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?

Henri Rousseau’s ‘The Customs Post’

The Customs Post

In an interesting article in Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris (Tate Publishing, 2005), Nancy Ireson argues that “The Customs Post is a particularly interesting picture for, in addition to suggesting that Rousseau saw his careers as complimentary [he was a customs official for much of his life], it also shows how he considered work and leisure to overlap.”

Such a view would have been largely uncontroversial before the Industrial Revolution, mainly because what we now regard as separate spheres were not sharply differentiated then. In fact, leisure as we understand it today was a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution’s valorisation of what Josef Pieper called a world of total work. Leisure became the absence of work and a determination to be temporarily rid of work. That is why Ruskin could write: “Now in order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it: They must not do too much of it: and they must have a sense of success in it.”

However, we now live in a largely post-industrial world where work and leisure have begun to merge, largely because of technological developments. The rise of email and the smartphone have led inexorably to a blurring of the lines between work and leisure. We work from home and leisure is subsumed into work.

So does this mean that we are now more able to recover the vision that Rousseau set out in The Customs Post? Sadly not. Work and leisure may overlap but it is work that calls the shots. 

What strikes us today, by contrast, is how tolerant Rousseau’s employers were by today’s standards, allowing him the time and space he needed to paint during what we tend to think of as work hours. Efficiency was not the prime virtue. What Rousseau had was what proponents of the Slow Movement call for today: an attitude to time that was not dominated by an industrial mindset. Both jungles and customs posts in Paris escaped what Auden called “the formal logic of the clock.”