Something rotten in the state of education

Temple of Concordia and statue of Icarus, Agrigento, Sicily – SHUTTERSTOCK
ALLEGRA BYRON witnesses the winnowing of the Western curriculum

In the final scene of Hamlet, the Danish kingdom lays in ruins: a corrupt leader bleeds to death; a poisoned First Lady takes her last breath; a young nobleman dies by his own treachery; and a fatally wounded prince, desperately seeking Truth and Justice, urges his close friend to report the true nature of things. This outward carnage and chaos mirror the deep rot within.

As dramatic as this may sound, the crumbling Danish world metaphorically parallels the disappearing, Western kingdom. In particular, our education system, fundamental to the prosperity and progress of any society, lays bleeding on all sides. The dismantling and decay (and ‘decolonising’) of education directly affects the core participants – the pupils, the teachers, the parents – most of whom have become victims of the Conqueror Worm . Often, they are too manipulated or confused or exhausted to see that the few hoarse voices protesting against the destruction of school curricula are not “mere madness” but urgently attempting to restore order from chaos, to weed out the cankers.

In most schools, two significant learning areas embedded in the curricula are English (language and literature) and history. Whilst each country offers various colours and flavours of these subjects, dependent evidently upon cultural contexts, governments, educational bodies and the public, would agree that our young people need to demonstrate competency and confidence in communicating; they need to read and write and speak and spell well. Admittedly, line-ups for ‘meet the history teacher’ cannot compete with the mad dash for the maths and English teachers’ tables at parent-teacher nights, yet most do place value on pupils knowing about their past and how that past affects their present and future. Australia, like other nations, has sought to standardise its education nationally, believing that this decision ensures equal access for all Australian children. Indeed, students deserve quality, academically rigorous, twenty-first century schools to shape them into life-long learners, allowing them to be active citizens. Noble aims. Important aims. Tragically, however, this hopeful national curriculum with all its virtuous pursuits is an “unweeded garden / That grows to seed”

“Alas, poor Yorick – I knew him, Horatio”: the disappearing texts

One value in immersing young minds in classical literature, a luminous tapestry of novels, plays, short stories and poetry, is that these works present, as Mortimer Adler once suggested, the great enduring truths of the human experience . Between the pages of ‘old books’ a reader discovers love, goodness, despair, forgiveness, longing, graciousness, evilness, beauty, honour, truth and justice. These discourses are offered through the windows of sophisticated, varied vocabulary, clever phrasing and fresh, figurative diction and mature syntax. C S Lewis believed strongly that

…the only palliative [to the blindness of our own century] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books  .

Given his ability to read just about everything and then remember everything he read, Lewis had something of value to say about reading choices. Shakespeare’s country grammar school days at King’s New School also valorised the classics. The schoolmasters instructed in spoken and written Latin. During the mornings and afternoons, the diligent pupils translated biblical texts from Greek into Latin and English. They were skilled in Butler’s Rhetorik, andthe boys also studied authors such as Terence, Virgil and Horace. At breaks, mucking about in the schoolyard, the lads were encouraged to speak in Latin (a space, perhaps, to craft his witty insults?). While the drudgery of Elizabethan schoolwork is self-evident in the well-known Romeo and Juliet simile, “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books, / But love from love, toward school with heavy looks”, 400 years later, contemporary audiences benefit from Shakespeare’s liberal education, clearly evident in his writings. Closer to our time, a Queensland school reader, given to 12 and 13-year olds, dating from the 1960s, aimed “to instil into the minds of pupils such a love of literature as will last beyond school-days and be an unfailing source of profit and delight”  . The collections of accomplished visual artists, poets and short story writers selected for young Australian girls and boys were “compend[ia] of useful knowledge as well as a treasury of beautiful thoughts”  .

Today’s modern reading lists in many schools, au contraire, shy away from classical works. They are dropping off and disappearing. Instead, the-powers-that-be scramble to introduce newly published texts into the Australian classroom, replacing the tried and tested. English teachers’ organisations across the country will openly acknowledge the deliberate decision to highlight texts that reflect the myriad of (current) voices in Australia. These ‘new’ texts have morphed into supposed ‘tools of reconciliation’ for the silenced Australian voices. Books (and the odd poem) appear as vehicles of change: to dismantle the white or male (or both) cultural norms. Now, classical literature, part of the ‘best that has been thought and said’, when evident in teachers’ unit plans, is often reduced to a gender warfare or a platform to disrupt the ‘settler myth’ or colonial injustices. Teachers are repackaged as social engineers. For example, on the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) website, viewers are offered Year 9 sample student responses to an analytical essay on the ‘role of women’ in Macbeth . Thus, 14 and 15-year old students, still emerging writers, still wrestling with accurate written expression, are requested to uncover the alleged gender imbalance in an Elizabethan text. Rather than discover the beauty and craft of masterful language and storytelling, the teenagers must interrogate the play for its perpetuation or subversion of dominant power dynamics and ideologies. At Eton College – a school that dismissed a teacher for ‘gross misconduct’, that is, for daring to promote masculinity – the headmaster promised that

…the teaching of history, geography, religious studies, politics and English will change and that decolonisation will be incorporated into assemblies, religious services, tutorials and societies also” .

Across the Atlantic, a recently formed American organisation called #DisruptTexts, “whose mission [is] to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices”, claims that “white supremacy” in classrooms is real, and that teachers’ roles are to collapse the deeply embedded racism and “to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that … students deserve” . White supremacy is evident, so goes the tall tale, in our ‘worship’ of the word (rather than pictures). This angry mob of anti-Western canon protesters challenge their new comrades with the question: “Who determined that long words were the only words that could be considered complex?” Apparently, their placards proclaim, when we criticise these new ideologically-approved texts then we criticise the young people that read them.

Back on Australian soil,English teachers are trained how to present ‘culturally sensitive texts’, ones that could contain “community and/or family violence and abuse (sexual or other), alcohol and drug use, crime, explicit sex scenes” for their “literary merit”  . Wide reading lists in some schools for pubescent students will privilege homosexual and/or transgender ideology. If teachers contest the use of these texts, then these questions reveal teachers’ intolerance or ‘their lack of understanding’. Often any logical reasons offered against the use of these texts are considered right wing, fascism. Do Australian educators need to fear the Eton teacher’s fate? Some parents also are too afraid to make noise. One American writer and cultural critic has identified parents as ‘tyrants’. He moans, “parents’ [sic] is an oppressive class, like rich people or white people” . It’s no wonder mums and dads feel silenced and disempowered.

Clearly, not all Australian voices are welcome in the carefully constructed, ‘progressive’ classrooms. And not all silenced, marginalised voices are being heard. Where has the treasury of beautiful thoughts disappeared? Will these new books become ‘sources of profit and delight’?

Yesterday’s battles, today

History in Australian schools has not been inoculated against the disease of rapid disruption. The outspoken Scottish history academic, Jill Stephenson, opened a recent article with these words: “No school subject lends itself more readily to political manipulation and propaganda than history” .  The 2014 review of the Australian Curriculum identified an “undue emphasis” on the three cross-curriculum priorities: sustainability, the histories and cultures of Indigenous Australians and Australia’s engagement with Asia . The post-modern pendulum swings heavily in favour of this three-pronged priority at the expense of a balanced presentation of Western civilisation and its Judeo-Christian heritage. Stephanie Forrest of the Sydney think-tank, Institute of Public Affairs, found that current, Australian Curriculum-approved, history textbooks were “factually incorrect”, made “outrageous statements” and in some places presented “an environmentalist, socialist and sometimes almost Marxist agenda” . For the most part, however, the 21st century history class has textbook-styled lessons buried, and they now re-emerge as pseudo-scholarly fora, where eras and movements appear via primary sources. Teenaged students, still embryonic in seeing the broad sweep of history from its beginning, now must become historiographers, articulating academic, historical hypotheses and debating the usefulness and reliability of sources before they understand their world and its timeline. Instead of deep learning and time to ruminate, the students, too soon, must learn how to evaluate, analyse and assess the credibility of published authors. They become lost in piles of primary and secondary sources, pouring over visual and written artefacts constructed for an adult audience. In some cases, given that the standard for senior history subjects is so unattainable, the criteria just too difficult, these high school ‘scholars’ will be locked out of taking history courses in upper secondary if their grades are only ‘satisfactory’.

Further, the history units gallop at top speed. Some have one lesson on the Renaissance. The Reformation didn’t happen (apparently, as it’s not referenced in some schools). World War I can be taught in nine lessons. Capitalism is critiqued. Socialism is privileged. Teachers collide, breathlessly, in breeze-ways and hallways, quizzing their colleagues, “Have you finished — unit yet?”. They mark, meet and moderate (papers). And then they do it all again. And again.

But we need history. Despite the pundits arguing that history yawns with ‘drill-and-kill’, so many students continue to love the human stories that arise along the historical timeline. Young people lean in to hear about the ‘boy soldiers’, Trooper Harold Thomas Bell, for example, from the Australian Light Horse Regiment. He was a farmer lad from country Victoria. Although so long ago in a land far, far away, the students feel empathy upon hearing that Harry, like so many others, died from gunshot wounds after the charge against Beersheba on 31 October 1917. He was only 16. Pools of pupils will linger to talk to Teacher after class, bursting to tell her anecdotes about their Pop’s Pop or their Nan’s dad: the medals, the marches, the military. During a lesson (sacrificing the heavily prescribed curriculum requirements), the questions roll around the room, questions breed questions: why didn’t they care for the children in the factories? Did those soldiers really stop fighting on that Christmas Eve? Did Elizabeth the First have kids? Will there be another world war? How tall d’you reckon Alexander the Great was? The late NYU professor Neil Postman sighed knowing that children enter school as question marks and leave as periods. The reality? Quite simply, there isn’t the time for student-led curiosity.

Education today is a tragedy. Limping into a new year, the educational system lags with poisonous political ideologies; left-wing agendas purposefully massacre traditional values once treasured in good books and in a rich, balanced history curriculum. Recent research into educational trends confirmed that half of Australian educators believed that literacy and numeracy (and student behaviour) had declined in the last ten years . Our schools, the children and the dedicated teachers and leaders that fill them, have been betrayed by those in positions of political and academic power, those granted the privilege to lead with wisdom and discernment. We wring our hands and hearts in dismay.

And yet …

If we circle back to the beginning, where we met a disorderly Danish kingdom, like all Shakespearean tragedies, there is always a quest for divine order after a catastrophe. A godly design for all matter (from rocks to celestial beings) governed the Renaissance world: everything had its rightful place. While the noble-hearted Hamlet dies in his desperate attempt to avenge the wrongs of his world, Horatio courageously tells the Prince of Norway, Fortinbras, of the “casual slaughters” and the “cunning and forced deaths” that took place in this pursuit. We too have Hamlet-types of our time. There have been (and are) brave men and women – brilliant professors, deeply committed school teachers and leaders, excellent medical doctors, just politicians, outspoken writers and journalists and many others from all walks of life – suffering the fatal blows of our nihilistic, culture wars. The casualties include a researcher from a tropical, north Queensland university fired for telling the truth; a New York Times writer finished for critiquing critical theory; a social commentator on gender issues lynched for advocating for young men’s rights on university campuses; and a Melbourne medical doctor, practicing for 15 years, ‘cancelled’ for having opinions. Each year, the casualty list multiplies.

Of course, in Shakespeare’s story, Fortinbras claims rights to the broken kingdom. Likewise, we identify a groundswell of opposition, a collective Fortinbras of sorts, all across our nations, some in secret and hidden spaces and places, now gaining momentum and traction to battle against the disruption and destruction of education and other. They claim their right to a better education. They seek a better way for the children. While the UK has academies like the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, an academically excellent group of schools established in economically depressed northern England and London’s ‘strictest’ school, Michaela College, led by Headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, America has pockets of charter and independent schools, some of which produce their own classically-based curriculum sold globally. In Australia, tucked away out the back of Brisbane, Queensland, is the newly established Charlotte Mason College, offering families respite from the turbulent curriculum wars; a place where children meet “a feast of living books, cultural artworks and ideas” . This new Classical Liberal Arts school gently provides “an abundant life [for the boys and girls] that is good, true and beautiful”  Travelling south, into Victoria, home to the controversial “Safe Schools” program, the Australian Classical Education Society, an organic collection of teachers, students, home schooling families and academics, commit to establishing Classical Education schools across the country. Thus, we have hope. We must look towards a bright future, believing that a restoration of rightful order to a disorderly Western kingdom will take place.

Worlds before Narnia – C S Lewis’s Heavens

GREG JINKERSON reminds us of C S Lewis’s Space Trilogy

Beyond his still-popular works of Christian apologetics, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) may be most familiar as creator of The Chronicles of Narnia, the classic children series published in the 1950s, and since filmed several times. But long before Aslan and the Pevensies debuted in the first Narnia story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), Lewis was the demiurge of other fantastic worlds formed with adult readers in mind.

His first published novel was the Bunyanesque bildungsroman The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), where the pilgrim John encounters people like Mr. Enlightenment and Mother Kirk, and Lewis gives an impression of how such abstractions shaped his early intellectual development and later Christian faith. In between the Pilgrim and the Lion, Lewis devoted a deal of the WWII years to writing his Space Trilogy, about a man drawn into a cosmic moral conflict that comes to a head on earth. The series is a more mature expression of the allegorical seeds planted in his first novel, and an anticipation of many themes from Narnia – the combat between good and evil animating human characters and their angelic counterparts, miraculous trips and oracular bulletins from distant lands, and “unattained ideals…in the history of Man.”1

As in his Chronicles, Lewis spins a fairy tale replete with haunted houses, necromancy, enchanted groves and bewitched familiars. The interplanetary saga begins in Out of the Silent Planet (1938) where the hero Elwin Ransom – a philologist and a character Lewis once called “a fancy portrait of a man I know, but not of me,”2 – is abducted to Mars by a megalomaniacal physicist, Weston, and his sidekick Devine. (Incidentally, Ransom’s history shows that Lewis inserted plenty of his own experiences into the don, along with several traits of his Oxford friend and fellow author J. R. R. Tolkien.) Ransom’s adventures continue in Perelandra (1943) set on Lewis’ conception of the planet Venus, and winds up back on earth in That Hideous Strength (1945).

As the first book opens, Ransom has embarked alone on a long walking tour of the English countryside with a backpack – reminiscent of Christian with his heavy burden as seen by the Dreamer in The Pilgrim’s Progress. With a sabbatical before him and few obligations beyond his pleasures, he has failed to notify anyone of his plans or whereabouts, and isn’t expected home by anyone for many months. This anonymity makes him a ripe Everyman for the adventures ahead.

One night, finding that the inn where he had planned to stay is no longer lodging odd pedestrians, he knocks at the door of a secluded cottage in hopes of a bed. Overhearing violent shouts, Ransom stumbles onto the scene of an attempted kidnapping, where two men are struggling to subdue a young boy. Ransom intervenes and rescues the boy, becoming an unwitting substitute in the partners’ abduction scheme:

“The three combatants fell suddenly apart, the boy blubbering. ‘May I ask,’ said the thicker and taller of the two men, ‘who the devil you may be and what you are doing here?’… ‘My name is Ransom, if that is what you mean. And…’ ‘By Jove,’ said the slender man, ‘not Ransom who used to be at Wedenshaw?’ ‘I was at school at Wedenshaw,’ said Ransom. ‘I thought I knew you as soon as you spoke,’ said the slender man. ‘I’m Devine.”3

The first speaker, Weston, is Ransom’s arch enemy throughout the series, an ingenious physicist who immediately calls upon the devil; Devine, in his more easygoing approach to mischief, calls upon Jove. The former plans to use his spacecraft to colonize the galaxy in a quest to preserve the human race; the latter wants to plunder planets for their riches. The friends are a devilish pair, but Ransom’s weariness and his familiarity with Devine are enough to lure him into sheltering with them.

After being drugged, Ransom awakes in a spaceship and is first terrified and later exhilarated to realize his captors are carrying him to Mars, where they have already done reconnaissance on a previous voyage. Although they believe themselves to be bringing Ransom there as a sacrifice to the rulers of that planet, we find “the stars in their courses were fighting against Weston.”4 The allusion to the Book of Judges is a sign that Weston’s efforts are the inadvertent means of Ransom’s apotheosis – in spite of himself, Weston is delivering his enemy into a position of honour he himself covets.

Each book marks a stage in Ransom’s understanding of the Heavens – Lewis’ preferred term for outer space – and of the influence of extra-terrestrial creatures, many of whom become his friends. He meets for example angels, or eldila as they are known outside earth. The eldila are somewhat local to each planet and are ruled by archangels, or Oyeresu. The Oyarsa of Malacandra (Mars to earthlings) teaches Ransom that the solar system is an open field of angelic communication with just one Bermuda Triangle issuing no messages: the silent planet Thulcandra (Earth). In fact, the eldila of our planet have become sinister creatures. Upon meeting the Oyarsa, Ransom asks,

“Then you knew of our journey before we left Thulcandra?’

‘No. Thulcandra is the world we do not know. It alone is outside the heaven, and no message comes from it.’

Ransom was silent, but Oyarsa answered his unspoken questions.

It was not always so. Once we knew the Oyarsa of your world — he was brighter and greater than I — and then we did not call it Thulcandra. It is the longest of all stories and the bitterest. He became bent.5

In this accounting of Lucifer, Lewis invokes the medieval cosmology wherein “daemons are…creatures of a middle nature between gods and men – like Milton’s ‘Middle spirits’”6, and throws new light on the Fall of earthly life. “Through these intermediaries, and through them alone, we mortals have any intercourse with the gods.”7 Having lost contact with Earth, Oyarsa sent for a human ambassador to visit Malacandra and effect a rapprochement.

Ransom also encounters the native species of Malacandra: the seal-like hrossa, including a Friday to Ransom’s Crusoe named Hyoi – the amphibious pfifltriggi, artisans of the planet – and sorns, the mandarins of Malacandra. His odyssey even affords a glimpse of “the original of the Cyclops, a giant in a cave and a shepherd.”8 While on the planet, Ransom uses his philological training to master their universal language (which he terms Old Solar). All told, what had begun as a tour of England stretches light years afield before circling back to a thrilling and hectic voyage home.

Ransom’s gleanings in Malacandra are, naturally, not merely academic. By the time of Perelandra, Ransom has been communicating for several years with the Oyarsa about a new mission: stopping the Fall and its attendant curse from being inflicted upon Venus. Weston’s defeat on Mars has hardly discouraged his urge to rule new worlds, and he sets his sights on Perelandra as a consolation.

This second journey to a neighbouring planet has an uplifting effect upon Ransom, bringing him hitherto unknown sensations and even open new senses. His first breakfast on Perelandra is nothing short of psychedelic:

“The smells in the forest were beyond all that he had ever conceived. To say that they made him feel hungry and thirsty would be misleading; almost, they created a new kind of hunger and thirst, a longing that seemed to flow over from the body into the soul and which was a heaven to feel.”9

On Perelandra, and elsewhere in the heavens, Ransom’s body and soul meld in a peaceful anticipation of what might come; his desires awaken no fear about whether they will be fulfilled, for they are intrinsically pleasant. Indeed, fruit is a kind of superfluity:

“He picked one of them and turned it over and over. The rind was smooth and firm and seemed impossible to tear open. Then by accident one of his fingers punctured it and went through into coldness. After a moment’s hesitation he put the little aperture to his lips. He had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight…It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant.”10  

This is more a sacrament than a meal, and binds Ransom beatifically in a kind of symbiotic nourishment with the vegetation. The unspoiled environment of Perelandra yields up a world eminently edible and edifying.

Ransom also encounters the Venusian Eve, Tinidril, whom he must protect from Weston’s attempt to involve her in a second Fall on Perelandra. This Ransom successfully averts, and his beatific vision is fulfilled when Tinidril is safely united with the king of Perelandra.

In That Hideous Strength, Ransom joins the angelic ranks back on earth for a climactic battle in an English university town against a deranged cabal of academic and scientific elites in league with their own Satanic allies. One of these is Lord Feverstone, a nom de guerre for Devine from the first adventure. The final volume’s primary theme, which Lewis lays out persuasively in his essay “The Abolition of Man” as a companion to the novel, is a caution against a naïve programme of inhumane central planning which he feared would accompany advanced Scientism in world governments.

Ransom again plays a heroic part in the action, but this time he shares the stage with new allies—the sociologist Mark Studdock and his wife Jane, along with a reincarnation of the Arthurian Merlin and a menagerie of benevolent animals. Despite the worst efforts of the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) to impose a technocratic police state upon England, Ransom’s forces of good and the whole host of heaven fight and stop them.

After their victory, one of Ransom’s cohort makes a speech about what Ransom learned during his time on the prelapsarian Perelandra about the history of England:

“It all began,” he said,

when we discovered that the Arthurian story is mostly true history. There was a moment in the Sixth Century when something that is always trying to break through into this country nearly succeeded. Logres was our name for it – it will do as well as another. And then gradually we began to see all English history in a new way. We discovered the haunting…Something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres. Haven’t you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind every Milton, a Cromwell: a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers: the home of Sidney – and of Cecil Rhodes. Is it any wonder they call us hypocrites? But what they mistake for hypocrisy is really the struggle between Logres and Britain.11

Although certain critics have found the series to verge on the didactic – the science fiction author Brian Aldiss said as much in a friendly way12, and Lewis’ own Oxford colleague, the biologist J.B.S. Haldane said it in a far more strident mode in a review of That Hideous Strength13 – Lewis for his part disagreed. In discussing the plot of Perelandra, and Aldiss’ suggestion that Lewis had set out to write it in order to make a moral point, Lewis gave an emphatic disavowal while laying out his approach to story making:

Yes everyone thinks that. They are quite wrong…the story of this averted fall came in very conveniently. Of course it wouldn’t have been that particular story if I wasn’t interested in those particular ideas on other grounds. But that isn’t what I started from. I’ve never started from a message or a moral…the story itself should force its moral upon [the writer]. You find out what the moral is by writing the story.14

Notes

  1. Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, Scribner, New York, 1938; p. 75
  2. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories by C.S. Lewis, edited with a Preface by Walter Hooper, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London, 1966; in “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” p. 78
  3. Out of the Silent Planet, p. 14
  4. Ibid., p. 127
  5. Ibid., pp. 119-120
  6. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1964; p. 40
  7. Ibid., pp. 40-41
  8. Perelandra by C.S. Lewis, Scribner, New York, 1944; p. 40
  9. Ibid., p. 37
  10. Ibid. p. 37
  11. That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, Macmillan Publishing Co. New York, 1946, pp.368-369
  12. “Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories” in Unreal Estates, p. 87
  13. Ibid. in “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” p. 74, where Lewis mentions Haldane’s complaint that Lewis’ characters “are like slugs in an experimental cage who get a cabbage if they turn right and an electric shock if they turn left”
  14. Ibid. in “Unreal Estates”, p. 87