The Lessons of Poetry: Part One - The Crisis of Modern Education
In Mazo de la Roche’s Morning at Jalna, set in 1863, the second generation of the Whiteoaks are still children. Philip, the future heir of the estate and the father of the family’s entire third generation is still a baby, but his older siblings Augusta, the future Lady Buckley, and Nicholas and Ernest, familiar as the old uncles in most of the volumes of the series, are all in their formative years. Plans are made for them to be educated in boarding schools in England but in the mean time they have tutors at Jalna. At the start of the novel an Irishman named Madigan is their tutor but when, after being snared into marrying the daughter of a neighbour he jilts his bride on their honeymoon and disappears, she takes over his position. Shortly after the following ensues:
Lessons began the following morning and Mrs. Madigan declared that never in her life had she met with such ignorance. “Mr. Madigan really taught us nothing but Latin and poetry,” said Augusta.
“It’s what you call a classical education,” added Nicholas.
“And what good will such an education be to you in this country, I’d like to know?” asked Mrs. Madigan, her eyes piercing him like gimlets.
No answer is given to this question, alas, and Ernest then proves himself to be a poor advertisement for the merits of classical education by confusing the date of the year of Columbus’ discovery of America with that of the Battle of Hastings and confidently asserting Charles Lever’s authorship of the works of Shakespeare.
The best answer to those who, like Mrs. Madigan, question the good of classical education is to contrast it with that which has replaced it. Nobody could put that contrast better than the late Joseph Sobran who was fond of saying that “in one century we went from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to offering remedial English in college.” Today in North America and indeed throughout the Western world the law requires that all young people attend school up to a certain age and for most children this means attendance at a taxpayer-funded, bureaucrat-controlled institution. These institutions, which have been laboratories for progressive experimentation for decades now, have become increasingly standardized as more and more control over school curricula and activities has been taken from parents and local trustees who answer to them and placed in the hands of bureaucrats in the Ministry of Education. The more complete the standardization, the more the state schools seem to exist for no purpose other than to churn out the kind of people Nietzsche would have described as “die letzten Menschen”. Those parents who, understandably, want something better than this for their children have the limited options of home or parochial schooling, or, if they have the means, private schooling. Only in these alternatives is classical learning - or at least a near approximation - available today.
That there is a serious problem with the present educational system is widely recognized. As with any illness, however, if it is not properly diagnosed, the proposed treatment may be as bad or worse than the disease. There are many who rightly object to the way the public schools are being used to indoctrinate children with egalitarian dogma and socialize them into the new, hypersensitive, politically correct, multicultural, order who can visualize an alternative only in terms of vocational training. In other words they think that the sole or primary purpose of the schools ought to be to prepare students to get jobs and earn their living or, a variation on this theme, to get better jobs and earn a higher living than they would be able to otherwise. Important as learning a trade or profession undoubtedly is, an educational system that makes this its primary goal is no real alternative to the present system. It, as much as the other, would merely prepare its students to be unthinking cogs in an economic and social machine.
Classical educators had very different goals. They attempted to instil wisdom and not just facts, to train their students to make qualitative and not just quantitative judgements, to develop virtue and good character and not just useful sets of skills. They sought to prepare their students, not for places within a mass society that functions like a machine, but to be free subjects of their Sovereign – or free citizens of the republic if they had the misfortunate to live in a polity of that nature – by forming through its disciplines the habits of mind essential to mature, responsible, freedom. This is why the traditional subjects of a classical education are called the liberal arts. That is “liberal” in the sense of “appropriate for a freeman” not in the sense of “progressive egalitarian democrat”. These were more than just “Latin and poetry”, of course, although “Latin and poetry” can be taken as a fair way of summarizing grammar, the first and most basic of the three elements that comprise the trivium, the foundation of classical education. (1)
The idea that learning dead tongues like Latin and classical Greek and the memorization and recital of poetry ought to be central to the most basic stage of the education of the free subject will strike many today as being quaint and archaic. Let us leave an inquiry into the importance of Greek and Latin for another time, (2) and for now we will consider the importance of the lessons which poetry has for us.
The basic arguments for having children memorize poetry are that it trains the memory, builds vocabulary and syntax, and, in the words of Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Trained Mind, through it students “internalize rhythmic, beautiful patterns of English language” which become “part of the student’s ‘language store,’ those wells of language that we all use every day in writing and speaking”. (3) It is also the way in which poets are made. This is true regardless of which side you come down on in the old classical v. romantic debate about whether good poetry is defined by rules and forms or springs up from inspiration within you. Learning poetry by heart is both an excellent way of mastering rules and forms and, if poetry is something that bubbles up from the heart like water from a flowing well, of filling that well in the first place. The irrefutable evidence for this assertion is the dearth of good poetry written since the advent of modern, progressive, technological education. Bilge, like that written by the late Maya Angelou, does not count.
Learning poetry is important for another reason, however, and it is this reason which I wish to emphasize. Tradition, by which I mean the wisdom distilled from the accumulated experience of past generations and passed down to us that we may benefit from it ourselves, hopefully add to it, and pass it on to future generations, is a rich heritage containing many valuable lessons. Poetry is an indispensable vessel for the transmission of this wisdom. Michael Oakeshott pointed out years ago that although the modern rationalism that now permeates all disciplines tries to reduce all knowledge to the technical and living tradition to rigid ideology, the greater part of human wisdom cannot be reduced to either the technical or ideological. In a similar vein it can be said that much wisdom can be communicated in verse which simply cannot be adequately expressed in prose. The ancients knew this which is one of the reasons why from the very beginning of the Great Tradition, its language has so often been that of poetry, from that of the epics of Homer and Virgil to that of the odes of Pindar and Horace, from that of the Psalms of David to that of the tragedies of Sophocles and Seneca.
To say that the greater, more valuable, part of human knowledge and wisdom can only be expressed in the metric language of poetry rather than the technical language of the natural sciences is to expose the vastness of the gulf that exists between the classical and the modern mind. Technically-oriented training produces minds that seem incapable of viewing goodness, truth, or beauty except through the lens of utility or usefulness, something which could hardly have been said of the kind of education that formed the minds of Shakespeare and Jonson, Donne and Herbert, Pope and Johnson, Scott, Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth, Hunt and Tennyson, Pound, Yeats and Eliot.
In Part Two we will consider a popular interpretation of an important historical conflict of the last century and the adverse effects this interpretation has had by creating a paradigm into which many have sought to fit subsequent conflicts and we will hold that interpretation up to be judged by the light of the lessons of the poetry of the Great Tradition.
(1) Logic and rhetoric are the other two. The quadrivium, consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, with the trivium, form the seven classical liberal arts.
(2) You can find arguments for the study of classical languages and literature in Victor Davis Hanson’s Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (New York: Encounter Books, 2001) and E. Christian Kopff’s The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition (Wilmington: ISI Books, 1999). Or, if you want it in a nutshell, Dorothy L. Sayers put it this way: “I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and mediaeval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents.” That is from her “The Lost Tools of Learning” which can be read online here: http://www.gbt.org/text/sayers.html
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca