"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

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Saturday, 20 August 2011

Treasures of Heaven - and the Education of our Children

What first struck me as I entered the Great Court was the huge crowd of pilgrims, noisy and colourful, jostling into each other, gossiping, carrying bundles of clothes, food, drink; the barest essentials for a long journey on foot. They were on a pilgrim trail, taking in the important Christian pilgrim sites in Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Cologne and Canterbury before making for the final destination of Jerusalem. One was even seen to be uttering that well known children’s travel mantra: “When shall we be there!” Yes, you have guessed, these were not real people, but were paper people, being cut out and coloured by children as one of the many great activities laid on for them in the school holidays by the British Museum, in London.
We had gone to the Museum to see the current exhibition on “Treasures of heaven: Saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe.” And it was wonderful! If you are anywhere near London this side of 9 October do go and see it.
“Relics featured in the exhibition include three thorns thought to be from the Crown of Thorns, fragments of the True Cross, the foot of St Blaise, the breast milk of the Virgin Mary, the hair of St John the Evangelist, and the Mandylion of Edessa (one of the earliest known likenesses of Jesus).” Some of the reliquaries made by skilled craftsmen to house such religious relics were incredibly ornate and beautifully crafted, from the finest materials. And these would often attract vast numbers of pilgrims hoping to be miraculously cured or absolved from sin.
Such pilgrimages were central to medieval life; hence the children’s contributions in the Great Court.

But what saddened me was the realization that all these children, obviously having such fun, were privileged to be there, with their parents and guardians who recognize the value of such experiences for their youngsters, as part of their education for life. As with many of our great museums and art galleries, entrance is free, (although a donation is appreciated) and so in theory these spaces are available to all. But sadly many children are never given the opportunity to enjoy these facilities; are denied access to their heritage, their culture. Even sadder, the number of youngsters in the museum on any one day is far exceeded by those being driven to the many pre-packaged bogus “experiences” up and down the country – you know what I mean - that offer seemingly non-stop “fun” and over inflated prices; for what purpose? Yes children deserve to have fun - but let's be constructive about at least some of that fun!

Because I believe that an understanding of our history, our heritage, our culture, and the influence of faith in our past is all part of the essential education of our children. And it would seem that at the moment schools simply do not provide such valuable experiences, in the time available to them in their curriculum, and shackled as they are by league tables etc.
I was alarmed to read that apparently formal schooling contributes at most 10-20% of what makes a “good professional person” effective.* The best learning is informal, outside the school day, from peers, family, reading, travel etc. And for many children this extracurricular activity is poor, to say the least. It is clearly important that we consider what is going on in our schools. Because the quality of the education offered has a significant impact on how our children and youth will approach and address the global crises in their lives. Will they be able to see the overall picture or be shackled by knowledge fragmentation; will they act out of self-interest or learn to see the wider social dimension of their actions? How do we teach them how to engage responsibly with their communities, to behave as decent citizens? How can we improve the educational experience for ALL our children? This question seems particularly pertinent as I listen to the debates rolling on and on about the causes of the current unrest in our English cities and towns.

*From an essay by Ian Cunningham, at chapter 25 of A New Renaissance: Transforming Science, Spirit and Society

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