Memories of a Bad Education - Cardinal Newman Society

Memories of a Bad Education

One of the main reasons that I am so passionate about good education is my own experience of bad education. Many moons ago, back in my native England, I received the sort of education that is now all too common in public schools across the United States. It was in the East End of London, in the 1970s, that I endured being indoctrinated into the creedless creeds of relativism and secular fundamentalism. Today, across the abyss of the years, I can still picture myself in the classroom.

I recall my English Literature teacher, young, attractive and clueless, butchering Romeo and Juliet with the sort of slushy narcissistic nonsense which passes for scholarship in our anti-scholastic culture. Not that I knew at the time that she was butchering it. On the contrary, I was taken in. Imagine the effect on me and my adolescent friends as our attractive female teacher told us that the self-indulgent mindless passion of Romeo and his thirteen-year-old girlfriend was beautiful. Imagine how our hormones responded to the notion that it’s good to defy parents and convention, throwing virtue and caution to the wind, in an ultimately mutually self-destructive tryst. Imagine how our own rebellious spirit was enflamed by the notion that the bigotry of the parents was to blame for the demise of the otherwise blameless lovers. The older generation was to be defied; youth was to be deified. Being old was tantamount to being wrong. Youth was all and would prevail. It would be many years before, revisiting Romeo and Juliet, I realized that Shakespeare was the father of a thirteen-year-old daughter when he was writing the play and that the tragedy was intended to illustrate the danger of abandoning reason and virtue at the behest of irrational and sinful passion.

I remember reading only one other play in high school literature class, Chicken Soup with Barley by the Marxist and anti-Christian playwright, Arnold Wesker. It says a great deal about the political bias of the syllabus that such a play was chosen instead of works by Sophocles or further plays by Shakespeare. And, of course, there was never any prospect of Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons or Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral ever being taught.

We were taught Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, somewhat bizarrely and incredibly as a work which advocated socialism. One can only imagine what double-thinking somersaults the teacher must have done to make Orwell’s warning against big government ideology an argument for big government ideology. As the teacher turned the meaning of the novel inside out, Orwell must have been turning in his grave.

The only poetry we read in class was the war poetry of Wilfred Owen. No Dante; no Shakespeare sonnets; none of the Metaphysical Poets; none of the Romantic Poets; no Tennyson; no Hopkins; no Eliot. Only Owen, and Owen alone, made his way onto the syllabus. As it happens, I remember admiring Owen’s graphic depiction of the horrors of World War One when I first read his poetry, and I have retained this deep admiration for his poetic gifts to this day. His “Dulce et Decorum Est” remains one of my all-time favourites. And yet Owen’s verse is animated by a cynical animus, dismissive of patriotism and of Christianity. It was all too easy, therefore, to use his poetry to teach and preach the relativism which was enshrined in the school’s motto: “This Above All: To Thine Own Self Be True”. The fact that the school had adopted the words of the cynical liar Polonius in Hamlet as its principle of orientation adds deep and grim irony to the pernicious and poisonous nonsense being taught in the school’s less than hallowed halls.

In history we were only taught British social history from 1815-1914, essentially from a socialist perspective, thereby depriving us of a deeper and broader understanding of the past. We learned nothing of European history or North American history, or of any history prior to the nineteenth century. To say that the history we were taught was provincial would be an understatement!

I could go on, but I think that the reader will have gotten the point. The education that my generation endured was a shameful sham, shallow in the extreme and overshadowed by extremist ideology. We were kept ignorant while being taught to be arrogant. In consequence, we left school armed with the arrogance of our ignorance, going forth as a generation motivated by the pride and prejudice which has since become the core of British culture as it had been the core of the curriculum which was inflicted upon us. Needless to say, lessons need to be learned if we are to avoid going down the same pathetic path to oblivion to which the oblivious are doomed.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

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