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What is education?

COLERIDGE in 1797 showed his garden at Nether Stowey to an atheist friend who believed children should be brought up as agnostics in the interests of freedom. 'This is my botanical garden', said Coleridge. 'How so?', said the friend, 'It's covered with weeds.' 'Oh', said Coleridge, 'that's because it has not yet come to the age of discretion and choice. The weeds, you see, have taken the liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair in me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries'.

In traditional thought education is the teaching and encouragement of children to know God, to love Him, to praise Him, to fear Him, to want to serve Him. Education is the introduction of children to full human life. Education is the welcoming of children into their inheritance, which is the civilisation of Christendom, a human world of meanings, beliefs, traditions of thought, of art and of skill, a world which is historical as well as natural, made by man as well as created by God. The human world of man's making has always been in some respects in harmony with God's creation, in other respects in jarring discord against it. Education is a personal transaction between human beings in the course of which children begin to hear the difference for themselves, and begin consciously to try to live and work, in themselves and with others, in and for more harmony and less discord.

These are not separable enterprises but a single undertaking. The fact that education is no longer so perceived is its chief enemy, and is responsible for the many threats endangering its continuing adequacy to give the young what they need to become what they have it in them to be, what God created them for. These threats must be identified and countered so that the young will not be deprived of what is theirs to receive and theirs to choose.

The fragmentation of the whole that education truly is has taken place gradually, since the seventeenth century but recently with increasing speed, and has taken place because of the secularisation of our civilisation. The 'liberation' of reason from faith, identified by St. Bernard as a grave danger as long ago as the twelfth century, and the compassionless (because faith-less) over-valuing of classical 'freedom' of thought as the Renaissance moved into the Enlightenment, produced over centuries the familiar pattern of branches of learning in which the young have had their minds and imaginations trained. Some developed from 'subjects' much older than the Renaissance, subjects taught and learned in mediaeval Christendom within the validating context of faith: theology, mathematics, philosophy, law, medicine, music, grammar and rhetoric or the study and practice of writing. Others were added as the disciplines of study through which man understood himself and his world diversified, discovering for him different ways of investigating and ordering his experience, and different kinds of power: history, geography, the physical sciences, politics and economics. Later were added the study of vernacular languages and their literatures, including English literature, alongside the classical languages and literatures. These were the means by which those at school and university were initiated into the intellectual and imaginative world of European civilization; these were the means by which different kinds of truth were pursued and applied. In this long secondary development of 'new' disciplines, the relation of faith not only to reason but to shifting perceptions of truth altered in the minds of succeeding generations, as intellectuals led the flight of western Europe from belief in God. The study of history, for example, at least since Gibbon, has quite properly regarded Christian faith, or its profession, as one among other motives which have inspired human action or inaction for both good and ill. The study of physics since Kepler and Galileo, the study of biology since Darwin, have, equally properly, established truths which, because of a fragmentation to which they have contributed apparent justification, have seemed in profound (and victorious) conflict with Christian faith. The same is true of Marxist economics, of positivist philosophy, of the secular study of literature, whether as magical secretion of the Romantic imagination or as autonomous text detached from any frame of reference that might supply value judgement or the criteria for confidence in a canon of works.

This process of dissolution, in the course of which the 'educated' became less and less likely to be fully Christian, has, in the prosperous, secular West, been held back from the nihilism which it implies by democratic liberal humanism. This was largely put together by the Victorian moralists, using on the best elements of the English political tradition polished but slippery Enlightenment concepts mixed with nostalgia for Christian conviction. It is a triumph of reasonableness and moderation, but it rests on a Christian ethical structure no longer underpinned by faith, and hopes too much of man without God. It has, at least until recently, supported the fragmented pursuit of the good, the beautiful and the true, the fragmented education described above. But its current failure to articulate an effective defence of this loosely allied set of disciplines reveals the hollowness at its heart, its lack of belief in God as goodness, beauty and truth, without whose absolute guarantee of eternal value and meaning all values and meanings are merely relative.

Alongside the profound secularisation, from within, of academic, intellectual, moral and aesthetic life, growing pressure from without has, for at least a hundred and fifty years, distorted and confused what was once clearly understood as 'education' by appropriating parts of it to its own, extrinsic, ends. The need for a docile industrial labour force, to perform tasks requiring neither judgement nor imagination nor the satisfying skill of ancient crafts, produced the two-tier system of education, in the grammar/public school and the university, for some, and, in alternative institutions and alongside the decline of the traditional apprenticeship, training for many more. The evident elitism and social divisiveness of this system, together with increasing intervention from philistine governments, a contempt for 'the academic' and for the arts greater in England than in many other European countries, the post-war spread of a junk consumer culture, and, most significant of all, a commonly held view that only the single objective of rising prosperity can or should command general assent in modern society -- all these have resulted in the muddled elision of 'education' and 'training' both in policy and in practice. They have also resulted in the deeply destructive assumption that education is to be funded and evaluated nationally only in terms of industrial and commercial cost-effectiveness. If the unsustained values of liberal humanism have been weak in the face of increasingly relativist intellectual and cultural life, they are weaker still in the face of what Michael Oakeshott, in The Voice of Liberal Learning, called 'the beginning of a dark age of barbaric affluence'. He himself, the best contemporary writer on the perils facing education, is a case in point. He said, for example: 'Education begins with the appearance of a teacher with something to impart which is not immediately connected with the current wants or "interests" of the learner ... The business of the teacher is to release his pupils from servitude to the current dominant feelings, images, ideas, beliefs and even skills ... Nothing survives in this world which is not cared for by human beings.'

His whole argument can carry more weight than he himself was able to give it. It becomes deeply and encouragingly positive only if it is taken to imply the possibility of releasing children from both nihilistic relativism and the chains of affluence into their true life and freedom as children of God. Without this implication, the 'voice of liberal learning' can with justification be accused of speaking merely from subjective preference. When an adolescent in a classroom says: 'Well, I just prefer Dallas to King Lear; it's all a matter of opinion, isn't it?', he is speaking with the full weight of our 'free' and secular society behind him. The teacher who does not know within himself how to support his reply: 'But King Lear is better' much beyond: 'Take my word for it. And in any case you need this A level', has lost contact with the absolutes of Christian civilization, which ultimately have no guarantee except that of God.

The initiation of children into the disinterested pursuit of goodness, beauty and truth in and through God's created world is the real task of teachers; the difficulties they now have to understand and to overcome if they are to perform it well have been sketched above in general terms. In practical detail, the difficulties look greater still. A few examples:

The disciplines of science have not only appeared to establish truths counter to the truths of faith; they are, of all 'school' studies, the most subject to utilitarian perversion, the most amenable to government pressure to deliver, as sole justification for their expensive continuing existence, contributions to rising prosperity. They are also the most difficult now to sustain in relation to an absolute sense of God's justice and goodness (though not in relation to an absolute sense of his truth and beauty).

The learning of languages is in danger of degenerating into mere utilitarian training: proficiency in the idiom of contemporary speech, functionally concentrated by commercial priorities, has overtaken the acquisition of literate access to another culture's approaches to goodness, truth and beauty. Even more seriously endangered is the access of the young to their own culture's depth of language and experience in relation to goodness, truth and beauty. Chaucer and Milton are already considered too difficult for school study, and 'irrelevant' to the 'interests' (in either sense) of modern children. Many teachers think Shakespeare should, and therefore will, follow, in spite of his presence, thus far, in the National Curriculum.

The learning of creative skills is in danger of degenerating into token preparation for the understanding of industrial processes; here again, those enterprises which can most readily be turned to merely utilitarian ends are most at risk. The use of materials to design and make beautiful objects with perfectionist skill is more endangered than music, though real music, like real poetry and real films, is only just holding its ground against the tide of sensation, pornography and violence which threatens to wash away all three.

What teachers need to regain is their own confidence in the language of each discipline, each subject, each skill, as a language which in the end speaks of God, and which can be learnt well enough for new things to be said or created in it. This learning will in every case involve genuine understanding of the depth and range of a subject, of the area of human meaning with which it deals, of the kinds of truth, beauty, goodness it is capable of communicating. Here 'language' and 'literature' become metaphorical, with the potential for the creation of new meaning contained in any current, actual language -- and the greater its literature the greater its potential -- being the analogue for the set of learnable conventions and meanings of all the rest. It is as possible to design a literate house, to make a literate chair, to set up a literate experiment, to approach a mathematical problem or to play a Mozart sonata in a literate fashion, as it is to write a literate essay on Keats or (with a different kind of literacy) on cabinet government or (different again) Charlemagne. It is obvious that there is not time in a child's life at school to acquire literacy in all the disciplines of our civilization. But if he acquires none, neither will he acquire the qualities that education has always been reckoned to develop: patient application, discrimination, disinterested curiosity, accuracy, intellectual honesty, doubt. These are the human qualities of those capable of sound judgement; they are neither 'knowledge' nor 'skill' but the fruits of both when both have been assembled simultaneously in the process of real learning. Beside them, the 'core skills' that were recently canvassed by the National Curriculum Council can be seen, correctly, either as already possessed by the educated or as capable of being quickly picked up by them, in or after school.

The complex of disciplines here described -- and above all the common drive towards sound judgement, wisdom, which informs it -- is a cumulative European enterprise whose origins lie further back than Socrates. It is what education meant to the schoolmasters of the Roman empire, to monks in the 'Dark Ages', to their successors who taught in the universities of mediaeval Christendom, to the Renaissance humanists who inspired the foundation of the grammar schools, to Johnson and Coleridge, to Newman and Matthew Arnold, to William Morris and T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis. For two centuries it has been part of the light at the end of a series of tunnels for Russians who missed so much of it; for half a century the spiritually oppressed of Eastern Europe have longed to rejoin it. It remains part of the aspiration of many in the Third World, but, unless it is preserved by those who disinterestedly care for it, it will not long remain so.

In the exercise of this trust, England has a particular responsibility of which she is no longer sufficiently aware or proud for its fulfilment to be assured. English has, for a combination of historical reasons, a few disreputable but many more highly creditable, replaced Latin as the educated and educating language of the world. A great deal of the forging of modern America was made possible by Theodore Roosevelt's provision of high-quality free schooling in English for immigrant children from many countries early in this century -- a tradition now collapsing (in England as well as in America) under ill-thought-through pressure for ethnic minority rights. Nehru said that the independence of India was made possible only by the English language -- a remark of notable irony and balance. The chairman of the Lithuanian Writers' Union recently said: 'English will be the language to unify the Baltic States'. Children in felt tents in Mongolia are learning English from the television sets their parents have toiled to afford. Of course, access to the public world of western communication through the acquisition of the most-used language of power has been, and is, the primary point of these gestures of gratitude or aspiration. But there is more to all of them than this. Just as Latin civilized the countries converted to Catholic Christianity because the learning of the language for the understanding of the Bible and the liturgy brought with it Cicero and Virgil and St. Augustine, and the sense of the rule of law and of citizenship both sacred and secular, so English has brought with it Shakespeare and Locke and the liberal ideals of the nineteenth century, and a political tradition of rights and liberties with deep mediaeval roots which has informed every revolution everywhere since 1776. Europe itself has not forgotten the twiddling of radio knobs to find both hope and reliable news when Hitler was occupying most, of its countries. But while England deserves to shine for the world as an old exemplar of freedom and truthfulness, the English themselves, for lack of real education in their own history and literature, and, worst of all, for lack of connexion to the Christian frame of belief within which, however tenuously acknowledged, all England's great contributions to civilization have been made, are in danger of losing their grasp not only of why this should be so, but of the value of English liberty itself.

Freedom has become, for lack of thoughtful discrimination, a profoundly confused concept, very difficult to use with clarity in the context of educational intention. This confusion, like others, has its origins in the secular triumphs and spiritual defeats of the English seventeenth century. We are still deeply affected by the almost inextricable gains and losses of the political and economic freedoms won in England and communicated to the rest of the 'free' world over the secularising centuries of 'development'. Some of the losses produced, in reaction, as long as two hundred years ago, the Romantic impulse to free people, children in particular, from the corrupting and oppressive structures or an already complex, urban, industrial society, and to let them grow up outside its 'mind-forged manacles', each soul acquiring from uncluttered contact with 'the natural' its own reverence for creation. This impulse sometimes derived, in England, from a Christian Non-Conformist spring which ran, in the course of the nineteenth century, into the liberal humanist marshes, and was dissipated further in the drugs and rock music 'liberation' of the 1960s. But in all European countries the complicated history of accommodations made by the church to the authority of the state and the power of the dominant classes gave to every revolutionary impulse, of which this 'liberating' educational aspiration was one, an inextricably anti-ecclesiastical, and often also anti-Christian thrust. The fact that freedom has for so long in Europe (in England since Milton's generation) seemed to mean, also, freedom from ecclesiastical authority, has made it increasingly difficult to re-connect perceptions of beauty, truth and goodness to the perception of God revealed in Christ and of the church as his mystical body.

The identification of the authority of the state with an atheist revolutionary ideology in Russia and Eastern Europe has in this century done much to restore the truth, beauty and goodness of God, and the independent spiritual authority of the church, to the idea of freedom in those countries. But the recent collapse of communism as an imposed ideology brings with it the danger of identifying too closely the absolute spiritual freedom of the children of God within the church with the limited, because competitive and secular, freedom of a capitalist market economy. The sense of God's liberating truth, beauty and goodness has been stronger in Eastern Europe than in the West for generations, but partly because the seductive power of the false gods there promoted by the state has been weaker. Atheist totalitarianism on an unsound economic base is less attractive than affluence without ideology on a strong economic base. Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, are all, of course, guaranteed by political freedom. But liberal relativism, experience shows, makes -- when all choices seem 'as good' as each other because 'freely made' -- the choice to speak the truth, form the conscience rightly, worship God through his church and sacraments, extra-ordinarily difficult. And the choices neither to speak nor make the effort to hear the truth, neither to inform nor heed the conscience, and not to worship anything beyond the next satisfaction of an induced material 'need', are all too easy.

Freedom is a frightening condition if it is not freedom of the soul in dependence on God, and not enough people in the West recognise its terrors. A few weeks after he had become president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel said that his people had spent many decades groping their way along dark tunnels towards the distant light of freedom. The tunnels had been grim, but their constantly-touched sides had been in their way reassuring. Now that his people had emerged into the sunny square, things were going to be in some respects more difficult. To make the choices of the sunny square rightly, to pursue happiness where it is truly to be found, is that alone for which all education is worth undertaking.

Teachers must not be overawed by the narrowly economic criteria of governments, nor deflected from an understanding of the real situation by the present weakness of the universities, which have found it decreasingly possible to resist a dire combination of political correctness and successive governments' deliberately applied financial pressure. In the recent past we have seen Oxford and Cambridge, in the cause of 'equality' but really because of a sanctioned fall of intellectual standards, abandon their requirement of 0 level Latin for all, abandon their requirement of any Greek for candidates for Classics, abandon their expectation that candidates for English will have read some Chaucer and Milton at school, or candidates for Modern Languages have read any literature in those languages written before the twentieth century. When, seven years ago, they scrapped their own difficult post-A level entrance examinations, they deprived the cleverest young people in the country of a period of intensive just-adult study, more closely taught and supervised than is ever possible at university, which cannot be replaced either earlier or later in life. Nationally, we are now seeing the number of students at English universities significantly and cheaply increased by the simple device of making both A level and degree course syllabuses lighter and less searching. Examinations of course dictate what goes on in classrooms. The decline, in substance and intellectual demandingness, from 0 levels to GCSE, together with the softening of many A levels to make them fit GCSE achievement, has made the task of teachers in schools exceedingly difficult.

If the slide towards 'breadth', 'relevance' and 'training for the modern world', which is a slide towards mediocrity and towards the deprivation of the young of the resources they need for the sunny square, descends further, some teachers at least must not lose sight of the tried merits of informed judgement acquired through patient learning in traditional disciplines of study, art and skill. The implications will be critical care in the choice of subjects offered, both at GCSE and at A level, and the resolve to teach those subjects to the maximum depth of which children are capable, in recognition that this is likely to exceed by a considerable margin what the examination system requires. This will be more difficult than a mere return to the situation of thirty years ago, when Oxford and Cambridge regarded A levels themselves as insignificant in comparison with the quality of education they knew they could expect from the best grammar and public schools. And teachers, like anyone else whose value is neither publicly recognised nor publicly encouraged, find work lonely and difficult to sustain.

The enterprise, if it is to achieve any serious success, will need courage, clarity and dedication from those prepared to undertake it. It will need, above all, consciously and constantly maintained belief in the absolute value of real education for people one by one, in the knowledge that the enemies of this belief will be many and varied, will be both external and internal, and will often have the support of governments, the media, parents, other teachers, and children themselves. But belief in the absolute value of anything ultimately derives from and depends on belief in God (belief in the absolute, saving reality of goodness, beauty and truth), and the choices made in the sunny square become of no more than temporary, local, significance without the sustaining conviction that this is so. The articulation of this conviction and the holding of loyalty to it are now essential for the survival of genuine education.

|Lucy Beckett is Head of the Sixth Form at Ampleforth College in Yorkshire.~
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Author:Beckett, Lucy
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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