Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sweetness and Light

When I was an undergraduate learning how to be an elementary school teacher I read two books in one of my classes that I have never forgotten. I still have both books and refer to them from time to time when the tribulations of our current predicaments loom too large. One is Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold and the other was Notes Toward a Definition of Culture by T.S. Eliot. Arnold's book was designated as one of the 100 most influential manuscripts of all time while Eliot's has faded more into obscurity.

While Eliot seemed to cry out for the preservation of a high culture to which people must aspire to understand, Arnold argued for a culture that was all-encompassing; a culture of and for everyman, so to speak. While Eliot was complaining that we were; "destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the Barbarian nomads would encamp in their mechanized caravans", Arnold was imploring us in;"the pursuit of total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matter which most concern us, the best that is thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge turning a stream of free and fresh thought upon our stock notions and habits which we follow staunchly and mechanically, vainly imagining there is value in following them staunchly that makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically". This passage has always seemed to me to be Arnold's best definition of Jonathan Swift's term, "sweetness and light".

Arnold saw culture as something alive and changing; something that our Education system and schools should be engaged in by teaching our children the "best that is thought and said". Schools should be places where children discover the wonders of knowing, the joy of finally understanding, and the beauty of all things aesthetic.

I'm rereading Arnold's book today because in my local newspaper yesterday there was a news item in which a legislator in a Midwest State has introduced a bill which would allow school administrators to carry concealed weapons.!!!!!!

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