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.

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