The Venerable Bede and Modern Education

In the introduction to her translation of Bede’s The Reckoning of Time, Faith Wallis has a fascinating aside about education in Anglo-Saxon England:

In Bede’s world there were no professional teachers who systematically imparted a formalized syllabus of subjects to groups of people assembled only for the purpose of learning. There were, in fact, no schools, that is, no institutions created for and exclusively dedicated to teaching. Instead, the monastery trained monks, and the episcopal familia clergy, by initiating them into the functions, duties and mores of their calling. These were not absorbed through ‘‘lessons’’ on ‘‘subjects’’, with set texts expounded by a master, but rather through the socializing force of the vita communis, through the self-instruction of lectio, and through unstructured and informal confabulatio mutua. Its goal was perfection in the practice of a religious vocation, its method was imitation, and its medium was the relationship between seniores and iuniores. Monastic education had content, but no curriculum. Moral ascesis, scripture study, musical drill, grammar and computus were not disciplines learned separately and according to a staged syllabus, but rather organically connected reference points within an integrated conversatio.

Bede’s world may seem very different from ours but, putting presentist assumptions to one side for the moment, we might want to consider to what extent Bede’s educational context can inform our own educational environment.

The first point to make is that there are some pretty direct challenges to our modern assumptions in this passage: no professional teachers, no schools, no lessons, no subjects and no curriculum! Is education possible without any of these things? The evidence of Bede’s own work suggests that it certainly is. The range and depth of his output was astounding. Clearly he was not held back by the absence of what we tend to regard as educational essentials. 

And the reason education is possible without lessons, subjects, schools and all the rest is because Bede had “the socializing force of the vita communis … the self-instruction of lectio, and … unstructured and informal confabulatio mutua.” Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1. The socializing force of the vita communis. For Bede education had to take place in a community. A real community. A lived community that shaped every aspect of the students’ lives. Here is the first challenge for modern educators.

2. The self-instruction of lectio. For Bede the practice of lectio divina (which could be translated as prayerful reading or even slow reading) established the way in which one read. In our frenetic age, by contrast, an age that encourages clicking and that values skim reading, slow reading is always going to be a challenge.

3. Unstructured and informal confabulatio mutua. For Bede the art of conversation was not always a meeting of minds but was also an exchange of knowledge from seniors to juniors. It may not be pushing it too far to say that what Bede knew as confabulatio mutua can be found in today’s educational context most obviously in the relationship between apprentices and craftsmen, though even apprentices need to relearn and reclaim conversation (to echo Sherry Turkle).

In my next post, I’ll explore these ideas further, asking the uncomfortable question: can an Anglo-Saxon monk’s training possibly have any relevance for us in the 21st century?