Monday, 22 December 2008

Wise men still seek Him ...

Merry Christmas to everyone. God bless you and your families in 2009.

(Photo: 3 wisemen from Chavagnes ...)

Monday, 8 December 2008

A Bishop for Boys

Today we celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the dedication of our chapel. We have a special devotion to the Immaculate Conception at Chavagnes, and invoke our Lady's protection particularly under that title.

But I'd like to tell you today about something we do each year on 6th December, St Nicholas' Day ...

The tradition of the boy bishop - elected each year on the 6th of December, from among the choristers of Cathedrals, Colleges and large parish churches - is an English custom dating back to the 12th century, abolished by Henry VII in 1542 as superstitious and vain, but briefly revived under Mary in time for her first Christmas on the throne in December 1553. Present also in Scotland, France and the Low Countries, it was in England that the custom was most universally and solemnly observed. Continental references tend to refer to abuses (such as servers throwing a bucket of water over the young prince of the church during the Magnificat instead of incensing him.) There is none of this on the civilised side of the Channel: anything to do with children and Christmas is taken very seriously by Englishmen and always has been.

The boy chosen for this honour was not actually consecrated a bishop, but acted as one throughout much of the Christmas season. The real bishop would symbolically stand down in the Magnificat at deposuit potentes de sede (He puts down the mighty from their thrones). Then the 'boy bishop' would ascend the throne at et exaltavit humiles. Apart from the celebration of Mass and the important Vespers and Lauds of Christmas itself, the boy would officiate at many services and make decrees as to the obligations of the other choristers (usually, extra food, less work, etc.)

It was a popular custom. Eton College elected two boy bishops each year, and all the Cathedrals had them. The boy's reign would end on Holy Innocent's Day, after he had preached a sermon at Mass. The sermon, in exquisite Latin, would normally be written for him by a priest. Afterwards, as the boy bishop relinquished office, his fellow scholars would give him a penny as a Christmas offering.

At Chavagnes, our boy bishop reigns for about seven hours on the Feast of St Nicholas, patron of children, and especially of choirboys. One day is quite enough topsy-turvydom for a modern school to take. A boy treble, about twelve years old, is chosen from the choir. The mitre, cope and other episcopal vestments are laid out on a special altar at the back of the Chapel, where, kneeling on prie-dieu, the youngster is ceremonially vested, kissing his pectoral cross and stole before they are laid upon him. Our chaplain prays for the bishop of our diocese and for all the bishops, and then he prays especially for the chosen boy, asking God to bless him and help him to give honour to God and to the sacred episcopate by the tradition which he is about to enact. The boy then processes to the sanctuary, followed by his young chaplains, to trumpet blasts from the organ, and then presides at Pontifical Vespers. Afterwards his junior Lordship receives the customary reverences from pupils and visitors. All the Masters and boys genuflect and kiss his ring, asking his blessing.

Although the symbolic reign only lasts a day, the boy always makes good use of it. Having discharged his liturgical duties, he presides at dinner, where he pronounces the blessing and grace. It has become customary for the puerile prelate to decree a later bedtime and a film evening for all pupils, while the suitably humiliated Chaplain and Masters clean the tables and sweep the floor.

Perhaps some readers will be thinking that such practices are best left to our extravagant Catholic past, but it seems to me that in this centuries-old sacred game we learn not just about the sanctity of the episcopate and the fragility of human rank, but also (lest the Masters should forget it) the need to show respect to children.

And if one needed to pick just one special day out of the Advent and Christmas season for this kind of thorough-going medievalism, St Nicholas Day (6th December) would have to win hands down. In 11th century Europe the popular new liturgy of St Nicholas gained ground in monasteries and cathedrals everywhere, except in one community where the conservative Prior would not tolerate novelties. When the Prior retired to bed one evening in early December our Saint appeared to him in a terrible rage, dragged him out of his bed by the hair and threw him to the floor. Beginning the anthem, “O pastor aeterne,” and with each new phrase administering a new crack of the discipline, he taught the stubborn cleric to sing the whole liturgy from beginning to end. At last, restored by divine compassion and the intervention of the blessed Nicholas, he confessed to his brethren: “Observe, my dearest sons, that after I refused you I underwent severest punishment for my hardness of heart. Now, as long as I live I will be the first and most skilful chanter of the historia of that great father.”

The martyrology tells us that St Nicholas was born in what we now call Turkey in the third century AD. His wealthy parents died of the plague, leaving him a large fortune which he gave away to the poor. He became Bishop of the port town of Myra and performed numerous miracles, notably saving some young sisters from being sold into prostitution by their father. He did this by pouring gold coins down the chimney (hence Father Christmas). He also found time to raise three little boys from the dead: they had been murdered in time of famine, cut up into pieces and pickled in barrels ready to eat by an enterprising old lady. St Nicholas’ skill at putting them back together again won him the definitive role of protector of children and especially of boys.

The fact that such legends and traditions so patently capture the imagination of the young is a strong argument for their revival and preservation.

Here is a record of this year’s festivities at Chavagnes. Sorry about the shaky camera (not me.)

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Reformation undone ...

The readings and homily at today's Mass made me think a lot about justification by faith alone and the whole issue of the Reformation.

The odd thing is this:

At the time of Luther and Calvin, Protestants said that no amount of good works would save you; rather one is saved by believing what one must believe: in the person and saving power of Jesus Christ.

Ask an average modern German Lutheran (and certainly a modern Anglican!) and he will tell you that what counts is that someone strives to be a good person. This is salvation by works alone. A complete capitulation of the Reformation.

It is the Catholics who now are left insisting that one must believe in Christ.

So what keeps the churches of the Reformation going? Cultural attachment to the forms of Protestant worship and a fear of what they perceive as strict Catholic (sexual) morality. Another anomaly, because at the time of the Reformation, Calvin, for one, was as strict as they come on such issues.

This is why progress has been made in ecumencial dialogue on the old theological causes of division. Anglicans have been cajoled into admitting the need for a Pope (in ARCIC) and Lutherans have been persuaded - in a joint declaration of a few years ago - to admit that good works are a good thing.

Dialogue of this kind with this Orthodox is more difficult, because although theological difficulties have arisen, they were not at the root of the split. Moral difficulties exist now with the Orthodox too. Under communism the Orthodox churches were all too silent on abortion, divorce and other important moral questions. And in Greece a culture of laxity has led to a situation where the Church has been marginalised in these issues.

The next challenge for any kind of ecumenical dialogue will be to tackle the moral problems that threaten not just individual souls, but the whole of society: these are problems that create a culture of sin from which it becomes increasingly difficult to extricate oneself. It will be a painful dialogue because both Protestants and Orthodox have historically tended to kowtow to the State. This new duty for Christians will no doubt involve some political battles, or at least debates. And to be effectual, we need to be united.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Rugby 7s victory for Chavagnes Juniors

This made my day today: our 80-25 win against l'Esperance, at 11-14 yr-olds Rugby 7s. Well done, both teams! You all played well.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

"Come and see" : a chance to experience Chavagnes for a week

"Can anything good come out of Galilee?" someone once asked (in John 1:46), and the reply came: "Come and see".

We are issuing the same invitation to boys between the ages of 9 and 17 who would like to experience Chavagnes for a week ...

We are calling it the Chavagnes Taster Week for potential pupils. From 16th-20th February 2009, we are inviting boys aged from 9 to 17 to come and spend a week here with us and experience the Chavagnes routine, join in some classes, meet the other boys in their age group, participate in some fun activities and discover something of our very special region of France, the Vendée. The cost for this week (from Monday 16th to Friday 20th) is just 75 pounds or 95 euros. It coincides with the half term holiday of many schools in the UK, so plenty of potentially interested young men should be free that week.

Please contact me at if you would like to book a place.

Friday, 21 November 2008

My saint for our All Saints Party

In case you are curious, I decided in the end to dress up as Saint Uncumber, or Wilgefortis. In fact her existence has been discredited, but the story is that she was a Portuguese princess who was promised in marriage to a pagan. She prayed to be made very ugly so as to escape her fate. Her prayers were answered (she even grew a beard) and so her father crucified her. There is a chapel in her honour in the Loreto Convent in Prague, which I saw a few years ago. It is rather eery ... My colleagues, and a few visitors thought it an odd choice. I think I will have to be more conservative next year. I already have an idea that I could go as Moses, with horns ... the way he is sometimes represented in art, because he came down from Mount Sinai and the 'horns of God' (an expression meaning 'glory') radiated from him.

Omnes sancti Dei: orate pro nobis!

Monday, 27 October 2008

Catholic Halloween? The Eve of All Saints

On Friday 31st October, while everyone else is either studiously avoiding Halloween or else honouring it by dressing up as a devil or a ghost, we at Chavagnes, for the 7th year running, will be disguising ourselves as historical saints.

Having previously attempted St Isidore of Seville, St Edmund Campion, St Anthony of the Desert and, I forget the others, I am quite lacking in inspiration this year ... any suggestions?

To be honest, I'd really quite like to dress up us a wizard or some other kind of spirit of evil, as we used to do when I was a child, but that would be against our rules.

The rationale behind our way of celebrating All Hallows Eve is this: the modern celebration of Halloween has got so far from its Christian roots as to end up glorifying witches and devils as an end in itself. So, by dressing up as saints, we remember the true meaning of the Feast and remind ourselves that we should imitate the saints in all that we do.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

In my spare moments: A History of Catholic Education

In my spare moments (ha ha) I am putting together a website on the History of Catholic Education. Comments welcome.

Turning the clocks back ...

'You're right that education is in a terrible state, Ferdi, but you can't just turn the clock back', someone (older than I am) once told me. 'Well, we do it every autumn ...'

Older clocks, like older people, don't like being moved back in time. Walking around an empty school this morning (it's half term break) I counted up all the clocks we are going to have to correct now that summer time is over. The old-fashioned ones are much more difficult to put back than the modern ones, because they don't like going backwards, and in order not to mess up the chimes, you have to listen to every quarter hour chime and pause a few seconds before moving on to the next. It's much easier in the spring, of course, when one is moving forwards.

The much discussed wave of conservatism (or even reaction) that is supposed to be afflicting/blessing the thrity-somethings of today is - I think - much more subtle. Like those modern clocks, we can move backwards and forwards with equal ease. The challenge for us is to find our own place in time and space and give honour to past, present and future. Sometimes that means that like St Paul, we have to play the conservative and hold fast to that which is good; other times we must put away childish things and accept the blessings of the future.

We are meant to be salt and light for the world. The salt makes food, and life, palatable. Without Christians, the world would surely be an even more wretched place .... But we are - by virtue of the One we represent and imitate, light. 'In him there is no darkness at all' ... in the light of Christ, which we must bring to bear on the world, that holy light of truth lights up every situation and helps us see what we must do.

And so autumn - the season of mellow fruitfulness - is here, and winter is just straining to blast her cold at us, forcing us to spend thousands of precious euros on oil. The hedgehogs are still about, so winter can't be here quite yet. At the moment we are experiencing clear blue skies and sunshine by day, and cold at night. But our thick stone walls keep in the heat until morning, at least for the moment.

It's a traditional season for contemplation, for finding comfort and strength in old certainties and customs. Time to huddle around the fire, literally and metaphorically. It's a good time to turn the clocks back for a season ...

Friday, 24 October 2008

Catholic boarding schools on Wikipedia

I have submitted a suggestion to Wikipedia for a page on Catholic boarding schools.

I am hoping to include in that page a general history of Catholic boarding schools (catechetical schools, medieval monastery schools, the new educational orders, lay-run schools, schools in the missions, etc), the situation today (decline in boarding; abandonment of single-sex education; the importance of competition between schools) ... should be interesting once it gets going, and would provide another good launchpad for redirecting people to find out more.

I have also created a UK-based joint site for Chavagnes and La Bonne Nouvelle, redirecting to both sites. It can be found at:

Friday, 17 October 2008

Mr McDermott's new enthusiasm

My new enthusiasm (sigh ...) is AQA's pick-n-mix A-level and GCSE syllabuses for Religious Studies. It is possible to design a very rewarding RE programme around these examinations which are essentially composed of an enormous list of options, from which one can choose a thoroughly Catholic selection. This is one of the joys of the British market-driven exam system, where quality is assured, but pedagogical and academic choices are left to schools and parents, rather than to the State or the exam boards.

I am building a site to house good Catholic resources for these excellent examinations:

We are doing Old Testament and New Testament as our options for the AS-level. For the A2 we have some great possibilities such as the Counter Reformation and Ethics, as well as more Scripture.

I am using Fr Lawrence Boadt's Reading the Old Testament (Paulist Press) and The Literary Guide to the Bible (Alter and Kermode, Fontana) and so far have found these a good basis; the former for commentary and the latter for convenient summaries of content.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Joint marketing

It is not good for man to be alone, says the Good Book. Following this spirit, Chavagnes has launched a joint marketing initiative with La Bonne Nouvelle, our like-minded girls' school. This most emphatically does NOT mean that we are thinking of goind 'co-ed', but it does mean that we will working together to make our schools better known, and to promote La Bonne Nouvelle/Chavagnes as a practical solution for families seeking the same kind of Catholic education for their daughters and their sons.

Both schools are real Christian communities where prayer and regular attendance at Mass are part of school life; both schools encourage fluency in French and English from within a basically British curriculum structure. And we also work together for various theatrical and musical efforts each year.

The first stage in our joint marketing strategy is the launch of a series of combined 'launchpad' sites that will direct enquirers to Chavagnes for their sons and to La Bonne Nouvelle for their daughters. went live today and we hope it will start to generate more visits to the sites of both schools.

The plan is that by pooling some of our efforts we might be able to help each other to grow. So please keep both schools in your prayers.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Shakespeare in Love ...

I have been thinking a lot recently about the personality of Shakespeare. This is because I am watching, together with our Sixth Form English Literature group, a fascinating documentary series from the BBC, called In Search of Shakespeare, with Michael Woods. I can heartily recommend it.

We are studying Twelfth Night together for the A-level syllabus, and we have been trying to find new critical angles for our reflection. Something that I came up with today was how the play sets out a vision of all the different kinds of love, making the point (not too distant from the Pope's in Deus Caritas Est) that they are all really very much closer than we think.

We looked at the relationships between

Viola/Cesario/Sebastian and Olivia, Orsino, Antonio

and also those between all the other characters ... and we found platonic love, the love of friends, sexual love, family love

and then we used the Sonnets as a kind of guide to the whole vexed, but interesting question of love between man and woman, and man and man.

In the early sonnets Shakespeare advises his protege to marry so as to leave the world a copy of his beauty, a theme taken up by Cesario/Viola in her exchanges with Olivia. It is also reminiscent of Orsino's exchanges with Cesario/Viola. There is a moment, however, in Orsino's advice to Cesario/Viola, where he notices that Diana's lip is not more rubious, and that all is semblative of a woman's part; a more delicate treatment of the theme taken up in the somewhat bawdy Sonnet 20, "A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted..."

One supposes that at the same time that Orsino is falling in love with Cesario/Viola, because of his(her) extraordinary good looks, Antonio is doing the same with Sebastian. Given that Viola/Cesario and Sebastian are supposed to be as alike as peas in a pod, there is an obvious comparison invited between the restraint of Orsino and the more freely expressed devotion of Antonio.

The fact that at the end of the play three lovers are left somewhat marginalised (Malvolio, Sir Andrew and Antonio) and also that love is so often spoken of in the same breath as pain or death, certainly reinforces the message that, despite the plays incredible fairy-tale ending, there is no real love without sacrifice; also that 'pleasure will be paid' ... Sir Toby's 'cakes and ale' and Malvolio's Puritanical Lent are both essential parts of life.

A contextual point which I have seen in none of the editions of crib notes, but which occurred to me after watching the BBC documentary, is the fact that Shakespeare himself had twins from whom he was separated by a kind of exile, and that the boy twin, Hamnet, died, when on the threshold of manhood. The tale of Sebastian and Viola is very close to this. The love of Antonio for Sebastian might tell us as much about a father's love as about male Platonic love; one never sees Antonio played as a 'happy father' figure at the end of the play, but it might work.

There are all sorts of interesting points that come out of Woods' documentary. I cannot recommend it highly enough, even if his excessive 'bardolatry' is sometimes a bit tiring.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

The cry of the babe in the womb

In a fascinating article about the importance of the human voice ('Human Voices - Haud Muto Factum: Nothing happens by being mute' in Education Today, vol 58, no. 3, College of Teachers, London, September 2008) Professor Rosemary Sage discusses the by now familiar observations about the way in which a child in the womb relates to his mother's voice. She develops this still further to relate the mother's voice and heartbeat to the very rhythms of language, song and poetry.

But what really struck me was the phenomenon of the uterine scream. Many will know of Dr Bernard Nathanson and the film The Silent Scream. It is a difficult film to watch. I saw it for the first time when I was 14 or 15, together with 125 other boys in my year group, at King Edward VI School, Southampton, an independent grammar school for boys, where I was a pupil. I remember that during the showing, the 'hard man' of the year (later expelled) had to leave the room and vomit. I still remember how that whole cohort, to a man, decided afterwards that abortion was one of the most unspeakable evils imaginable. Our RE teacher asked us 'What are you going to do about it, then? March on Southampton General Hospital and stop them doing this today?" We decided that we would not do this, but that we would simply bear witness to the truth of it all.

What moved us so much? In Nathanson's film an abortion procedure is captured on an ultrasound recording, and a distinct contortion is seen on the child's face as the vacuum pump reaches up to kill it. However, the silent scream is exactly what it says: silent. This is where Professor Sage comes in again.

Professor Sage quotes research that indicates that a surprising number of uterine screams have been witnessed and documented by medical practitioners over the last 400 years:

"Remarkably, there are 131 cases, between 1546 and 1941, of cries from human foetuses - usually following a medical procedure where they were touched, known as vagitus uterinus (squalling in the womb). The American physician who wrote about this event described the cry as like the mew of a kitten (Chamberlain, 1989)"

Source quoted by Sage is Chamberlain, D. B. (1989) 'Babies remember pain', Journal of Perinatal Psychology, 3(4).

This, if nothing else, ought to bring home to modern man the enormity of what happens to 1 in 3 unborn babies in the UK every year.

We used often to speak of sins 'crying out to heaven for vengeance'. Perhaps it is not vengeance that these babies are crying out for, but, at the very least, for mercy. In any event, their cry deserves some kind of answer from someone.

On a more technical note, it is generally held that vagitus uterinus is only possible when air has entered the uterus and the membrane has been broken (so, during childbirth or an abortion procedure, for example). However, an article in the BMJ in 1933 ( mentions folk traditions that tell of the young of various animals crying out in the womb as a portent of forthcoming events ... fascinating, isn't it?

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

More fun and games with the French state

The French Minister of Culture has annonced a major climbdown over volunteer involvement in cultural and musical shows. The government wanted to bring in a law outlawing the presence of more than 15% voluntary involvement in popular festivals and shows.

This would have meant curtains for the popular Inter-Celtic festival in Lorient which annually includes 10,000 folk musicians, none of them paid. It would also have destroyed the Vendée's proudest cultural event, the Puy du Fou evening show, which tells France's story throughout the ages, including the civil war of 1793-96, and includes 3,200 volunteer actors.

Threatened with a demonstration of force from the feisty 'chouans' of Brittany and Vendee, the government has backed down.

The voluntary sector in France lives in constant threat of persecution from a State that is historically allergic to any kind of private philanthropy. For example, there are laws that prevent schools, religious orders and others from benefitting from private wills! And, in theory, no-one is allowed to do any kind of voluntary work whatsoever, unless it is totally spontaneous and without 'subordination' to a timetable and a boss. (So, in theory Oxfam shops, where little old ladies turn up every morning at 9 o'clock to sort old clothes and drink cups of tea, would be impossible in the land of 'Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité'.)

Of course, voluntary work exists, but at any moment, the civil servants can - on a whim - decide to turn nasty and start criminalising football clubs, cycle clubs, schools, summer camps and the like. It is an incredibly hypocritical situation, because the state itself uses voluntary labour (without specific legislation to allow it) in contravention of this principle. My favourite example is the 'SOS Voyageurs' office in the station at Lyon. Provided by the SNCF, the state railway company, this an office, entirely staffed by volunteers (with opening hours, policies, etc). It provides assistance to lost or distressed travellers, a service which one would have thought was the job of SNCF's own staff.

In education, there are thousands of volunteers, particularly in Catholic schools. And from my own knowledge and experience, it seems to me that an odd thing is happening: the government (or at least the President) on the one hand is encouraging private charitable initiatives (in the way Thatcher did in the UK), while the old Republican guard of the civil service is trying to kill them off.

Much of the fear of the voluntary sector has to do with the old Republican fear of Catholic Rome. Perhaps the visit of Benedict XVI will do something to heal this old wound.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

No more cakes and ale for Catholics

It seems that 'cakes' was the common nomenclature for the wafers used at Mass in renaissance England and 'ales' were the merry parties of Catholics on high-days and holydays before the Reformation. According to Clare Asquith's book Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, featuring the Count Orsino as Duke of Illyria, was performed for Queen Elizabeth herself only a few months after the visit of Duke Orsini, an envoy sent by the Pope to plead with the Queen to return to Rome.

Asquith maintains that the role played by Feste the clown , 'a licensed fool', was similar to that played by Shakespeare himself. Elizabeth by 1601 was wearing black every day, enslaved to the logic of her father's and brother's religious choices (as Olivia is: enslaved by mourning her father and brother). She herself preferred Latin, celibate clergy and ceremony, and hated the puritans; just as we get the impression that Olivia really hates the whole business of formal mourning.

In fact, at court, Elizabeth surrounded herself with Catholic musicians and actors. The optimistic message of Twelfth Night, according to Asquith, is that perhaps a miracle might occur when the oppressed, disguised Catholicism of Elizabethan England (represented by Viola/Cesario) is reunited with its vigorous alter-ego, the more muscular version developing among English exiles in France (Sebastian), and that Eternal Rome represented by Orsino (after all 3 Orsini were Popes and many more of them bishops and cardinals, it seems) could at last be at peace with Olivia/Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen (called 'Madonna' by Feste.)

It is a compelling thesis and is only part of an extremely impressive argument put forward by Asquith, who has marshalled all the relevant scholarship of Cardinal Newman, Peter Milward, Michael Wood and many others to make a case which it is difficult to fault. Certainly anyone in Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience who was looking for comfort for Catholics, would begin to see it everywhere.

We have been reading Asquith, as a way of getting into the Tudor politico-religious mindset, in my A-level English literature class. The boys seem to be enjoying it. Our text, as you will have guessed, is Twelfth Night.

And yes, Lady Clare Asquith is married to the great grandson of the former Prime-Minister, HH Asquith. HHA's wife became a Catholic after his death and the senior part of the Asquith family has been Catholic ever since.

For more information, check out:

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

And another thing (re French national curriculum changes)

One more thing has struck me after reading through the latest news from Le Monde - Education. It seems that whereas currently French children are asked to study France and the European Union in the 1st year, they will now study Africa in the 1st year and France/Europe in the 4th year. This seems to me almost as topsy-turvy as the proposed changes to the history syllabus.

Islamicising the curriculum

The French national curriculum (which - through the medium of English - we follow in some respects for Years 7 and 8, although we are not obliged to do so) is in many ways a thing of wonder. The vision of an enlightened, optimistic and purposeful humanism (secular rather than Christian, unfortunately) is rather impressive. Christians can, in fact, find much in it of great value and common sense. Even though, from a British point of view, it can sometimes seem terribly Cartesian and dry. Of course, the reality in French schools might bear little relation to the ministerial ideal, but on paper it looks good.

There is a fine idea of logical progression in the sciences, of grammatical content in the languages and - most impressively - of chronology in history. There is also a clear programme of transmitting a sense of national and European identity, through a knowledge of classical antiquity, classical literature and the European story generally.

French children in the first year of secondary school, according to the programmes developed in 1996, should learn about the civilisations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece. They should know the main points of the Old Testament and the role played by figures such as David, Moses, Joseph, Solomon, etc. They read substantial extracts from Homer and the Old Testament, and even from the Gospels. They should see how Greek culture was perpetuated by the Roman empire, and how in turn this fed into the beginnings of Christianity. This study finishes in about 325 AD, with the Council of Nicea and the other achievements of Constantine.

In the second year the theme is the Middle Ages. It begins with the study of the fall of Rome, the creation of the Eastern empire, the monastic influence, the rise of Islam in the 7th century, the preaching orders, the crusades, life in feudal Europe ...

In the the third year the focus is on the renaissance, the early modern period ...

In the fourth year French children reach the familiar material of the Second World War, and similar themes, just as UK children do for their GCSEs.

The programme followed, then, is something akin to the sort of thing which is done in good private schools in England: a chronological approach, with clear periods in each school year, so as to avoid blurring in the child's mind.

The UK national curriculum asks for some elements of this between Key Stage 2 and Key stage 3, but there is not the same over-arching chronological vision. History is not seen as a story; it is more about skills : 'empathy', learning from history, or whatever.

And now for the bad news. Political correctness has won a victory against all that crusty old French Cartesian intellectual rigor. It has been decided that from September 2009, the 'three monotheistic religions' will be taught together in the 6eme (11 year-olds). Islam, a phenomenon only invented in the 7th century, is somehow going to be worked into the school year whose focus had been (and will remain) the ancient world and the roots of the modern age, up to 325 AD.

There is absolutely no historical argument for this. It will only confuse children who will think that Islam is a phenomenon of the ancient world or of the 1st centuries AD. They will have difficulty understanding the Early Middle Ages properly without Islam's place in the 7th century (unless it will be taught a second time.)

The main problem is that Islam has nothing to do with the roots of Europe, because Europe was already well-established by the 7th century.

It is good for children to study the birth of Islam. It is an important historical and cultural event. But it should be taught in its rightful place.

So, whatever the final details of this curriclum changes for 2009, we will be sticking to the current system, where history is told as a story with a beginning, middle and end, however uncomfortable that might be for the PC classes.

Incidentally, the changes are not yet 100% official; although they have gained the approval of the teaching unions. The minister of education is a university academic and perhaps he will see that the proposed changes are too obviously ideological to pass academic muster. Let's hope so, for the sake of France's children.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

French government interference

The French government is about to impose on private schools ('ECOLES HORS CONTRAT') a new set of terms and conditions for employment of staff. The main issues concerning us here are:
1. The right of staff to express their own opinions on religious and moral matters etc, a right which they may well already have had, but which we were never obliged to include in contracts; and 2. A scale of remuneration which obliges us to pay high salaries, commensurate with qualifications and experience, even if we cannot afford them and the teachers don't want them.

Let us look at a hard case. I am hypothetically faced with a teacher of history, religion or biology who denies the existence of God and the creation. Both facts, I know with unshakeable certainty, are truths known by natural reason. As such, these facts are an intrinsic part of all three of those disciplines. I suspect that on the teaching of religion we would find a way around the problems. But for history and biology, the State would no doubt propose that the existence of God were a question of completely private religious conviction. But my reason (as well as my acceptance of the teachings of Vatican I on this very subject) would lead me to take an exactly contrary position: the Creation by God, and the existence of God are truths that may be arrived at by reason alone. Moreover, it seems to me that no teacher of any subject may deny reason and yet fairly expect to remain a teacher. I hope I will never have to deal with such a situation.

When I told one of our teachers that the new state-dictated contracts included a 'freedom of religious expression' clause, the response came: "Great, then we can express our Catholic faith without fear, then ..." It is going to be interesting to see how this particular right is going to sit with the same State's pathological obsession with stamping out 'derives sectaires' (or 'extremism', for short) in schools and elsewhere.

Perhaps the teachers at Chavagnes could express their new legally-enshrined freedom of religious expression with a collective pronouncement of the Oath of Fidelity to the living Magisterium of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Now there's an idea ...

Someone has been reading my blog ...

It appears that some people have been reading my blog, because I recently received comments from three different readers. The counter had not been moving very quickly so I had imagined that all my visitors were in fact no more than google robots.

Just to keep you, and the robots, posted then, about what I am thinking about: I had an interesting conversation today with an American academic about a number of things. One thing that sticks with me is what he said about the corpus colossum and communication between left and right brain.

What I know on the subject is a kind of hotch-potch of information from my PGCE (right brain, left brain, 'brain gym', etc) and magazine articles about how men and women are different.

Today, however, we were speculating about whether there are fewer people (and specifically men) around these days who can exploit the full potential of both sides of their brains; or rather whether they can think effectively with both sides at once ... It struck me that if the ability to think with both sides of the brain were in fact a symptom of mental agility and even intellectual plenitude of some kind, then we are much the poorer for not having artistic scientists and novelists who still remember their algebra.

We mused that the Greek and later medieval notions of the Trivium and Quadrivium adressed this issue well, expecting the intellectually mature man to have mastered all seven of the liberal arts: spanning from astronomy and geometry to music and rhetoric.

The nasty part of all this is that bad our intellectual habits, our forgetfulness and our laziness are not just psychological handicaps, but actually scar the brain for life. Just as a physically inactive man runs to fat and becomes less active as he becomes more sluggish; so too, it would seem does a bad education change the function of the brain so that we veer to using one side or the other more than we should, and have a diminishing ability to connect the insights of both sides into a unified and balanced cognitive process.

All this talk of right brain and left brain leads me to believe that the ideal man - one who strives for 'life and life in all its fulness' - should seek to use all the mental faculties that God gave him in as perfect a unity as possible. This is what I understand must have happened to our Lord when he returned to the care of his parents in Nazareth (after the finding in the Temple) and grew in wisdom and stature in the sight of God and men.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Chavagnes on Vatican Radio

Just in case you missed it last month:
Chavagnes on Vatican Radio

Educating Catholic heroes

Here are some snippets from the 12-minute first section of a talk, which, as an experiment, I am uploading as a recording (see below) - I'd welcome comments from anyone who finds this helpful, (or unhelpful). ...

When one looks at the world today, with all its many problems and challenges, and worst of all its lack of hope about solving these problems, one can be tempted to despair, or one can be – which is no doubt better – tempted to rush around madly trying to fix our broken culture.

We are in a sandstorm at this time in history. Massive winds of cultural change have made the landscape unrecognisable, and shifting the sand around to try and put things back the way they were, or the way we think they were, is just too difficult for us. We won't fix things that way, by political and social schemes.

But we can plant solid young trees every few hundred yards, with miraculously deep roots. Once they are established, with God's grace they might help things settle down, because the people caught up in the storm will instinctively look to those heroic young trees with their deep roots. As they get older those trees might just provide enough shelter from the storm for other people to imitate their virtues and put down roots of their own, tapping down beneath the sands of change to the living waters beneath.

These trees are our young people, called to a life of particular heroism at this time in the world’s history, called to be salt and light; the leaven in the loaf of humanity that could yet help us all rise up out of our sleepy sinfulness into the light of God’s grace. And it is our job to educate these boys and girls. And so that explains my theme: educating Catholic heroes.

What makes a Catholic hero? First, in the manner of every good schoolboy, I’ll define my terms. Heroism ... When we read accounts of the heroes of Greek and Roman mythology, what traits of heroism can we pick out? Well, there is certainly devotion to the gods: when we study Homer, we see that the one solid and unshakeable trait of Odysseus’ character is his tender devotion to Athena and it is often her divine intervention that provides the means for him to get out of most of his scrapes with cyclopses, sirens and all manner of other strange beings, including other gods.
..... (here you have to click on the recording below to hear what I have to say!)


Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Rare pillow fight at Chavagnes ...

This doesn't happen very often at Chavagnes ... thank goodness.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Change at the Chalkface: some reflections

A leading labour politician (Ed Balls) was recently quoted as saying that teachers “should not teach subjects, but children”. This was in the context of a debate about the content of the curriculum in our schools, and whether it ought to be adapted to contain material more interesting to modern, urban children. The suggestion was that if children were failing to succeed in the study of traditional academic subjects, then we should simply teach them something else. The aim of education, it is suggested, should be to open the children’s minds, to teach them thinking skills, to teach them how to learn; but not necessarily to teach them any specific and important data.

One of the reasons why I took the trouble to begin my own school was that I profoundly disagree with this approach to education. It seems to me that education exists to hand on a tradition, and to initiate the young into their intellectual and cultural heritage. It is an inherently conservative activity because it conserves and perpetuates the best in our culture. For our civilisation to flourish and be stable, strong and confident, we need to endeavour to give our children the same kind of education that the great men of our day received. We cannot afford to take the risk of inventing a different aim and content for the educational process; this would be simply to turn our children into guinea pigs.

Government attempts at regulation and standardisation in state-funded education have been motivated by the belief that reducing diversity and enforcing uniformity would lead to a rise in standards. The reverse has occurred, because teachers spend so much time ticking boxes that they do not enjoy teaching as they might were they only allowed more freedom. The private sector has not escaped this movement and has allowed itself to be drawn into jumping through many of the same hoops as the state sector.

These more or less political convictions, together with a deeply held religious sense that Catholic education was losing its way in the UK, prompted me to make an educational and entrepreneurial leap of faith that led to the founding of a boarding school for boys. However, another important and more personal source of inspiration was my own positive experience of school, and an enduring sense of gratitude and respect for my teachers, all of which made me wish to be part of providing a similar experience for children in the next generation. Many of my ideas about teaching were really about replicating what I had experienced in my own schooldays.

Over the course of the last year, inviting colleagues and friends into observe my lessons, and finding time to do some relevant reading, I have been confronted with some of the problems and challenges inherent in my own views about teaching, together with some of the logical consequences of these ideas; consequences that had perhaps not previously been fully worked out and incorporated in my own work as a teacher.

In the first place, children have changed and teaching has changed with them. St Ignatius of Loyola famously said “Give me the boy at 7, and I will show you the man.” He knew that in order to form a young mind, one needed to start early. These days, a lot of damage has already been done to young minds by the time they reach 11 years old; mainly because they are exposed to so many unwholesome influences from a very early age.

When I was starting school, in September 1976, television was something that started at about the time children came home from school and ended at what would have been thought a sensible bedtime for adults. At other times there was no transmission. No one I knew owned a cine projector, and there was no other way of watching a film except for going to the cinema. Children’s radio programmes such as Listen with Mother, and even television programmes such as Jackanory taught children how to listen, and furnished their mind with attractive and wholesome influences and moral sentiments. Most children would not have watched more than five to ten hours of television per week in those days, if they even owned a television. And what is more, the programming for adults was generally also suitable for children. Variety shows (such as the Val Doonican show), including singing, dancing and story-telling, were common and extremely popular. Even more daring shows such as The Monkeys were really no more than reworkings of timeless comedy themes in a modern setting. The first really modern show was Top of the Pops, which was only a weekly occurrence. I used to watch it when I was 5 years old and I thought it was funny, with the dancers prancing around in their flesh-coloured body-stockings, but I suppose, looking back at it, that it was the Trojan horse for our English youth. I can still remember one of the songs that was so popular back then, a Pink Floyd number: “We don’t need no education …”

When I was at school there was really no special provision whatsoever for children with learning difficulties. Children, both at primary and secondary level seemed able to listen. The teachers were also able to indulge in a great deal of creativity, which made them – and their lessons - more interesting. At primary school, when I was about eight years old, I remember my beloved headmistress Mrs Turrell came back from a holiday in Australia. The whole of the autumn term that year was given over to learning about Australia: its history, its geography, its culture (such as it is) and its wildlife. We must have learnt other things that term, but Mrs Turrell’s enjoyment of her first long-haul flight and subsequent month on the other side of the world, overshadowed – or rather cast a balmy antipodean light over – the whole four months until Christmas.

In 2002, when I opened my own school it had not occurred to me that teaching 11-year-old English boys would have changed much in the twenty years that had elapsed since I had been sitting at a schoolboy’s desk. The wake-up to reality was not slow in coming, although my own analysis of what has happened to children and to teaching has only really happened in this last academic year. This has been because Chavagnes has had a good year this year, all things considered, and I have had more space for thinking and reflecting.

I remember back in 2003 discussing with our first Head, who had taught for ten years in Zimbabwe, about the kind of pupils we were recruiting. He opined that we were just rather unlucky at having attracted an inordinate number of naughty and unteachable children. (Of course, looking back now, I remember them as angels!)

By the time he left in 2004, and having compared notes with colleagues in UK schools, he wondered whether some problems we had been having might have been to do with the fact that our teachers were – many of them – inexperienced in other schools in a modern British setting. My feeling is that the problem was really a mixture of the two factors, and a third. Firstly, our pupils were not the same kind of child that my colleague was used to in old-fashioned southern Africa, nor that I remembered from a 1980s grammar school; also, even if in the past, inexperienced and untrained teachers might have coped well enough with old-fashioned grammar school boys, with the new breed of child, teachers need to be much more professional and much more engaging (after all, they are now more clearly competing with television presenters for the souls and minds of their charges); lastly, there is the problem of expectations. Our expectations were perhaps just too high.

All of this brings me back to Ed Balls and his statement about teaching children rather than subjects. The lesson I am learning is that while we may defend the deposit of all that splendid knowledge and culture that we must hand on to the next generation, we must not be afraid to learn from our mistakes and to read the signs of the times. What we are doing perhaps needs to remain constant, but the way we are doing it may have to change. The ability to change, in fact, is often the secret of fidelity to tradition.

“But whatever be the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited. ... In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” (John Henry Newman, On the Development of Doctrine, Chapter 1, Section 1: “On the Development of Ideas”.)

My belief now is that teachers are getting better and better at the art of teaching, even if on the whole they know less and less about their subjects, while their pupils, dazzled by all that modern technology has to offer, are less attentive and less interested. It's a peculiar irony that there have been so many improvements in the teaching profession at a time when we are no loner sure what in fact we should be teaching to our children.

Our challenge, as faithful Catholic teachers, is - very much in the spirit of Gravissimum Educationis and Vatican II generally - to attempt to pass on the tradition (by that, I mean all that we ought to teach) in a new and engaging way.

An old speech I found while tidying up my files ...

Mr McDermott’s End-of-Year Speech: June 2004

This year has been almost biblical in its epic sweep.

The plagues of Chavagnes have been legion. Plagues of serpents. Well, we thought it was a viper, but Mr Baudouin managed to identify it as an ‘orvet’a legless lizard. It had teeth but no venom. And it fell under the thud of my sledge hammer; although I admit to quaking in my boots as I struck.

Plagues of bats; well, many of you had fun hunting them in the dorms, with your towels. The Chavagnes bat hunt might yet become an ancient institution.

Plagues of spiders: they are very picturesque, those spider bites, aren’t they? I’ve never seen anything like it in England. We asked Doctor Chyl what to do about all of your coming out in bumps from the blighters. With typically dry wit, she prescribed a vacuum cleaner. So, next year, we must be careful to hoover more carefully: even the corners of the ceiling and the gaps between the floorboards.

Plagues of mosquitoes: well, they are still with us, and many have the marks to prove it. We have all fallen victim to their thirst in the long watches of the night. At least it means we are all blood-brothers now.

Plagues of frogs – getting up at night and hearing the continual croaking and groaning of Frogs, happily propagating their noisy race down on the lake at the back of the College.

“I will plague your whole country with frogs. The river shall swarm with frogs; they shall come up into your palace, into your bedchamber and your bed, and into the houses of your officials and of your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your officials.”

So says the good book on the subject of frogs. And this has certainly been a good year for them, with our little gallic friends finding their way into every nook and cranny of our establishment. Let us hope that, in welcoming them ever more warmly in the future, you will all improve your French. Next year, we are expecting a few more froggies in our midst. And I hope that Froggies and Rostbifs will learn to live and let live, benefiting from such a splendid chance of exposure to each other’s languages and culture in our wonderful school.

Well, a few departures are on the cards. Inigo – one the temperamental Connollys. They say the Connollys always have to find a wife from another part of Ireland, because of the reputation they have “for the temper they have on them.” I will certainly miss my own dear cousin and very special firebrand, Inigo, who has decided to return to England. We wish you all the very best.

Guy – the whingeing pommes is an expression attributed to the Australians. It’s what they call us Brits. Well I’ll leave all of you who know and love Guy as much as I do to reflect on the ironies of that particular cultural cliché. The only whingeing we are going to give in to today will be to say : “don’t leave us, Guy. We’d love to have you back next year.” [in fact, he did come back…]

The return of the Catholic gentleman ... We have some fine examples of that breed here among us. Alex, yes, Greg; yes, also.

But I would echo a comment made to me by Mr Kelly, that, of all our older boys, one gentleman stands out for his steady, resolved, courteous and manly demeanour. That young man is Joe Millington, whose honesty, good nature and strong sense of duty have been a genuine adornment to the College during his year among us. We will be very sorry to see the elder statesman of the seniors take his leave of us, and we wish him well.

Hilaire Belloc published a collection of poetry under the title of Survivals and New Arrivals, and I suppose those of us left un-thanked all fall into that category: those of us who have fought the good fight, run the race to the finish, and now want to do it all again next year. And then there are those who have read about us in the paper or seen us on the television, and now want to part of the adventure. Well, an adventure it certainly is. It has all the right ingredients too: an undiscovered country, new friends, risk, excitement, originality; and - no doubt – a hint of madness.

Of the new arrivals, we are privileged to welcome one of them already, Mr Paul Jernberg, who is taking over as Director of Studies. Bienvenue, Mr Jernberg. I know that I speak for all the staff when I say that we are all very eager to start working with you, to make this College - so full of promise – all that it needs to be.

Josemaria Escriva whose feast falls today said ‘if you can only dare to dream, then the reality will far surpass your wildest dreams.’ He also suggested that our work should be not just good or even excellent, but HEROIC.

Let’s make that vision our own next year. Let’s commit ourselves to live up to the name of ‘Catholic gentlemen’, and even of ‘Catholic heroes’. After a good, heroic rest of nine weeks this summer, let’s commit to imbuing every one of actions next year with an epic quality. I want to hear you referred to as angels in chapel, tigers on the football field, Einsteins in the lab, Michaelangelos at the easel, Thomas Aquinases behind your desks.

This is what our Lord called us to when he taught us that wanted to us ‘live life in all its fullness’. Even in something that is not your specific gift, pledge yourself to be known for your heroic grit and determination; your will to do your best.

God bless you all.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Modern man: doubly deracinated

Modern man is thoroughly marooned, and Christ is the only lifeline that can help him find a way back on to the ship.

Because man needs roots, many revolutionaries [Voltaire, Hitler, to name two] have attempted to make a shortcircuit back to a forgotten pagan age, despising the Christian legacy of which they themselves were a product. It is also the commonplace of much new age thinking.

But C.S. Lewis has an neat answer for those who think that Europe can come out of Christianity " 'by the same door as in she went' and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past." - in De Descriptione Temporum, a lecture delivered on 29th November 1954. CUP, 1955.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Shaken and Taken

Teaching the Trivium (in the guise of English, plus a little History and Latin) to boys at Chavagnes International College.

Every aspect of the learning and teaching experience in a school is -or ought to be - about growth and development. Newman observed that even the mere fact of being in a vibrant and intense atmosphere of intellectual work can itself be an agent for the intellectual, social and cultural development of the young. (He claims not to speak of the religious and the moral in the same terms, but this is only because he is writing about Protestants for a Catholic audience. It is clear that these kinds of development cannot be separated from the rest.)

When a multitude of young men, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic, and observant, as young men are, come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day. ... from Idea of a University, Discourse 6.

As one who lives in such a community, and remembers experiencing something similar as a boy, I am certainly in sympathy with Newman’s view. Many of the best lessons I learnt were learnt through friendship, through discussion, even through osmosis, in an environment of men and boys with, on the whole, lively minds and open hearts; and I suppose it must be the same for the boys whom I presume to teach today.

Thinking back to my own days as a schoolboy, however, there is a clear distinction in my mind between those long-lasting lessons that I learnt from teachers as teachers, and those I learnt from teachers as men. Perhaps it is partly because I was never a brilliant scientist that my best and fondest memories of my science masters involve camping trips or discussions about the existence of God; they have little to do with photosynthesis, the periodic table or electrons, although these were certainly interesting and useful things to know, and even if the disciplines of mind acquired in studying them are doubtless a useful break to the romantic and impractical urges of the artist.

On the other hand, the encounter of minds, and even hearts, so idealised by Newman (whose own heraldic motto was cor ad cor loquitur) certainly happened in English, History and Religion lessons at school; and that – it seems to me – is how I have been drawn to relive that same experience myself from the other side of the teacher’s desk. I can remember the buzz I myself felt when discovering the possibilities of language, or appreciating why I found an argument convincing or why some descriptive passages in novels produced a clear picture in the mind and others did not. English, then, was a subject that certainly marked me more than any other; and I am sure that this was a common experience for many English grammar school boys.

Now that I am used to marking essays, often about personal experiences, I can see now how my English teachers at school often automatically assumed a pastoral role. The adolescent boy is often reticent about his feelings when he is speaking to a class, but will usually say much more in his exercise book. He is also more likely to give a true impression of his character in his written style than he might under the pressure of a classroom situation. The boy will offer to the teacher, in his written work, a window into his soul. And in return the good teacher will rise to the challenge of offering the kind of good advice that will last a lifetime.

I recall, for example, an English teacher who would tell me that I was “sixteen, going on sixty-four” and who would pepper my literature essays with broadsides such as “dilettante!”, “yuck!” or, worse, “B.S.!” (I had to ask him what that one siginfied ... ) There was also the occasional “Wow!” just to keep me feeling loved. Twenty years on, his comments still form part of my intellectual landscape. They are still like signposts that pop up in my imagination to cajole and correct the way I think and write, and even the way I view the work of my own pupils.

It is clear to me now, though it was not obvious then, that such teachers were not simply helping me to write better essays and to pass my A-levels. They were training my habits of thought and forming my character.

And it was ever thus; for the teaching of English language and literature is the somewhat humbled relic of the great language arts of the western educational tradition; all that remains of the classical Trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric. It was through the teaching of the Trivium that a young mind was formed, ordered and energised for the teaching of the Quadrivium, and - in the middle ages – for the higher sciences of philosophy and theology.

The language arts, then, are taught for what they can do for the mind. They are certainly both sciences and arts, in the sense that they are about things that can be known and things that can be done. They are not, however, essentially practical or instrumental (although no doubt, parents from ancient Greece and Rome to the present day see communication skills as the key to success in the job market). Unlike what may be called the utilitarian arts (carpentry, plumbing, hairdressing and so forth) or the fine arts (dance, sculpture, painting, literature, architecture, drama, etc) the principle of the liberal arts is that the agent engages in an activity that perfects him, but which does not produce a product for other people. The grammar, logic and rhetoric that lie behind our tradition of modern English teaching constitute, or ought to constitute, an activity that is - to make an analogy with grammar - intransitive. A builder builds houses, a hairdresser cuts hair, but a schoolboy pursuing the Trivium just studies, just as a tree grows.

Unfortunately, the very subjectivity of this kind of learning makes it vulnerable to modern politicians, and even some educationalists, who want to measure and instrumentalise everything that is done in schools. This has laid the English curriculum open to attack from all sorts of ideologues; but of all the subjects, it has proved to be very resilient. In spite of the many successful attempts to ‘dumb down’ schoolwork in English language and literature, the idea that the subject should belong to a more spiritual and less practical realm has survived and continues to be generally championed. Latin, however, has become a symbol of obscurantism: too blatantly impractical, too obviously intransitive for moderns to cope with.

And yet, those marvellously intransitive moments of wonderment – the times when a child perceives, understands, loves and rejoices in a newly discovered truth, all at once – are still a common feature of the teaching of humanities. Here is just a very simple example: I have recently been asking the boys in my Year 8 and 9 English class to look at extracts of Shakespearean iambic pentameter and to identify the breaks in rhythm. I told them that Shakespeare never ‘messes up the rhythm’ by accident. There is usually (perhaps I even said ‘always’) a reason. We looked at the ‘To be or not to be’ speech from Hamlet and concluded that language effects were used to draw our attention to particular words or ideas. They noticed one instance of alliteration: the bare bodkin, which Hamlet could use to kill himself; the breaks in rhythm that were noticed were ‘question’, ‘suffer’, ‘to die’, etc.

Today, about two weeks after the Hamlet class, I asked them what they remembered from the ‘To be or not to be’ speech. Of course, they remembered all the words and ideas that Shakespeare - through his manipulation of imagery, rhythm and alliteration – tried to implant in their minds. They were pleased about this. Then we looked at our first sonnet, number 116, and the boys tried reading out the poem, with emphasis on the rhythm of the lines, so as to spot any rhythmical problems. Here it is:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments, love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown although his height be taken.
Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come,
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Now, I had read through the sonnet before class in preparation, and had thought a little about the imagery of the star guiding a ship and of the landmark in a storm, of the beloved grown old, but still loved the same; even of the lover as a harvester, out in the fields, wielding his sickle amid the swathes of beautiful rosy lips and cheeks. But I had not noticed any breaks in the rhythm because I had not read it aloud. But the boys noticed the ‘rhythm words’ before they could penetrate the language that presented all those images. ‘Shaken and taken!’ enthused a grinning 13-year-old, with a raise of his eyebrows.

And in fact, the ‘subliminal message’ as the boys liked to call it was perhaps the single most interesting point one could make about this sonnet. For in those two words were expressed the whole mystery of man’s abandonment to the carnal and the spiritual adventure of true and faithful love. The whole class, including the teacher, was for a moment, shaken and taken, by the discovery.

“Every intellectual work begins by a moment of ecstasy” (according to a celebrated Dominican theologian, echoing Aquinas, A.G. Sertillanges, O.P. in The Intellectual Life: Its Spirits, Conditions, and Methods; many editions since 1920.) and moments such as these are part of what teachers of the humanities do; and they are what make them love their work. It is like the temporary lifting of a veil: a glimpse of a world of exciting goodness, truth and beauty; a world where to see is also to know and understand. Such moments are possible in the realms of mathematics and the natural sciences too, but they are – it seems to me – less accessible. (I am with Dr Johnson, I fear, who – in his Life of Milton – magisterially pronounces that "the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind." )

Notwithstanding whether such moments of wonderment occur in the arts or in the natural sciences, when they do happen, we almost invariably say something like: “It makes you think, doesn’t it?” And that is exactly the point: one stimulates the sense of wonder and the desire to know, the desire to think; then the pupils start actively learning and actively thinking. Like any other human activity, thinking gets easier the more you do it.

Part of the vocation of English teachers is surely to act, in a certain sense, as the priests of culture. We are the dispensers of the mysteries, passing on the canon of the good, the true and the beautiful, so as “to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere” (Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy), to open minds and hearts, to awaken the consciousness of the young. And in an age where the culture we love is under attack, or at least subject to chronic decline, the transmission of this cultural legacy is not just a pleasure, but also a matter of urgency. But we need not dispense these mysteries merely for the sake of some fanatical nostalgia: there are a number of concrete benefits which would seem to accrue to a child who is pursuing a study of language, literature and culture in this way.

Firstly, by teaching a child to communicate – by passing on to him the gift of language – we thereby allow him to embark upon a life of communion with others. For it is impossible to give without communication of some kind; and through enriching a child’s capacity for expression and communication, we also help him to share his own self and his personal gifts and talents with others. This then, is a gift not only to the child we have taught, but to the others who will be enriched by encounters with the specificity of his character; encounters that are only made possible through the wonder of good communication.

Human beings are communal creatures. They exist to live together and share physically and spiritually with each other. “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis, 2:18.) but without the ability to communicate effectively and expressively, he becomes a prisoner of the limitations of his own perspective. He becomes, as it were, suffocated, because he has an innate need to share himself with others, but becomes frustrated if he is not able to do so.

Many adults live greatly impoverished and unfulfilled lives because of a lack of emotional, cultural and social maturity, and from a lack of imagination; problems which often stem from deficiencies in their education. In communication with others, then, we attain a certain self-realisation which is only possible when we can share with another human being. The study of language helps us do this, but also the study of literature helps us, in that it stretches and stimulates our imagination and offers us varied and compelling models of discourse and relationships.

In a strictly spiritual and even theological sense, such giving through communication is a way of realising our vocation as creatures in the image and likeness of God: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”(Genesis 1:28.) In communication we populate the universe with our own personal and specific creativity. We “make our mark” on it; often thought to be a wholly pagan ambition, but to my mind a very Judeo-Christian one too.

We English teachers do not, however, merely teach children to communicate. We effectively teach them how to think in the first place. Thought, in any meaningful sense, is only possible with language, and limited language means limited thought.

This does not mean that I am advocating the view that only highly literate people can think with any degree of sensitivity or sophistication. In fact, research performed by various ethnologists has proven conclusively that the vocabulary of some illiterate, but highly cultured, peoples has been several times more extensive than is ours today. (Amongst others by the founders of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, back in the early years of the 20th century. A series of their early cylinder recordings of traditional Gaelic storytellers was transcribed in the 1990s and a vocabulary in excess of 15,000 words was noted among these illiterate Gaelic speakers).

This would be the case, for example, in certain ancient tribal cultures in Africa and India, and was certainly true in parts of Britain a century ago. The tribal culture of Greece in 800BC – the culture which produced Homer and his incredibly sophisticated literary work – is perhaps the most striking evidence of this truth. It is, then, words - and not letters - which enable us to think. (Except, of course in algebra or other codes, where the letters in fact become words.)In fact Plato famously explores whether writing might in fact make us forget all our culture by making our minds lazy (in his story about Thoth, the god of writing; Plato, Phaedrus 102)

It is not enough, however, to teach a man how to think (by giving him words for concepts) without giving him something to think about. And this is another important part of how an English teacher plays a key role in a child’s development, especially in a cultural and moral sphere. Socrates, through Plato, taught that the exposure of the young to good music – and for him in his oral culture this would have meant all the tales and poems that we would call literature – made morally good people. The unity of goodness, beauty and truth means that moral choices can be viewed as aesthetic ones; that which is pulchrum must be verum; it seems to us dulce et decorum and is also, necessarily, bonum. So, when we introduce children to good authors, we give them all sorts of wholesome influences for life and help to develop their closely linked aesthetic and moral sensibilities.

Anthropologists teach us that tribal myths and legends had an initiatic function, helping the young to integrate into society and understand their role in it. Modern children have the same needs as their classical and tribal ancestors, and will respond in the same way to the childhood heroes that we set before them in our era. They will imitate them. Good art – especially if it is being served to unformed minds – should imitate the best of life, so that our living is in turn enriched by it. So, we should be careful, and not simply accept the latest product of Hollywood as the new Jason, Hercules or, ultimately (for a believer), Jesus Christ for our children. There is a direct link between the impoverishment of the myths and literature we offer our children and the all-pervasive societal and moral decline evident especially in the level of aspirations and behaviour we are now seeing in our inner cities. (Jenny lives with Eric and Martin, Susanne Bosche, 1981 (championed by the Positive Imaging policies of the Inner London Education Authority back in the 1980s) would be a particularly crass example of how misguided intellectuals would seek to influence schoolchildren through fabricating brand new initiatic myths. )

It is the task, then, of the good English teacher, to instil a love for (and, in these interesting and dangerous times, a critical taste for) good literature, by proposing plenty of it to the young mind. This way, we may inform the thoughts that will be thought. We engage in the noble mission of furnishing the mind of the next generation, ensuring that these youngsters are not strangers to the human condition, but full participants in it (a Christian sentiment, of course: “I came that they might have life; and life in all its fullness.” John 10:10) To achieve nobility of soul, then, we must ensure a nobility of influences: the speeches of great men or, in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “the best that has ever been thought or known.” In Culture and Anarchy.

Part of the reason why in so many English literature departments in universities around the world, left-wing professors will devote themselves to almost any task other than actually teaching English literature, is that they know that the classics have a transformative, healing and formative effect, and one that promotes and celebrates a profound – and anti-revolutionary – continuity of all the ages of man’s story. That is what makes them classics. And that is what makes them unpopular with those who are uncomfortable with man’s past and heritage: those, in fact, who would make us all strangers to the human condition, in order to make us ripe for brainwashing into Marxism, Nazism, hedonism or whichever other particular ephemeral ideology they happen to espouse.

If we English teachers can give our pupils enough experience of good and wholesome literature and ideas, and a love for language and its possibilities, we will be rooting them firmly in their culture, and also helping them to think for themselves. The positive effects of such a contribution to their education will be felt across the whole curriculum (inter alia, it will improve their Thinking Skills, to borrow the ridiculous modern edu-jargon)and will teach them spiritual, intellectual, moral, social and cultural lessons that will last a lifetime. Then they will never be time’s fools, taken in too easily by the zeitgeist. They will stand like Shakespeare’s fixed mark, braving all the tempests that the unlovely and uncultured moderns can throw at them.

Ferdi McDermott is Principal, Chavagnes International College, France
(a Catholic boarding school for boys.)
Copyright, Ferdi McDermott, May 2008.
Please acknowledge source if you use this material.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Keeping tabs on me

If you want to keep tabs on me, you'll have to check my other blog

It is a diary in which I record a new experience every single day. Quite a challenge. But I am discovering that it is more a question of perception than of changing one's plans in favour of novelty. In fact, life is always new and exciting if we stay alert.

This blog remains, for more serious thoughts, and for sharing articles, poems, etc.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Worthy praise of our Lady

Here is something beautiful I found: Mozart's offertory Alma Dei Redemptoris, sung by the Vienna Boys' Choir. Shouldn't everything to do with Our Lady be like this? Like the lady herself: a beauty that will lift us up ...
Click here for the Alma Dei Redemptoris and other pieces sung by the Wiener Sängerknaben

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Ευαγγελισμός της Θεοτόκου

Happy Feast of the Annunciation! Let Mary's 'Yes' be an example to me today.
"Oh Mary, my Queen and my Mother: I am all Thine, and all I have is Thine."
Some thoughtful and inspiring insights from Eastern rite Catholics; streamed for easy listening:

Monday, 24 March 2008

Chavagnes during World War II

The slogan of the village of Chavagnes is 'UNE VOLONTE D'ACCUEIL', which means, roughly, 'a will to welcome'. These words are plastered across one or two garish signs that mark the entrance to the commune's territory. As you enter the 'Mairie', there's another clue: the Latin motto under the Commune's coat of arms, taken from the 133rd Psalm, "habitare fratres in unum". The full quote is : 'this is what is good and pleasant: for brothers to live as one.'

What a wonderful context for an international College, and indeed a beautiful sentiment for us men and boys who live in it, striving, in the midst of all our pride and other imperfections, to live like brothers, in unity.

But the story goes back a long way. There was, of course, the medieval priory on the site of the College, back in the 13th century. Then Father Baudouin's tiny school in his Presbytery, beginning with two pupils.

Another important and inspiring detail in the history of Chavagnes is how, under the nose of a German garrison occupying the seminary (yes, the Ref of Chavagnes once housed dozens of wounded German soliders from the Russian front, and there was a machine gun in the bell tower!) the people of Chavagnes sheltered dozens of Jewish children, and kept the fact quiet right until the 1980s. If you can read French, there is an interesting summary of those events at ; just scroll down the page a little.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Mr McDermott diminishes ...

Since taking over the day-to-day running of the College in October 2007, I have lost 4 kilos. (for the metric martyrs among you, that is about 10 pounds). I am on a diet, but I have the impression that this is not the reason. It is doing me good to rush around, to do more teaching, and to spend less time in front of my computer.

However, if the College is ever going to accommodate 60 or 70 boys, which it needs to do, in order - I would suggest - to really come into its own, I need a dynamic helper to implement, while the College is still relatively small, the systems and structures that will be necessary when (note, I don't say if) it grows to 60, 70 or even 100 pupils. And, if I keep losing 4 kilos every 6 months, my mathematics tells me that it will not be too long before I waste away, or at least come closer to a normal size and shape, which would play havoc with my expensive wardrobe.

That's why we have started advertising for a new Head Master for September or January. We are not going to recruit just anyone. For the moment, as you would expect, I am happy with the way things are moving under my own leadership. However, in order to find the right man (yes, alright, I concede, a better man) for the job, we need to start looking now.

I invite you to join me in praying that Almighty God will inspire the right person and fill his heart with zeal; and that, together, we will be able to bring to wonderful fruition the beautiful work of Catholic education that we have begun here at Chavagnes.

With this thought and prayer, I wish you all a very blessed Easter.

Here is some footage of the Chavagnes senior boys' first ever Rugby 7s match, 13th March, 2008. Not bad for beginners, eh? (We are in blue).

Friday, 29 February 2008

My Year 7/8 English class wrote a gothic horror story

Yes, what fun it was. We each wrote a chapter, including me. I got the last one, so you'll have to guess what went before. The boys' contributions were great.

Chapter Nine

Jakob looked to left and right as he emerged from his cottage. He pulled his greatcoat around him, noticing the biting cold and a strange stillness that seemed to pervade not just the house and the garden, but even the birds, that at this time of the evening were usually making their evening calls to each other among the fruit trees. Not just from the fruit trees that Jakob tended, but also from the tall firs beyond the wall. On any other evening, these firs formed not only a wall that mysteriously sheltered the house from the world without, but also a wall of sound, of all kinds of different whistles and warbles. As a young man, Jakob had spent many an evening listening to them, at the end of a day’s work, drinking in all the weight of communication between these hundreds of small creatures, hidden in the branches of this little wood.

Now there was nothing. Not a sound. If communication there was, it was of a different kind. Between this world and another world, Jakob reckoned, as a sudden shiver traveled down his neck. He fastened up the last buttons of his overcoat and began to make his way down to the potting shed at the far end of the long garden, behind fruit trees, against the high stone wall. As he moved closer to the potting shed he noticed that although no noise came from the firs, they seemed to be moving, swaying as if in a breeze. And yet the air was still. Cold, and very, very still.

He wrenched opened the door of the shed easily, despite the padlock. He was an old man, but had lost none of his strength. There was a keyhole in the old door, but the key had been lost, long ago. Inside the shed there were old woolen blankets on the floor in a heap. Jakob kicked the blankets, attempting to clear his way, and his boot made a dull thud. There was, he deduced, something hidden under them.

His heart began to race. After the tragedy of Gregor, only the other day, when the police had come screeching in with all their distressing sound and fury and taken Andre away in a grim police van, he was already fearing the worst. He had always known that there was something amiss with Andre and he had had his suspicions about the maid who left the Cragthorpe’s employment at the time of the boy's birth. She had been a beautiful young girl – long, red hair and eyes of the deepest, purest blue; slim and energetic, so full of life. Just looking at her gave one joy. He used to like seeing her about her work; there was a lightness and freshness about her. Jakob half imagined that Wanda was a little resentful about her; that she even reproached him for liking the girl. But they had never spoken of it. And then when the young maid left so suddenly, they never spoke of her again. Jakob had noticed he was not the only one to admire the poor girl. Lord Cragthorpe himself seemed to ring for her a little too often.

All these thoughts from the past flitted through his imagination as he stood frozen before the pile of old woollen blankets. For some reason, the grey embers of memories of that pretty redhead, vanished sixteen years before, glowed red-hot again within him, as if someone blew upon them. He felt her presence very strongly. It frightened him so that his wizened old hands began to shake as he stooped to pull back the old cloth to see what lay beneath it.

And then came the moment of horror. And as the reality of what his hands were uncovering began to penetrate his terrified mind, his whole body began to heave with uncontrollable lurches of grief. He cried out in a loud voice : “Why? How can this be?”

For what the old man saw, kneeling on the damp, mud floor of that forgotten potting shed was more than any human soul could bear without falling into the black relief of insanity. As Jakob pulled back the brown, stained coverlets, he discovered the body of his master, covered with the man's own blood. And beside him, with arms entwined around in each other in a macabre embrace, their starched white frocks shot through with streaks of awful crimson, lay Lord Cragthorpe’s two devoted daughters.

As he wept aloud, Jakob spoke many words, uncontrollably, madly calling out for help, for explanation, for – in truth – he knew not what.

And then, suddenly, came the smell. It was a sweet smell, and it seemed to come from the old stained blankets that acted as a shroud for these three poor souls. He bent his head towards the cloth and held it to his nose. It was a sickly smell: sweet and oily. It made him feel nauseous. But it also brought to him to his senses.

At that precise moment, Jakob became aware of a figure behind him, at the door of the she. The figure cast something into the shed and, before he could turn properly and see who it was, the door slammed shut with a thud. Then he heard the key turn, and in a flash he knew that what had been thrown in had been a match. It only took a few seconds for the flames to engulf the blankets. Jakob leant against the wall of the shed. Clear from the flames, for the moment, but coughing in the smoke. Pressed against the wall of the shed, and with his mind beginning to slip into unconsciousness, he turned his head and saw something move on the other side of the small glass window. It was the stooped figure of his wife, Wanda, retreating towards the house. He was almost now at the end of all. He coughed and spluttered loudly, gripping the ledge, pressing against the wall, realizing that the flames were now about to engulf him too. And then a thought came to him from childhood: a thought, and a word. He could not say why or how; but perhaps just to fight off the awful despair towards which the sight of his wife was now pushing him, he rasped two words: “Jesus … mercy.”

From the top window of the tower of the Cragthorpe’s ancient house came a loud shriek from a woman looking down at her garden, and at the inferno that raged beyond the fruit trees. The woman was Lady Cragthorpe but her face was almost unrecognizable, so twisted was it with rage and fear and madness.

Jakob was by now already dead. Wanda, his wife, threw another lighted match through the letter box of the big house, locked the door with the mortice lock, and mounted her rickety old bicycle with a basket on the front. As she pedaled, she felt nothing, except the surge of heat from behind her that for a few hours yet would give a little heat to the cold of that very black night.

Ferdi McDermott, 29th Feb, 2007.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Does the state destroy true education?

Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) was one of the leading conservative intellectuals in the English-speaking world during the post-war period. Born into a Fabian socialist milieu, his own conservatism seems to have arisen from the political crucible of the 1930s, in reaction to the dual horrors of Nazism and communism. According to Oakeshott `modern governments are not interested in education, they are concerned to impose `socialization' of one kind or another upon the surviving fragments of a once considerable educational engagement."

He saw the job of the state as simply to stay afloat, rather than heading off in some idealistic and utopian direction; and of education, to engage the young, and not so young, in a conversation with our heritage, and a conversation between certain different modes of thinking and being that would give them a life of freedom and even of adventure:

"men sail a boundless and bottomless sea, there is neither
harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting­place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy;
and the seamanship consists in using the traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion".[1]

The different ways of looking at life as envisaged by Oakeshott correspond roughly to an expanded version of the Quadrivium as it was envisaged by the ancients and by the medieval founders of our university system; that is to say, a system intended to form minds and perpetuate culture, rather than to train young workers.

What Oakeshott is seeking to defend is essentially what has become known as a liberal education. He claims that governments, and others, have attempted to substitute their own ignoble changeling for the liberal arts tradition that has been at the heart of our culture for nearly three thousand years. And Oakeshott is more than merely worried. He bleakly suggests that we have reached the point of no return:

"The design to substitute 'socialization' for education has gone far enough to be recognized as the most momentous occurrence of this century, the greatest of the adversities to have overtaken our culture, the beginning of a dark age devoted to barbaric influence."[2]

In this investigation, the origins of the classical European educational tradition will be explored, with particular attention given to demonstrating its organic nature. Attempts by states to impose their own ideology on the organic whole are found both at the beginning and at the end of a story spanning three millennia; a story whose moral, if there must be one, would seem to be that good education makes for good government, rather than the other way around.
State interference in education goes back a long way, even to the roots of the educational system that Oakeshott so obviously honours. In Ancient Greece the first attempts at organized education had the clear aim of producing young men who would honour their State by their courage, strength, probity, ingenuity and (an especially Greek preoccupation) their beauty.

In the city of Sparta its men were its walls (the real walls had been demolished by Lycurgus, a sort of Hitler or Mao of the 6th Century BC). The Spartan men represented the city's defence both from outside attackers and from internal dissension, particularly from the hard-done-by helots, or surfs, who did all the hard work for their Spartan masters. Before the quasi-historical Lycurgus's reforms, Sparta was probably a more artistic and literary culture, but in its heyday it was a military state whose education system was geared to serve that identity. The comparison with Hitlerism holds on a number of levels: a strong civic/national identity, the quasi-religious cult of asceticism, the barbarous treatment of `undesirables', and a total state monopoly of education from 7 to 30. On the other hand, it was Sparta's military strength that saved Greece from domination by the Persians, and many aspects of her distinctive culture were subsequently adopted by the rest of the Hellenic world. We know that Sparta had a rich culture of dance and the oral transmission of song and poetry. However, because of the policy of Spartan secrecy, little survives. Most of the extant material about Spartan education was written by her enemies, so that may need to be treated with skepticism.

There was an important tension between the Spartan tradition and the Athenian, but Sparta inspired as much admiration as it did disgust in the heart of Athenians. There were even defections, such as that of Xenophon, who defected to Sparta and fought against his native Athens. He also had his children schooled in the Spartan tradition. He gives us a rare glimpse of Spartan education and is unstinting in his praise of the role of the state. [3]

The more prevalent system of education in Greek culture (such as may well have existed in Sparta before Lycurgus) was more family-based. The most famous example of this more flexible model of education was the state of Athens, famed more for its culture than its military prowess, and whose apologia for its war-making was to keep the tyrannical Sparta at bay. And yet, the involvement of the state for the purposes of socialization and military training was still the common element for all male citizens of Athens and places like it.

In Athens aristocratic parents (of boys) had a fair amount of freedom up to the end of adolescence. Education was conducted by slaves called pedagogues, or by private tutors, with the pedagogue escorting the children to classes in the different tutors' homes. A great emphasis was placed on music and singing, as well as on what we would now call the three Rs. At the end of his adolescence a boy would be absorbed by compulsory military training as an ephebe. This training might last several years and would act, to employ Oakeshott's terms, as `socialization', binding the youth to his polis, by a sort of team spirit, forged in adversity, which linked him to his brother ephebes and to the older warriors who had trained him. For wealthy Athenians there were also opportunities for higher studies, ancient pre­cursors of the modern university. Like the private tutors of children, these higher tutors of philosophy, music and other disciplines, charged for the courses they taught.

The Spartan system, heavily weighted towards military training, was brutal and brutalizing. It became increasingly elitist and anachronistic, so that by the time of Christ, there were only a few hundred Spartan citizens left.

The Athenian system left room for introspection, for reflection, and because of this was a system intrinsically open to change and reform. This led to a military decline, but to an intellectual flourishing of such import that its continuing influence was ensured even after military defeat by the Macedonians and then by the Romans. It is worth reiterating that many of Athens' leading intellectuals were hankering after a system like that of Sparta, because they felt that democracy led to weak government and hence to civic and moral decline.

In the melting pot that formed Hellenic culture it is possible to observe, with sufficient hindsight, that all the tendencies in Greece shared similar views on education, even if they differed on politics. Education was about perpetuating the culture, inculcating virtue and nobility, and forming loyal and patriotic citizens. Both in individualistic Athens and in communalistic Sparta education was deliberately humane, even in the midst of its barbaric elements; it was even peculiarly child-centred, with the individual loving relationship between a man (the lover) and a boy (the listener) playing a key role throughout Greece. (This particular kind of discipleship was geared almost exclusively to socialization, as the boy would have had specialized tutors for his academic subjects as well.[4]) So at the time of the eclipse of Greece there was substantial agreement among the Greeks on what education ought to comprise - an aesthetic education in the fullest sense, leading to an instinctive desire for the Good, the True and the Beautiful[5] - yet no clear vision of whose responsibility it was. The Spartan experiment of total state control of education had been abandoned.

The rise of Rome

By the mid fourth century BC small schools called ludi were springing up in Roman society and were probably not completely dissimilar to modern primary schools, even, if their name is anything to go by, in their openness to learning through play. But learning what, exactly? It seems likely that the mission of these schools, aimed at young children, was to teach basic reading, writing and arithmetic. They were informal and did not involve the state in any way.
As the Roman civilization came to predominance in the centuries preceding Christ, it sought to integrate some of the Greek educational heritage into its own schooling system. It largely rejected music (except for that part of mousike that dealt with literature and language, which were seen as important for aspiring politicians and diplomats). The Romans had no time either for athletics, at least not as an end in themselves or as part of the cult of beauty.

By the second century BC the ludi had become more organized and formal. There were professional schoolmasters now and a clearer idea of curriculum. It was essentially the Trivium of logic, grammar and rhetoric, with the basics of mathematics. Romans were now developing a literature of their own, but boys from wealthier families would also be expected to master Greek and be familiar with Homer. In fact, many teachers in Rome were Greeks, but learning, for learning's sake was not prized as it had been in Greece. Some Romans did pursue higher studies (for example in Athens or at Alexandria) but the ruling classes were essentially
composed of those who had specialized in rhetoric or soldiery, or both. Military training became more specialized and the army became one career among many rather a school of citizenship for all.

So this, then, was the state of education at the time when Christianity burst upon Europe: the learning of the Greeks was admired but somehow associated with weak statesmanship. The Romans were in the ascendant and cared more for technical training. The active participation of the state in the education of children was now to be generally abandoned in the continent of Europe for almost the next two millennia.


The main reason why European society managed to develop an enduring educational tradition at the high level it did was that at precisely that moment when states retreated from education, a new international institution, powerful and yet separate from the state, was born. That institution was the Catholic Church. Aside from the arguments that one might have about the claims of the Catholic Church, the arrival in history of this new force at the heart of the European cultural tradition was miraculous, perhaps, fortuitous without a doubt.

Classical Europe until now had been living in an extraordinary cultural continuum in which a deep and innate conservatism had somehow managed to provide cultural continuity and development in the midst of the rise and fall of three great cultures: the Mycenaean, the Greek and Roman. One of the arguments for a classical education is that by unfolding millennia of history and experience to us such an education makes wiser, more mature, partakers in the story of humanity. To be bereft of this is, in the phrase of Matthew Arnold is to be a `stranger to the human condition'. How much more universally valid and more powerful this cultural patrimony became will be seen from what occurred in the centuries that followed. For in the marriage of the Graeco-Roman world with the older Semitic world, the whole story of the peoples around the fertile crescent[6] became a greater, wiser and more formidable story than the world have ever heard before; one that was thought worth telling to children for generations to come.[7]

A Christian classical education, such as later led to the creation of the late medieval/renaissance universities was first seen in Alexandria, at the heart of the meeting of East and West, in about 190AD. Here St Clement, very much of a disciple both of Jesus and of Socrates (via Plato), established what could probably be called the first Christian academy, educating boys and men, mainly, but not exclusively, for the priesthood. They studied the Trivium of logic, grammar and rhetoric, followed by the Quadrivium of arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy, leading to studies in philosophy and theology. We also know that Clement attached great importance to sport and dance. These had been central in the Greek education of boys: gymnastics for the body, music for the soul. The imagery of the hymn which may have been sung by the boys at the school is strongly suggestive of a circle dance:

Bridle-bit of the gentle foal,
Wing of the homing bird,
Firm Helm of the ship set on its course,
Shepherd of the royal lambs; Gather your scholars all around To utter holy praise
And with those lips that speak no wrong To chant in guileless song
For Christ, the guide of youth.
Holy shepherd of the flock divine,
king of unspoilt youth,
Lead the way!
The footsteps of Christ
Are the track to Heaven.
Word who always was and is and ever shall be, Life immeasurable,
Unfailing light,
Compassion's very source!
Craftsman forging virtue For the holy lives
Of all who sing to God.
Christ Jesus,
Heavenly milk pressed from your Bride's sweet breasts
To nourish tender mouths of sucklings with grace and wisdom: the guileless take their fill with reason's milk,
the dew of your Spirit.
All together dance and sing
Our simple praise and heartfelt song
For the Christ the King.
So may we pay our holy fees
For schooling in the way of life.
Dancing in the ring of peace
We are the simple escort of the young Pantocrator.*
Race sprung from Christ,
Wisdom's own people
All praise together the God of our peace.
* Creator of all things. [8]

This text, to me, breathes a warm gust of Christian Hellenism across the centuries: many of the enduring educational themes of the ancients are there (wisdom, reason, the purity of youth, progress in virtue, discipleship with a master who humbles himself to be close to his charges, the dance .) but with a new freshness and clarity of purpose. Where scholars have us believe that the image of Christ grew steadily more imperious and terrible under the influence of the Alexandrians[9], here we have the beardless shepherd Christ of the early Christians[10]; Christ the teacher; and the great Pantocrator of Constantinian iconography: all three blended together harmoniously. The second of these two titles of Christ (as teacher) is a key to understanding the central role of the Church in education as it developed over the rest of the next two millennia.

This truly classical education within a Christian context was expounded in great depth in Clement's work The Pedagogue, a masterful synthesis and history of education from the viewpoint of Hellenic Christians, and the first real Christian handbook for teachers. It was not, however, a tremendous success; at least not in the intense and thorough form envisaged by Clement. The stress of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the rise of Islam in large parts of the Empire in the East, the destruction of libraries, the mistrust of classical civilisation by some Christian clerics, general political instability in the vacuum created by the collapse of imperial Rome; all of these things contributed to the classical tradition's being somewhat sidelined for a time. In outposts of the Roman empire, such as in much of Britain, people suddenly abandoned the cities as they had done when Mycenaean civilization collapsed in Greece towards the end of the second millennium BC.

And yet, before imperial Rome sank another great man arose to ensure that the ideals of a classical and Christian humanism would not be forgotten. Augustine, a Roman of the fourth century, was a professor of classical rhetoric who became a Christian and then Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. In Augustine's day, scholars speculated about whether Virgil had read Isaiah[11], and this itself is an interesting indicator of how many in the Graeco-Roman world were already looking to the Jews and to their sacred literature with an air of expectancy. We know, however, that Augustine had read Isaiah and Virgil, and in his Confessions, and in the City of God, the two worlds meet completely and a fruitful synthesis is attempted. St Paul, with his obvious familiarity with Greek philosophy[12] and worship (seen as pointing to Christ) and even a positive reference to athletics[13] had shown long before the supposed Platonist hijack of the second century that a continuity was achievable, and that is why he converted so many Greeks.

Now Augustine, with all the weight of his spell-binding rhetoric and learning, like Homer had done at an earlier stage, set a seal on the direction of our "considerable educational engagement" for at least the next thousand years.

The cultural achievements of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and of the modern age are many, but none of them is as significant as that momentous and humble openness of the Early Church to the weight of human experience and learning that preceded what they saw as God's total self-revelation to man in Christ. It was an attitude quite remote from the prophetic traditions of the Old Testament. Perhaps it was precisely the belief in the Incarnation, and the optimistic view of human nature propounded by Paul that made it possible for Christians to hold fast to so much of 'the best that known and thought in the world' [14] and to add to that store. Perhaps more remarkable still was the openness of the whole area around the Mediterranean, subdued by the Roman empire, to this new chapter of man's history. For despite the persecutions of Domitian, Nero and others, a new idea and culture - for the first time in human history - took control of man's destiny not with armies but with argument.[15]

Later reforms within this Christian tradition[16] can all be seen as efforts, more or less efficacious or reasonable in themselves, to restore the freshness and vigor of Christianity as it was at this time of triumph. The scholastics revived the classics and gave a new impetus to the study of Aristotle and Plato (under the aegis of a now long dead Muslim philosophical school), the excesses of Renaissance neo-paganism were corrected by the Reformers and their excesses, in turn, tempered by the Counter-Reformers.

At the beginning of the modern age, then, we see a western Christendom where Christian humanism[17] is the norm of education on both sides of the Reformation divide, so that the Ignatian Paideia of continental Europe[18] and the grammar schools and public schools of England, all train young men in roughly the same disciplines and essentially with the same view of man and his history[19]. More importantly, both sides generally believed that education was for the betterment of the human spirit, not merely to prepare men for war, or trade. True enough, many received more training than they did education, but the distinction between the two was clear.

Sister Miriam Joseph CSC, a leading Catholic educationalist in 1940s America, explains: "The utilitarian or servile arts enable one to be a servant - of another person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business - and to earn a living. The liberal arts [that is, the Trivium and the Quadrivium], in contrast, teach us how to live; they train a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth." [20]
That is a description of education that no serious western writer or thinker would have disputed from the time of Constantine until the eighteenth century. But they speak in a very different language to that of most educationalists ever since.

The impact of Rousseau, writing in the eighteenth century is still felt today in pedagogical circles. He promoted the hugely successful (however erroneous) idea that we have nothing of objective value to teach our children[21]. They will, he suggested, teach themselves, given a little encouragement. His Confessions[22] paint a picture of a young man motivated by a profound egotism and self­righteousness often attributed to religious people, and yet he was in fact someone who had left religion behind; the first in a long line of modern `victims' of the seminary system who proceed to make a living out of burning what they once adored. He consigned his own illegitimate children to an orphanage and took no interest in their education whatsoever.
His influence, and that of the other philosophical thinkers of the siècle des lumières had an important part to play in the thinking behind the French Revolution, followed by Communism and Nazism in the twentieth century. They all tended to a view of man that rejected completely the Christian chapter in man's story.

There had been previous attempts to short-circuit back to Antiquity, by-passing Christianity, but these modern attempts were especially thorough. In this climate of wholesale rejection of the continuum of the classical tradition as it had been mediated by the Church, it was no surprise that all the revolutionary movements of the nineteenth century promoted the role of the state as educator. And with the benefit of hindsight, they all have their similarities with ancient Sparta, described by Hitler as the first National Socialist state.

Man needs a god. And if the last two hundred years have taught us nothing else, they have taught us one important thing: that when man has killed God, he will soon make another one, and more often than not, the state will seek to take on that role.

In nineteenth century Britain, as Terence Kealey has shown, the state sought to impose its own vision of education on the churches[23], even resorting to misrepresentation of the facts in order to do so. The motivation there was to create a strong, militaristic youth who would contribute to the growth of the empire.

In modern Britain, the pressure from the State continues, and the underlying assumption is still that the State is the only true mater et magistra. No one in his right mind, and certainly no one with anything like a classical education, would seek to deny the importance of thinking skills, one of the current mantras in British government education circles. And yet, thinking is only possible when one has language and data. The language and data form the way we think and what we chose to think about. By robbing future generations of `the best that has been thought and known' and instead filling their minds - shrunk by lack of language - with ephemeral information, our leaders are raising a generation fit for nothing but dictatorship and television. For democracy to work, as the Athenians taught, one needs to educate one's citizens to think and to be wise. By this is meant the kind of wisdom won by the lessons of history.

The dangers to education in Britain, and the consequent dangers for our whole political settlement, have not gone unnoticed across the Atlantic:

"In Britain a few years ago, the member of the opposition who had been designated minister of education in a Labour government [they are now in government .] denounced Oxford and Cambridge as `cancers' .

Recently we have heard similar voices in the graduate schools of Harvard. Why discriminate against indolence and stupidity? .

Why were universities established, and what remain their more valuable functions? To discipline the mind; to give men and women long views, to instill in them the virtue of prudence; to present a coherent body of knowledge for its own sake; to help the rising generation to make its way towards wisdom and virtue. The university is an instrument to teach that truth is better than falsehood, and wisdom better than ignorance.

A higher schooling merely technological and skill-oriented . can neither impart wisdom to the person nor supply intellectual and moral leadership to the republic." [24]

Cardinal Newman was active at a time when it was widely thought among the educated classes in England that the pursuit of a classical education was an end more important than religion. Newman was not of that party, but he did feel, and know from his own experience, that the intellectual opening of horizons that comes from being able to tell the story of our people from within, is part of what makes us fully human, fully mature. The aim of education for Newman was to develop in us "the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us," which are the fruits of the careful training and noble influences that a sound education affords.[25]

The attempts of various governments over the last two centuries to deprive the younger generation of such an education, or anything approaching it, always have the same
effect of damaging the organic transmission of the culture; and making of the children involved, in Arnold's phrase, strangers to the human condition, incapable of real progress or happiness, doomed either to relive all the mistakes of history, or to seek release from the hopelessness of their existence in drugs, sex and superstition.

In Book VII of Plato's Republic there is the famous story of the Cave. The men inside (the Athenians of Socrates' time) sit in a dark cave, fascinated by dancing images on the cave's wall, projected by others from the light of a small fire. They all believe the shadows to be real life. One day a man gets up and notices what is going on, and so, inspired, he decides to leave the cave, and thereby discovers the glorious light of the sun. In our day, men make the same mistake, staring at a flickering screen rather than stepping out into the warmth and light of reality and truth. Governments would keep men in the cave, obsessed with trivia, wonderfully socialized and no trouble to anyone. Should Oakeshott, or anyone else worry about this tendency? If to worry means to lobby our rulers for a political solution, then I think not. Politicans will not offer a way out of the cave for the children of the twenty-first century. We need to lead them all out ourselves, one by one.


[1] Oakeshott, M. (1984) "Political education" In M. Sandel (Ed.), Liberalism and its critics. New York: New York University Press. (p. 232)
[2] Oakeshott, M. (1991) "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind" in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays.
[3] "When we turn to Lycurgos, instead of leaving it to each member of the state privately to appoint a slave to be his son's tutor [the practice in Athens and the other city states], he set over the young Spartans a public guardian-­the paidonomos---with complete authority over them. This guardian was elected from those who filled the highest magistracies. He had authority to hold musters of the boys, and as their guardian, in case of any misbehavior, to chastise severely. Lycurgos further provided the guardian with a body of youths in the prime of life and bearing whips to inflict punishment when necessary, with this happy result: that in Sparta modesty and obedience ever go hand in hand, nor is there lack of either." Xenophon's `The Polity of the Spartans', c. 375 BC in Fred Fling, ed., A Source Book of Greek History, (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1907), pp. 66­75.
[4] Although these relationships seem disordered to the Christian mind, it is all too easy (for scholars of all types) to fall into anachronism when thinking about them. It seems that they were certainly romantic, but almost always chaste.
[5] Expressed most epigrammatically by Plato, in the mouth of Socrates: "And therefore, I said, Glaucon, musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why; and when reason comes he will recognize and salute the
friend with whom his education has made him long familiar." The Republic, 401d - 402a.
[6] Fertile, that is, not just in grain, but in ideas.
[7] The Hebrew and the Hellenic were seen as naturally balancing influences by Matthew Arnold.
[8] Translated from the Greek by the late Canon John Mooney and published privately. For Greek text and French translation, see Clément d'Alexandrie, Le Pédagogue, Livre III pp. 192 ff. (in Sources Chrétiennes, Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1970.)
[9] For example, Talia Zajac, `Ecce Homo: Changing portrayals of the Likeness of Christ in Late Antiquity' in Saeculum Journal, Iss. 2, no. 1. Toronto, 2006.
[10] I refer here to the interesting image of the young Pantocrator; the puer aeternus, echoing Apollo.
[11] Referring particularly to similarities between Isaiah's prophecy of an era of peace ushered in by the Messiah, and Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, predicting the birth of a child who would bring peace.
[12] Acts, Ch. 17.
[13] 1 Corinthians. Ch 9, v 24 ff.
[14] Matthew Arnold, 'The Function of Criticism at the Present Time', in Essays in Criticism, p. 38.
[15] Even if armies later emerged to defend the place of Christianity and to settle its internal disputes.
[16] With the possible exception of Calvinism.
[17] Represented even during the Reformation, with Luther on the one hand and Erasmus and More on the other.
[18] The school system begun by St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. His pedagogy was modeled on the classical Trivium and was given a deliberately classical flavour even in its terminology.
[19] Periodic assaults on the classical curriculum in schools such as Eton came from the Calvinistic tendency, but did not carry the day.
[20] Sister Miriam Joseph CSC, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric, Ed. Marguerite McGlinn, Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia, 2002. (p. 5).
[21] In Émile ou de l'éducation, 1762
[22] Les Confessions, 1770, published 1782
[23] In an article in Prospect, no. 127, October 2006, and elsewhere.
[24] Russell Kirk, `Humane learning in the age of the computer" in Redeeming the Time, ISI, Delaware, 1996, (p. 117).
[25] From the preface of The Idea of a University