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.

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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.