SCHOOLS: by Bob DenahyNews Weekly
How students can rediscover truth, beauty and goodness
, June 22, 2013
The discussions are endless and they have been continuous for more than half a century: what constitutes a worthwhile education? Has what now passes for an education been rendered flaccid, both as regards content and rigour?
I recently opened a school textbook of literary selections considered appropriate as part of an English course. The following are some of the authors, together with passages that were offered for study.
At the beginning of the course is the following quote: “Reading furnishes the mind only with the material of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.”
Not only do these literary excerpts involve a knowledge of history and an appreciation of “the best that has been thought and said”, but they also inculcate moral uprightness and are exemplars of beautifully written English, both in prose and in verse.
One of the authors included is 16th-century Cervantes. His contribution is titled “The Judgment of Sancho”.
As a young man, Cervantes had fought in the great naval Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Christian Europe was in acute danger of being overrun by the forces of Islam. Lepanto has been called the most decisive naval battle since the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Cervantes was wounded in the fighting and lost the use of an arm, though he still used the other to write the all-time classic, Don Quixote.
The language in the following sample is somewhat archaic; but Sancho, the protagonist, displays both shrewdness and common sense. On trial before judge Sancho are a tailor and a farmer. Sancho says: “I perceive that there is malice on both sides; and in order that I may prove to you that the end of malice is always loss, I declare that ye shall both make forfeit, the tailor of his time and labour in the making, and the farmer of his cloth.”
Further prose passages introduce students to such authors as Homer, the illustrations of whose writing are titled “Ulysses and the Sirens” and “The Home-Coming of Ulysses”. Explanatory notes state, “Homer, greatest of epic poets, was born about 1000 BC in Greece.... He is known by the great epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey.”
One explanatory passage reads: “Ulysses was one of the Greek heroes who fought at the siege of ancient Troy. After the strife was over, and he had departed from the ruined city, he sailed for his native land. But trouble awaited him on the sea. Storm followed storm; his little vessel was tossed for days by angry waves, and at length was wrecked on a strange coast.”
Students do not read the epic poems, but at least they learn who Homer was.
Another introduced author is Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), “a Roman orator and statesman, noted for his speeches, his letters, and his philosophical and political works”.
His story about Damocles is translated from the Latin: “Dionysius, the tyrant of Sicily, was far from being happy, though he had great riches and all the pleasure which wealth could procure.... As he lay indulging himself in state, he saw let down from the ceiling, just over his head, a large, bright sword hung by a single hair. This sight put an end to his joy.”
Other prose authors are Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Leo Tolstoy and William Thackeray.
For poetry the student is introduced to such authors as the great German poet Friedrich Schiller, who wrote “Ode to Joy”, which was used by Beethoven when he composed his Ninth Symphony.
Shakespeare is introduced via King Lear. The student is informed, “Many people, well able to judge, have ranked Shakespeare’s King Lear as one of the finest dramas ever written.” Though the play itself is not part of the curriculum, the story of the drama is told to whet a student’s literary appetite.
Other poets, with accompanying examples of their work, are Longfellow, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning and Alfred Noyes.
I have thus far deliberately excluded Australian masters of prose and verse lest the reader guess for whom these samples of exquisite literature were provided. Australian authors included Henry Kendall, “John O’Brien” (Father Patrick Joseph Hartigan), Henry Lawson, A.B. “Banjo” Paterson and Dorothea Mackellar.
The poem of Mackellar’s, “My Country”, is at the head of the curriculum. One stanza runs:
Core of my heart, my country,
Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold.
Over the thirsty paddocks
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze.
These are samples of the literature once prescribed for Australian primary children in Grade Six, where the average age would have been about 11. They were all included in the 244-page volume of Victorian Readers, first published in 1928 for students in Grade Six.
They, and all the other volumes from Grade One to Grade Eight, introduced students to what was good, true and beautiful in our culture, and helped mould the character of Australian children of that era.
Bob Denahy lives in Holbrook, New South Wales.