The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
An Unconventional School Sermon

by A. E. Heath, B. A.
Volume 26, 1915, pgs. 251-255

Arnold Gerstenberg, Student of the University of Cambridge

"The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones . . . Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." [Ezekiel ch. 37.]

In the middle of talking and discussion with you—often right in the midst of an attempt to pass on to some of you an interest in natural things—I have asked myself a strange question; "What right have I, or any other teacher, to try to influence you; to change the course of your thought to those things which interest me?"

Of course you might answer such a question, if I put it to you, by saying that the things masters and mistresses teach are going to be useful some day—to be of service in earning a living and so on. But if that were the only answer, I think most of us would never want to give you another lesson.

What other reason, then, is there which gives one the right to stand up, as I am doing, to talk to you? Well, let me first of all say that I have no great belief in preachers and teachers. One can learn for oneself much more than one can learn from others. And preachers and teachers have an uncomfortable little habit of assuming some kind of superiority—a sort of higher standpoint and false dignity. For myself, I feel that you can teach me at least as much as I can teach you, that we are traveling together through the world finding things out about it, and helping each other by the way. And if I chance to have the more experience, you have the fresher outlook. The fact that I am in the rostrum and you down below is only fair if by some odd trick of the shadows I have been able to see something you have missed, and am eager to blurt it out—just as one points out a beautiful bit of primrose sky through the trees to a friend one is walking with.

Perhaps I can make clearer to you what I mean if I give you an example. When I was a pupil on the mathematical side of a modern school, we had a young master whose unpleasant task it was to teach us English. I say unpleasant because we were a set of barbarians, we had no idea of what was meant by literature and the love of books. I remember perfectly well the ribald way in which we received his attempts to make us appreciate English verse. We thought him rather a muff. We did not know great poets were to be enjoyed; if we though of them at all, we took them on trust. We knew that such and such were supreme, but we didn't know why.

We considered great writers to be people we did not usually understand. They dealt in a sort of lofty dullness. It was only through our teacher's tremendous enthusiasm that we caught a sudden glimpse into a new world, and learned that great writers were supreme because they could give supreme pleasure—because they were human like ourselves, with the same passions and joys and despairs. The dry bones of poetry became alive with meaning; it became a new joy to seek the statement of one's own feelings by a genius who had experienced the same emotions and had been able to write them finely—able to produce books which (as Stevenson says) we might ourselves have written in a dream.

Now you see what I mean? Our English master had the right to preach at us because he had something to give us: some new fine thing which was worth having and which we might have missed but for him. And he did not lose by his giving; on the contrary, he gained by seeing the growth in untrained minds of the pleasure he felt so keenly.

It is always a help to one's own pleasure in a thing to pass it on. Suppose you are working at a body of disconnected facts. Suppose for example that you have been studying the colours of butterflies' wings, and then suddenly see the key to all their complexity in the fact that they are coloured so for protection—like leaves or mortar or what-not for the purposes of concealment. A clear connection is at once established between your odd facts. Or suppose that you find an application to modern history in some fact of Roman history. At once the subject becomes alive. In both these cases where a connection is suddenly seen between separate things, your joy is so great, and your feeling of grasp and advance so secure, that you must show it to others.

If we sit and listen to a sonata, and then suddenly catch the very mood and central idea of the composer, the whole thing is lit up for us. In these cases you may be quite certain that if you feel an impulse strongly, others near you are capable of being moved by the same feelings. Prophesy unto them and they will stand up "clothed in flesh and blood, an exceeding great army."

Knowledge, appreciation of music and form, wonder at the earth's beauty—all of these can only come by a flash of insight, a breath of life making live what before seemed dry bones. And that may come to us by a friendly word.

And so my answer to the question with which I began, "Why do teachers take upon themselves to talk to you of what they see and feel?" is almost a selfish one. It is because, if they pass on their joy in things to others, that joy gains in intensity. By giving it away, it grows and multiplies like a living thing.

Now please do not take this to mean that everyone who stands up and mouths resonant and high-sounding phrases to you has something important behind him. Clearly he may have, so don't dismiss him at once. But never feel moved to pretend to have feelings or beliefs which you really have not got. Your first duty to yourself and to others is to keep cool, to think clearly and to face the facts. Deep feeling is a fine things, but a pretence of deep feeling is mere sentimentality. Once get into the habit of pretending to appreciate things you do not like and you will soon lose the power to like things at all. You will join the great army of the "bored."

I suppose most of us at one time or another have found ourselves saying "how perfectly delightful, charming" about some book or picture which in reality left us cold. That sort of sham politeness is death to all real feeling.

You are all supposed, for example, to speak of Shakespeare with awe and admiration. Cast him from you. Forget all you have ever been told about him. Neglect the fact that he is appreciated in the "best circles." And then some night when you have the leisure to sit by the fire "happy thinking," walk over to the bookshelf and take down Richard II. For your own idle amusement and for no other reason.

If any one among you is tired with the apparently meaningless respect, or pretended respect, shewn to the Bible, go to it afresh, no caring whether it turns out as dull and dusty as you expected or not; and read some of the Book of Job aloud to yourself.

In other words, try things for yourself; accept nobody's opinion (not even that of the youngest and most dogmatic of us) entirely on trust. Professor Huxley once said that he based his hope in the future on the belief that people would more and more stick to the plain rule of not pretending to believe what they have no reason to believe; and Clifford felt so strongly on this that he wrote, "If a belief is accepted on insufficient evidence it is sinful, because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind. That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence which may shortly master our own body, and then spread to others."

There is a phrase I have read somewhere about harm being done by want of thought as well as want of heart. There is more in that than meets the eye. We are all of us inclined to be intellectually lazy, and liable to slur things over in a slushly sentimental way. Want of thought in these days is a crying want. There is sufficient disorder in the world already without our letting in more by loose thinking.

Of course you will sometimes find that facing the facts is an ugly and painful business. Knowledge may bring loss of cherished ideals and disillusion, as well as power and growth; just as if we increase our capacity for joy, we find we also increase our sensitiveness to pain. Yet it is worthwhile. Robert Browning, who above all things possessed an accurate questioning mind, could urge mankind to

"Make new hope shine through the flesh they fray,
New fears aggrandize the rags and tatters."

Growth means keener appreciation and wider sympathies; there are indeed new worlds waiting to be opened up to all of us. Something which appeared to be a mere valley of dry bones may in a flash become full of life and meaning. But—and it is an important "but"—we must keep our minds clear and critical so that we do not mistake every valley of dry bones we meet to be fertile and ready to spring into life at the magic word.

At this point I must give you a word of warning. If any of you ever do feel it your duty at whatever cost to question and seek the truth, you will soon discover a curious fact; you will find yourself labeled. A catchword such as "logical" or "philosopher" will be pinned on to you. Men will turn aside your examination of their creeds by this label-word. It is so easy for them to use a word instead of an argument.

It occurs to me that the appeal one often hears in school sermons for you to honour the name of the school may become to you an appeal to a meaningless catchword. If our community is to be more than a valley of dry bones it is you who will give it life. If it is to stand for anything worthwhile, we must be clear, free from cant, and ready to take up a challenge thoughtfully, with no capital letters to shelter behind. I don't believe "pi-jaws" will make that so.

Last night a member of my form came to me and said "Is it your 'jaw' tomorrow, Sir," and when I said "Yes" he rather pathetically asked me not to speak about the 'good of the school.' I realize from the time when I myself suffered from school sermons how over-preached at we were; how tired we got of being talked "down to" with examples chosen exclusively from cricket; how unaffected we were by half the ethical outpourings we were subjected to. If you don't feel the impulse to make the word live, don't pretend to. If you find it at all it will not be from a sermon, and so I will not go on with the subject.

Children and simple folk see through high-sounding words and phrases more easily than post people. I remember hearing of an old woman who formed one of a deputation of Lancashire weavers Prime Minister. When she returned, a fussy friend came to her full of enquiries as to what he was like, how he looked, and what he said. She answered curtly "He wor nobbut an owd man in a room." If they would have met the Prime Minister on as clear a human footing as that, I have no doubt much more useful business would have been done.

Many of the catch-phrases men live by have only to be looked at closely to disappear like dim ghosts. One only needs the clear mind to see straight through them, and feel like the child in the fairy story who was being shown the King in his splendid new robes, and who said "Why, he's got nothing on!"

This danger in cant phrases is doubly intensified when we turn to our responsibility in regard to the suffering and degradation of millions of our fellow-beings of today. Do not ask me to tell you the shameful, pitiful tale of that degradation. We are so used to the knowledge of it that it no longer bites into our souls—and some of us have lost the souls to be bitten into. And yet I have sufficient belief in the goodness of human nature to think that people in the main have goodwill. Think of the many people you know well and personally. They may differ from you widely on many points, but you will find (unless my experience has been more than usually fortunate) that most of them possess a sense of helpfulness to their fellowmen.

But we have not learned yet to sift the chaff from the grain. We are divided into hostile camps by political catchwords. A phrase may suspend all our social feelings and rouse us to a point of frenzy. You remember the story of the man in the political meeting who interrupted to ask "What did Gladstone say in 89?" After repeating this several times he was thrown out; and one of the stewards who threw him out went up to him out of curiosity to ask what Gladstone did say in '89. "Lumme, guvnor," he replied, "I don't know. But it were jolly 'ot in there, and what were't quickest way out."

The truth is too much hidden for us by be-capitalled words. I want you to try to see clear through them; to get at and face the facts as they are. More interference with the poor won't do. They don't want it, and don't need it. All that is wrong with the poor is poverty.

I do not wish to press anything on you but your responsibility. I have no easy solution to offer. But remember this: when you learn the facts, when you hear what poverty really means—that will not be enough. A wider sympathy, a spark of that fire which made men say of Jesus "He had compassion on the multitude," must arise in your hearts. The facts alone will be dry bones in a valley of dry bones. They can only be stung into life by real understanding, by love.

Do you know William Blake's challenge to England?

"Bring me my bow of burning gold.
Bring me my arrows of desire,
Bring me my spear, O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till I have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land."

The bow he asked for was a Cupid's bow—to shoot through the heart. Love alone can stir men's hearts to love knowledge of the horrible facts of social misery.

"Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge . . . and have not charity, I am nothing."

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July 2008