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?

Evelyn Waugh and the Easter Liturgy

Evelyn Waugh’s love of the liturgy is well known, as is his famous diary entry from Easter 1964:

When I first came into the Church I was drawn not by splendid ceremonies but by the spectacle of the priest as a craftsman. He had an important job to do which none but he was qualified for. He and his apprentice stumped up to the altar with their tools and set to work without a glance to those behind them, still less with any intention to make a personal impression on them.

The daily work of the Church really mattered to him, but it was the Easter liturgy to which he returned constantly in his books. The Easter liturgy was the hidden force to which the compass of his fiction pointed, emerging briefly at crucial moments to help us reorient ourselves. In Officers and Gentlemen, for example, we are told that:

Outside, in the cathedral, whose tower could be seen from the War Office windows; far beyond in the lands of enemy and ally, the Easter fire was freshly burning. Here for Sprat all was cold and dark. 

And again,

All over the world, unheard by Sprat, the Exultet had been sung that morning. It found no echo in Sprat’s hollow heart.

Whether Sprat knew it or not, the Easter vigil was the centre that held all things together. Or, as the Catechism puts it:

Beginning with the Easter Triduum as its source of light, the new age of the Resurrection fills the whole liturgical year with its brilliance. Gradually, on either side of this source, the year is transfigured by the liturgy…. Easter is not simply one feast among others, but the “Feast of feasts,” the “Solemnity of solemnities,” just as the Eucharist is the “Sacrament of sacraments” (the Great Sacrament).

Waugh wrote with great restraint about the Easter vigil but he also touched on other aspects of the Easter liturgy, notably the glorious office of Tenebrae. In Brideshead Revisited, for example, Cordelia speaks about it to Charles Ryder, explaining that if he had ever experienced it he would know “what the Jews felt about their temple. Quomodo sedet sola civitas … it’s a beautiful chant. You ought to go once, just to hear it.”

There seems little chance of that happening but, chastened by life, Charles changes. We do not see that change at first because it happens outside the narrative. However, after “nearly ten dead years,” he reflects on what has happened to him:

“Here I am,” I thought, “back from the jungle, back from the ruins. Here where wealth is no longer gorgeous and power has no dignity. Quomodo sedet sola civitas” (for I had heard that great lament, which Cordelia once quoted to me in the drawing-room of Marchmain House, sung by a half-caste choir in Guatemala, nearly a year ago).

As we enter Holy Week, it is worth reminding ourselves that, for Waugh, it was what lay beyond the words of the novel that really mattered, and what really mattered was nowhere better expressed – better done – than in the Easter liturgy.

Quiet Powers of the Possible

I had a productive time today at Senate House Library, University of London, gathering books for my doctoral work and for a course I am developing for my school students. I brought home Irmeli Valtonen’s The North in the Old English Orosius (for my Year 7s – who else?) as well as Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (which I hope will help me elucidate Jérôme Ferrari’s powerful novel, The Sermon on the Fall of Rome for my PhD).

But I also found another book that I am very much looking forward to reading, a book with the wonderful title, Quiet Powers of the Possible (as well as the slightly more daunting subtitle, Interviews in Contemporary French Phenomenology). Our noisy, results-driven age is crying out for the quiet powers of the possible, it seems to me, though whether that was the meaning Heidegger had in mind when he first used the phrase in Being and Time I have yet to discover.

There is a peculiar pleasure to be found in getting one’s hands on unread books (“In phenomenology possibility stands higher than actuality,” Heidegger claimed.) but there is a higher form of pleasure in actually reading them, so I feel duty bound to quote at least a little from Quiet Powers of the Possible, from the last interview of the book, in fact, with the wonderful Jean-Louis Chrétien:

a quotation is like a meteorite, a body radically foreign to the speech that welcomes it and calls for it, gratefully giving to it a fugitive hospitality…. [For this guest] we must prepare a room and get out the clean sheets, for to quote is an honor that we receive, not one that we confer.


One way of responding to political turmoil

After months of torturous negotiations a compromise agreement was reached but it was an agreement that dissatisfied some and angered others. When the moment came to sign the agreement into law, some politicians refused while their supporters took to the streets, setting off a wave of geopolitical problems that lasted for decades.

Not London 2019 but Versailles 1919.

So how did Lu Zhengxiang, the leader of the Chinese delegation to the Paris peace conference, respond to the political turmoil of his time?

Returning to China, where the political protests against the Versailles peace treaty had evolved into a full scale cultural and political movement for change – the May Fourth Movement – he soldiered on as Foreign Secretary for a while before retiring from frontline domestic politics in 1920, citing “persistent hostility from abroad,” a “lack of support from the Government,” “an accumulation of blunders,” and “the absence of an exalted view and a persevering and co-ordinated campaign for renewing and reconstituting the forces of the nation”

He had domestic problems too – his wife was seriously ill – and so the couple moved to Switzerland where he became Chinese Ambassador. However, when his wife died shortly afterwards, he stepped back even further from the political maelstrom. He became a Benedictine monk in Belgium.

What chance of that among our current political leaders, I wonder?

Thus began years of “almost complete seclusion,” as Lu wrote in his book, Souvenirs et Pensées, translated into English as Ways of Confucius and of Christ. The key word in that phrase is “almost.” When the Japanese took control of Chinese territory in the 1930s, Lu Zhengxiang was spurred into action once more, publishing a booklet about the Manchurian crisis. Then, when the Nazis invaded Belgium, he was expelled from his monastery with the rest of the monks only to have the Gestapo break up a talk he was giving in Bruges. When the war ended he hoped to return to China to “bring to the Far East the monastic work of evangelisation” but death prevented him. It was 1949, the year Mao came to power in China.

Are there any lessons in all this for us today? If there are, I hesitate to draw them because the past never simply repeats itself. The Brexit debate is not the post-war debate and the Chinese situation then is not the British situation now.

However, we can do a lot worse than step back from the turmoil and take the long view, possibly with Lu Zhengxiang as our guide. The past may be a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley reminded us, but the present is beginning to look like one too. Considering the present in the light of the past might just help us find our bearings.