent piece – ‘What would you sacrifice for integrity?’ – published in Unherd.

In a new regular section of this Scoop, I thought it would be fun to highlight tutors who have passed through our halls and gone on to achieve distinction elsewhere. So, first hat-tip to Alexander Starritt, a popular generalist tutor of ours some years ago, who has followed up his well-received debut novel The Beast with a new novel, out in May, about a letter written by a German WWII combatant to his British grandson. It is called We Germans.

Other educational dispatches

  • For those who find UK admissions intense… the US remains in a completely different league. David Shaw (of hedge fund D E Shaw & Co fame) donated to Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Brown to ensure access for his already very able children to a decent university education. Amazing story here.
  • Greg Ashram reviews ‘The Knowledge Gap’, making a succinct and well-reasoned plea for the teaching of knowledge.
  • Michael Merrick – where is the awe and mystery in education? Good piece on the ‘NeoTraddie Revolution’ in education that can be ‘rationalistic, technocratic, and above all, cold.’
  • Our friends at Oxford Summer Courses have created a new STEM course for 13-15 year olds at Imperial. It combines “Stanford University design thinking, the interdisciplinary approach of the MIT Media Lab, and Oxford University’s renowned educational traditions”(!). More here.
  • Our friends Dragons have launched an online Mandarin-learning classroom called DragonsConnect. More here.
  • The WHO has added ‘gaming disorder’ to its international classification of diseases – is it time that the industry was more regulated? – asks the FT
  • Palmer Luckey, the splendidly-named teenager who created the VR headset Occulus Rift and sold it to Facebook for $3billion was…homeschooled. More here.

And finally… try out Harriet’s Simon Drew-inspired Guess the Independent School picture quiz here.

Keystone – Social Media

If you’re the type who does, please follow us:

Knowledge is the road to joy

 It is understandable that, in the fierce heat of contemporary squabbles, heads and educationalists prefer to talk up the more empirical benefits of a knowledge approach; but, by doing so, they leave the implementation of a knowledge-based approach open to those who would happily squander its joy for its effectiveness.

I was really delighted to be published in the latest issue of the ResearchEd magazine on knowledge & joy. Small excerpt below, and you can read the piece here.

These arguments, prosecuted on Twitter, blogs and at conferences, have generally and rightly won out – remarkably so, given the headwinds of a progressive teaching establishment. And yet, despite the fact that such arguments are often labelled ‘traditional’, they feel rather too bound within late modernity’s norms and values. As you have read in the above, knowledge is almost exclusively presented as a means rather than an end. The search for empirical benefits, able to justify approaches in only instrumentalist terms, has missed the marrow at the heart of knowledge and so risks erecting an educational project as thin and dreary as the orthodoxy it correctly seeks to replace.

Perhaps we need older perspectives – from an Aristotle or a C S Lewis or anyone who might be said to defend a liberal education in the old sense of that phrase – to remind us of just how much we are selling knowledge short.

A beautiful speech by H W Household

I have written about Household before. Thanks again to the excellent archival work of the team at Charlotte Mason Poetry, I have just read another of his speeches from the time when he was Director of Education for Gloucestershire in the 1930s. So much of what he says still rings true today. I would love to know more about this man: he comes across as so broadminded, with a good and generous nature. And he expresses himself so beautifully. To think that the equivalent of today’s head of education in a rural County Council could write and think in such terms!

The full speech is here. A few excerpts below..

Under the pressure of examinations, and the demand for certificates, there may be an appearance, an increasing but deceptive appearance, of efficiency; there may be an increased absorption of information, which serves its main purpose if it is retained till the examination week is over; but I gravely doubt whether there is a greater percentage of intelligence or of culture.


It is the tendency to exaggerate the value of oral teaching, of uninspired text books, of manipulated information, that we have to guard against to-day. The ideal pupil of the moment is he who will not let his school down in the examination room, who can be relied upon to get his school certificate, who has handy all the information necessary, and has responded to the anxious drill in the use of it. Whether that wonder has been stirred in him out of which philosophy is born, whether he has caught the spirit of the great writers—poets, essayists, dramatists, historians—whose works he has begun to read, whether he has developed imagination, a trained intelligence, a cultured interest in the things of the mind, that will stand by him for life—there is hardly time to think of that with examinations always in the offing.


There was this to be said for the old way of Greek and Latin. It was a slow and painful road, but the books had stood the test of two millennia. Great minds spoke from their pages thoughts that compelled attention and begat thought. We might have done better perhaps if we had had more English, and if we had thought less, as we read laboriously, of difficult exercises to come in prose and verse, and more of the substance of the book; but at any rate we were spared the empty clatter of the oral lesson, and its sequel of ingenious but unprofitable questions.

Episode # 7, Hugh Gammell, House Master and ex-Registrar, Charterhouse

In Episode 7 of my Education podcast, I interview Hugh Gammell.

Listen on Soundcloud – here

Or on YouTube – here.

Or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.

Hugh was educated at Cheam School, Marlborough College and then read History at Cambridge. He taught History in a Grammar School in Watford before joining Charterhouse in 1978, where he stayed until his retirement in 2016. He now does voluntary work for the Mark Evison Foundation and is a Dragon for the National Citizen Service.

The interview was recorded in a restaurant and I’m afraid the sound quality is not good. However, you get into the groove after a few minutes and I hope it remains intelligible.

In this interview, we talk about:

  • His reflections as a housemaster at Charterhouse and the vocation of being a teacher
  • Teaching teenagers from the 1970s to today. What has changed and what hasn’t?
  • Teenage rebellion & risk taking & the conformism of children today
  • The mavericks and misfits who “make a difference”
  • The former pupils who have made him proud
  • The importance for children of having non-academic interests
  • Specialisation – studying history for its own sake
  • Boarding, independent schools and their place in society today
  • Mobile phones and the curse of technology today

Charlotte Mason vs Christian Classical approach

This blog is in danger of becoming merely a groupie for the Charlotte Mason Poetry blog… but can I recommend this interview with a teacher (and homeschool mother) who was attracted to the Christian classical tradition of Dorothy Sayers et al before realising its shortcomings and finding Charlotte Mason instead:


Ms Whiteside is especially good on the needlessness, not to mention joylessness, of the rote learning of facts, dates, grammar tables etc that is so often part and parcel of the classical tradition.

Charlotte Mason and Christian Classical approaches are so often talked of in the same breath as though they are interchangeable. This interview marks out the clear differences between them.

“Meeting the Mountain”

Another beautiful letter unearthed by the great people of the Charlotte Mason Poetry blog, by Elsie Kitching.

My favourite quotes below..

“There was a time—has it quite passed yet?—when the attempt at science made by a late Head master of Winchester was to offer an annual prize for the best collection of the wild flowers of the neighbourhood…”

“The efforts that have been made in all classes of schools to widen the curriculum have not brought the benefit to the schools that was expected because “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp,” and if he only grasps at what will help him to a living, he will not reach what will help him to live.”

“They bore witness in their faces to the change which the recognition of this Meeting between their children and knowledge had made and as they sat facing Miss Mason with glistening eyes she gave them the message once more that she has been giving for thirty-five years. She urged them to “hold fast the educational faith that is in you,” faith in knowledge as the child’s birthright, faith in mind the child’s inheritance: for education is a venture of faith.”