An Anatomy Of Priestcraft
"The schools are quite literally destructive of human beings. I think they are the most grim, joyless places on the face of the earth. They are needlessly authoritarian and repressive... because nobody ever asks why: why the rules, or why the curriculum?"
Charles E Silberman, author of Crisis in the
Classroom, the Remaking of American Education.
When I left Summerhill in Aberdeen, I left a priestcraft with which I had been associated, man and boy, since I first entered one of its seminaries at the age of five. The momentum of its influence took months to run down. An Elizabethan wrote,
We shall grow old apace and die
Before we know our liberty.
I began slowly to know my liberty. I had no idea that so much unchallenged
dogma controlled my life. I realised how little time I had during my teaching career for independent enquiry. There are snatches of classroom discussion, pub discussion, weekend conferences, books, but there is not enough opportunity to follow up the tentative conclusions reached. One purpose of the work ethic, in school and in adult life, is to diminish the time available for extended private enquiry. At last I had time to read more widely and freely, seeking enlightenment on many problems, the solution of which I had too lightly conceded to the priesthoods. There were three studies in particular that spoke to my condition.
One of the minor surprises of my life is the manner in which, once I've embarked upon an enquiry, potential answers make themselves available. Casually I switch on the television and somebody is proposing answers immediately relevant. A friend writes and recommends a book he has chanced to read. It is as if knowledge and insight, once set down in speech and writing, homes in on anybody seeking it. At such a time I read a book, published in 1912, entitled, What Is and What Might Be. The author, Edmond Holmes, was a senior inspector of schools in England at the turn of the century. Significantly, he wrote the book when he had retired and had leisure to look back on his career in the educational system. He tried to explain how the futility of our educational system had come about. He found it had long, deep roots. It wasn't just a hastily improvised product of the industrial system; its faults are the deficiencies of our civilisation. As an inspector he went into an elementary school and asked the pupils a simple question. A farmer had 126 sheep. He bought another 9. How many had he then? Out of 50 boys, only one got the right answer. Of the rest, a third multiplied 126 by 9; a third divided 126 by 9; a third subtracted 9 from 126. Holmes said that this failure wasn't an exceptional happening in an otherwise efficient school-system. It was a normal happening, and, to find the reason, he went back to the nature of our beliefs about good and evil and the fears and myths with which our forefathers confronted their world. This book is the best attempt I know to explain why the western world got such a fixation on exams.
A liberal-minded teacher, reading school inspector Holmes's report in 1912, might have expected that teaching would become a liberal profession. But Edmond Holmes had as little influence on the high priests of education in London in 1912 as inspector Matthew Arnold had, forty years earlier. Education is not amenable to ideas, except in a minor and superficial way. This is the basic mistake that modern liberal innovators make. They believe that ours is a modern, liberal society and proposals for improvement will be considered on their merits. It is not so. Ours is a priestly society which resists change. It took me most of my teaching career to make that discovery but Holmes had already set it down in print in 1912, analysing the way in which the ecclesiastical priests influenced the ideas of the educational priests and therefore of the whole society.
Holmes's thesis starts with early man and his fumbling efforts to make sense of his world. Early man dreamed about a world of heart's desire, and invented myths to explain why the real world wasn't like that, and how a good God could have created a bad world. The myth said that once upon a time the natural world and the supernatural world were one; but, in the garden of Eden, man spoiled it all and was driven out. There was then two worlds, a supernatural world sharing in the glory of God, and a world of nature, fallen and accursed; and no communication between them. God sent his son to re-establish communication and to advise man. But how could man, if he were utterly evil and corrupt, understand and benefit from the son's advice? That was a dilemma. An ingenious answer was provided. The answer was that intermediaries, priests, were appointed to interpret that son's advice and the Law. That solution of the dilemma has continued to be accepted to this day. Our world is run for us by intermediaries, special people who are not as other men. (The word pharisee means separated.) The answer is unconvincing because it doesn't cope with the further question, "If theses intermediaries are human and therefore evil and corrupt like the rest of humanity, how could they be trusted to interpret the Law wisely?" This doubt had been expressed by the prophets Elijah and Amos; but the ecclesiastical priests, and their successors in other walks of life, evaded it, and maintained their monopoly in the interpretation of the Law. No interpretations were to be accepted from poets or prophets or other amateurs outside the priestly profession.
Theirs is a simple system of rules and mechanical obedience. The pharisees wrote out the letter of the Law in the utmost detail. (For example, no work was to be done on the sabbath day, and, since the definition of work included turning over the earth, a man idly scraping the earth with his foot was guilty of 'working' and thus breaking the law of the sabbath.) The letter of the law took precedence over the spirit. When Christianity extended far beyond the confines of Israel, the code of detailed law couldn't cover all the differences of climate and custom, and a controlling priesthood beyond Israel translated the legal code of the pharisees into a wider code. Obedience to the one supernaturally commissioned church was the fundamental assumption of Catholicism. The church controlled the outflowing of divine grace. Its dominion over the souls of men would endure beyond time. Its doctrine was infallible, and the church retained in its own hands all control of what the law meant, reinforcing its observance with rewards and punishments. Mechanical obedience meant the triumph of machinery over life.
Protestantism devised a dogmatism of its own to support those who, although disobedient to the Catholic despotism, feared to walk by their own inner light. In an article in the Scotsman, John Cooney described Pope Leo XIII's efforts in 1898 to persuade the Presbyterians to re-enter the Catholic church. Leo said that it was Christ's will that Peter and his successors would preserve Holy Writ intact and save people from the errors of private judgement. The pope would have been encouraged to read, in reports of the unity talks then taking place between the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church, that these Presbyterians laid it down that the scriptures must be understood in the sense of the doctrine of their church. That is to say, the Free churchman was no more free than the Catholic churchman to make his own interpretations of scripture.
The bonds of this priestly monopoly have continued to hold man in its grip. In Islamic as well as Christian countries, education was largely education in the details of the law and the scriptures. Last century in Britain, students training to be teachers had to pass a written examination which tested their knowledge of the dimensions of Noah's Ark and Solomon's Temple. A senior educationist of the time was questioned about the value of this information. Apparently unaware of its pharisaic precedents, he tried to give his own gloss to it. He said that if a student knew the details of the Bible, it could be assumed that he would understand the divine truth it contained. Schoolteachers modelled themselves on the ecclesiastical tradition and used the approved methods. For example, history examinations are largely concerned with the memorising of historical details; perhaps the educationists would use the same method of justification, saying that if students know the battles of the Thirty Years' War, and the terms of the treaty that ended it, they will understand how it affected the development of Europe. That is why educational reform has been superficial and ineffectual: it doesn't challenge the pervading priestly tradition in which we live and move and have our being.
Innovating is forbidden unless it is within the priestly dogma. In a society that was changing only very slowly, the priests got away with this method of education. But in our present rapidly-changing society its flaws stand out. That is a basic truth that hasn't yet hit the prefects of our society. They wanted us to develop a limited freedom of thought. They encouraged enquiry into improved methods of transport and discouraged enquiry into new methods of human association. But they can't have the one without the other. In the educational system they played it safe. I doubt if they realise that limiting education to the memorising of formulae has led to the lack of understanding of mathematics in the schools and the lack of understanding of economics and finance in the government. The inability of the pupils inspected by Holmes to add up the farmer's sheep was no accident. It was the inevitable effect of the pharisees' system of controlling thought by dictating answers or rigorously laying down formulas by the application of which the pupils are to find the answer. They follow the appropriate formula, or, if they can't hit on the right formula, whichever formula they can remember. Holmes's story applies to Westminster government in the nineteen-eighties. Whether it is a 1912 arithmetic teacher or a 1984 BBC economics expert, the lessons are equally formal, formulae-based, lacking in lucidity.
These two things, priestly monopoly and the nature of the school examination are complementary. Many teachers and university lecturers still perpetuate the tradition. Just as there are right answers, laid down in catechisms, to religious questions, there are right answers to educational questions. Pupils and students memorise them and reproduce them in examinations. If you don't reproduce the right answers, not only will you not qualify to become a priest in church or school (or lawcourt or political party) you will not qualify to get any sort of employment except menial. The teacher, keeping control, lays down correct actions and creeds. Pupils have to feel, see, say and do what the teacher tells them. In the same way as the priests controlled the ecclesiastical world, the universities and schools claim to control the educational world. They challenge the right of laymen to contribute to knowledge and understanding, and fight against intruders like uncertified teachers, bone-setters, water-diviners and all the unqualified rabble. There are right answers to everything, vouchsafed only to the elect. An alternative way of thinking is unthinkable. The mediaeval church exhibited fifteen relics all claiming to be genuine foreskins of Jesus, but the faith of the faithful was not thereby diminished. The modern educational system is similarly proof against any demonstration of its own absurdity.
Priestly domination wasn't without challengers, like Galileo. Rather than risk the opening up of the whole of life and thought to the influence of new questions, the church permitted questions in the spheres of science and art and politics, and contained the infection by separating these from the spheres in which it still maintained undisputed control. The effect of that estrangement, said Holmes, was that these things were regarded as secular, unspiritual, unrelated to the eternal questions about the nature of man and his life on the earth. Life was split up into separate compartments. The result was that scientists came to deify knowledge for its own sake, artists believed in art for art's sake, politicians regarded political power as intrinsically desirable, and schoolteachers regarded education as the acquisition of certificates. Holmes longed for a re-synthesis of all these things into a concern with the quality of life and the upbringing of children. He was disturbed by the alienation of teachers from an understanding of living and nourishment and by their concentration on the details of the educational Law.
"All the inmates of these schools are cheating themselves with forms, figures, marks and such other empty symbols.... Timetables, schemes of work, syllabuses, record books, examination result books, and the rest, - hours and hours are spent by the teacher on the clerical work which these mechanical contrivances demand." That useless activity culminates in the examinations, which Holmes saw as reflecting and causing our national outlook on life. "The examination system, with its implicit demands for trickery and shiftiness, and its almost open invitation to cram and cheat, is not confined to the school but has its equivalent in 'the world' and is in fact the basis of civilisation as well as of education in the West." We have to re-examine (said Holmes) the emphasis on 'discipline' which tries to overcome a child's natural repugnance to such unworthy treatment and evokes an opposite reaction. Hooliganism is due to years of educational repression which block up the normal channels of a child's expansive energies. "An entire range of qualities, spiritual and mental...which exist in every normal child, fail to germinate (or at best only just begin to germinate)."
All of that, the disciplining, the drilling in information, the dominant classroom attitudes, Holmes traces back to Jewish mythology and its invention of a God who assumed that man, left to himself, would take delight in breaking his commandments. This is the God "whose nimbus over-shadows the life of the west". Holmes said that we have to change our standard of reality. His book was a milestone in my search. I'd started off believing in the standard of reality that I'd been taught and grown up with. I'd found superficial and obvious things that needed to be changed, and came up against deep forces that resisted change. I enquired further, and finally was pushed to Holmes's answer. It's the whole of our philosophy of life, our values, our standard of reality that needs to be looked at again.
Few people have the leisure that Holmes had to sit down and assess a lifetime's experience. Most teachers, on retiring, are content to trade in books for golf-clubs and to bid farewell to educational enquiry, so tired are they. Emerging from a long tunnel, they have no heart to relive their experience and analyse the philosophy that created it.
But if we are to open up the tunnel to inspection, more of us have to go back painfully and retrace our steps. We have then to publish our findings, so that we can show parents what schoolroom education is doing to their children and how it is tied up with ecclesiastical beliefs.
I'd like to add my testimony to Holmes's. I've discovered that there's no real reason that we should be so expert at dealing with sewage or photographing the other side of the moon, and so bad at running our lives. What has happened is that the technicians were given freedom to devise answers to their problems while the culturalists stayed with their catechisms. When we remove education and philosophy from the exclusive hands of the priests and professionals and take them over ourselves, human life could experience a release such as scientific enquiry gained at the Renaissance. The young are beginning to be aware of the magnitude of the discovery they are making. I've learned that what we call the Establishment is the same power as the Old Testament called Baal and Mammon and that its priests are still up to their old tricks of luring us with trashy satisfactions and obscuring from us the things that give us a more enduring happiness. When we gain liberty from that enforced pursuit of status and goods, a new earth swims into our ken. We have all the time in the world to wait and become aware of what it has to offer, - the swirling patterns that an interrupting stone makes on the smooth face of a stream, the chorus of its chortlings and bubblings; the variety of sounds in the trees round the stream in an early morning in August, the chack-chack call of a robin, the wing-clatter of a surprised mallard, the loud murmur of bees in a lofty beech-tree; the flowers of late August, knapweed and harebells, and rosebay willowherb staking out a red claim over vast stretches of the landscape. These things do in sober fact belong to our peace, more than status and its symbols. Children have a more realistic sense of where the life-giving values are. They react, sometimes violently, against Mammon's ubiquitous gospel. The increase in juvenile delinquency is a sign of health in the community, an angry turning-away from Mammon's vomit.
The Director of Edinburgh Zoo said, "I think delinquency is a natural failing among children... and I think nature study is the answer." From the worst areas of Glasgow, children went out under his guidance to find natural history specimens of their own. One boy found caterpillars in the Gallowgate. He found them on carrots on a fruit stall, and the stall-keeper gave him the carrots too. Another found pupae in a park. Their normal pastimes had been stealing and vandalism. That shouldn't be a surprise to the educationists because children are interested in life. But the educationists are absorbed in their systems, their 'dry wells' as Browning called them.
How can we get across to the educationists the fact that by denying life they are causing death? I mean that literally. The problem was so great, said a consultant psychiatrist, that thirty beds were to be made available at Birmingham for children needing psychiatric help. Attempted suicide among school children is increasing. A pupil told me about a fellow-pupil at one of the most pressurised of Scotland's schools, "He said he couldn't stand it any more. He just wanted to get away and watch green things growing. They all laughed. Imagine! What a stupid thing to want to do, - to watch green things growing! Later he committed suicide."
Holmes said that it was the whole of our philosophy, our values, our standards of reality, that needed to be looked at again. How does a people, engulfed in the refuse of old ideas, discover (or rediscover) its values and put them into practice? Five years after Holmes's book appeared, an attempt was made to do just that, and it failed. We can learn from the experience.