Historian Dr David Starkey has opened the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys’ new Tong Centre.
Billed as a research centre, the Langton’s head of school Ken Moffat says the building will devote itself to “pushing a spirit of intellectual freedom and openness to ideas”.
The centre was paid for by former pupil Simon Tong, the principal engineer at Google in California, with a £734,000 donation.
Governors, staff and pupils were joined by Dr Starkey for the opening of the centre, which stands in the Canterbury school’s quadrangle, on Wednesday night.
Dr Starkey said that such was the Langton capacity for education and provoking thought its pupils risked being bored by the time they became university students.
“It is likely you will follow my experience, that you will run before you can walk,” he told the audience.
“And the role of teachers is to make those they teach better than they are.
“This centre will fit into the absolute solid foundation of teaching the major academic disciplines.”
When the plan for the centre first emerged, it drew criticism from one student who complained that pupils would be exposed to works such as Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
The centre features an auditorium plus discussion and classrooms.
Speaking to the Canterbury Journal at the opening, Dr Starkey admitted he was concerned about the role education had acquired in society.
He said: “There is too much indoctrination. What concerns me is that in fields like my own is the recognition that there is a fact, an external truth, is frequently debated and actively denied.
“The web and cultural Marxism have undercut the notion of an external truth. The truth is now what you feel it to be. There is this constant notion that what you feel is the most important thing in world.
“Reality is brute, it’s difficult, it’s conflicted, it’s confused. But there seems to be this idea you can reduce it all to this lovely sweet world, a world without paradoxes.”
Dr Starkey – whose tv series include Monarchy and Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant – has also written more than 20 books, largely on British royal and constitutional history.
He said too many schools had “Marks & Spencer type” mottos such as “excellence for everyone”.
“You can’t have excellence for everyone – excellence is a profoundly inegalitarian concept,” he said.
And Dr Starkey, who has taught at Cambridge and the London School of Economics, accused universities of failing to pursue excellence.
“Universities are in a state of confusion,” he said. “In London there was a deliberate lowering of standards. There was a deliberate grade inflation.
“At an examiners’ meeting I actually asked my colleagues ‘do you realise what you’ve just done? You’ve given a first to someone who is functionally illiterate’.
“There was this silence in the room from people squirming on their seats.”
The Tong Centre plays host to a philosophical discussion group called The Salon on most days.
Pupils are asked to debate topics such as “did we create language or did language create us?” And “is the sex industry exploitative or empowering of women?”
In an article for the Canterbury Journal, Mr Moffat outlines his vision for the Tong Centre.
He said: “Schools don’t have Research Centres. The Langton now has two. This underpins our paradoxical belief that we don’t actually know what it is that we want our students to learn.
“Too often, in this country, ‘education’ means learning what everybody else has learned before; research means learning what nobody has ever learned before.
“And so we will continue to wind up our senior students and see just how far they can progress without the parameters of a curriculum with boundaries.”
Click here to read Mr Moffat’s article.