Friday, 11 June 2010

A rounded education

Throughout All Quiet on the Western Front Remarque has his narrator make various bitter comparisons between the academic subjects he and his classmates spent so much time and effort studying at school - little different from the ones I studied myself - and the knowledge and skills they've been forced to acquire as soldiers.
We remember mighty little of all that rubbish. Anyway, it has never been the slightest use to us. At school nobody ever taught us how to light a cigarette in a storm of rain, nor how a fire could be made with wet wood - nor that it is best to stick a bayonet in the belly because there it doesn't get jammed, as it does in the ribs.
Something of the same sentiment is expressed in lines by Ezra Pound from the poem-sequence Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (which I have not read - I came across them quoted in another book):
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilisation.

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
At the quick eyes gone under earth's lid.

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books
and again, rather more convincingly to my mind, in the passage I've quoted before by Czeslaw Milosz, which begins
The work of human thought should withstand the test of brutal, naked reality. If it cannot, it is worthless...
It should be pointed out that All Quiet... passes this test admirably, and provides an answer to the question it tacitly poses, 'What use is a liberal education?' Plenty, if the result is a novel like this.

But to return to education...perhaps we should side-step the dilemma by trying something like this, from Gore Vidal's Creation:
In my time, school life was strenuous. We were up before dawn. We were taught to use every kind of weapon. We were even taught farming and husbandry as well as mathematics and music. We learned to read and even to write, if necessary. We were taught how to build not only bridges and fortresses but palaces too. We were given only one meager meal a day.
By the time a Persian noble is twenty, there is very little he cannot do for himself if he has to.
Although the catering smacks of Orwell's memoir of school days, of the slab of suet used to break the boys' appetites, of Lamb's account of Christ's Hospital, of Dotheboys Hall. Assuming this reflects research and not invention on Vidal's part, the practice of educating children through partial starvation clearly has a long pedigree.


Some cheering news: Frederik Pohl, he of The Space Merchants, Gateway and Man Plus, is not only still alive (which I was surprised, impressed and oddly comforted to learn in 2008 when The Last Theorem was published, Arthur C. Clarke's last novel, for which Pohl was co-author) but he blogs. Pretty good it is, too - and it has got him a nomination for Best Fan Writer in the 2010 Hugos. I intend to read all of it.

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