An Education In Retrospect

We compose many last wills and testaments during our lifetime, an average of ten, if we are to accept the popular proposition that one begins a new life every seven years. It is, of course, an idle arrogance, since only once do we have anything to bequeath, if even then. On the other occasions we are the inheritors, as anyone knows who has actually set pen to paper to record, at its end, a period of his life. What he finds himself doing is selecting from among the experiences of that period those that he will preserve into the next, and into all subsequent periods.

If I composed such testaments, mentally or on paper, at the ages of seven and fourteen, I do not remember them. The first that I remember writing, somewhat prematurely it seems, since I was not yet at the end of my third seven-year span, actually achieved publication. That was not difficult to arrange, since at the time I was editor of the Harri­sonian. The occasion was my last term at school. However, this “Last Will and Testament” (it appeared precisely under that title) bore in its printed form little resemblance to what I had written. I had stated quite clearly in my original copy that I was glad to be leaving school, that lack of knowledge of what lay beyond prevented me from being certain, but that I very much doubted the truth of the old adage about one’s school days being the happiest of one’s life. In any case, I was prepared to have an open mind on the subject.

A headmasterly blue pencil had deleted these phrases from the copy that went to the printer, perhaps wisely from his point of view, but as far as I was concerned, he had removed the essence of what I had to say. Even now, those phrases seem to me to contain an excellent sentiment. Shouldn’t one, on the threshold of a new life, look ahead with optimism rather than back with regret? Or is it just one more example of Jehovah’s perversity that Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt?

My doubts about the truth of the adage also proved to be justified. School days are not the happiest of one’s life. They come as far down the scale of remembered pleasure as of time, and I suspect that anyone who thinks otherwise has not progressed very far into adulthood. But pleasure is not the same as profit, and, to return to the matter of wills and testaments, I am most ready to acknowledge that it was a rich in­heritance which I bequeathed from my school days to my years beyond.

I say “I” bequeathed, as though the gathering of the treasure had been my express purpose, when, like a bee smeared with pollen while looking for honey, I had acquired it absent-mindedly, not to say un­willingly. The metaphor is not exact.  The pollen that rubbed off on me did not deprive others of the hive, and is probably not apt, a schoolmaster is more likely to blanch than bow at being likened to a flower. Certainly none of us thought of them as flowers. No one thinks in such terms, who is faced every Friday in Form IIA, with a written test of his knowledge of ablative absolutes and the genitives of the obscurer Latin nouns, the whole overhung with the threat of detention or the cane, should the knowledge prove inadequate.  Even in Form VI, when that threat no longer existed, an hour spent poring over the grammatical solecisms of Aeschylus was hard slogging, not honey-sipping.

Having in Form V had an excellent mathematics teacher, the head­master himself, I am able to calculate that, of the 10,000 hours of my life that I sat in classrooms of Harrison College, 50 per cent was devoted to the life and languages of ancient Greece and Rome. That today I read nothing in either Latin or Greek (cannot any longer, in fact, read Greek at all) is a reflection on myself, not on the discipline. But, in any case, one does not study Latin and Greek at school in order to be able to read Catullus and Thucydides in later life. Pace my teachers at Harrison College and probably all classical scholars, there are as good things to read in living languages. Nor does one study them to become a doctor, a lawyer, a journalist or anything else other than a teacher of Latin and Greek.

From all these points of view, Classics is a useless discipline. To my way of thinking, that is partly its virtue. After all, one spends so much of one’s later life kneeling at the altar of that orthodox godhead utility, that one can afford to devote one’s early years to more amiable and less exigent deities. The danger, in any case, lies precisely in the opposite direction. The young all too soon become conformists. From the age of puberty, they begin to equate education with the making of money. They should be discouraged for at least a short while longer. Education is concerned with the production of thinking beings, and the more patently useless the disciplines used to that end, the longer may the in­evitable conversion be staved off. Strangely, most adults know this and could assist in its popularization, but a conflict is set up in their minds by the fact that a feature of every religion is that its adherents must subscribe to a belief in a single true god.

I should now be required to prove that I benefited, in terms of this orthodoxy, from my Classical education at Harrison College. That would require adducing evidence of my worldly status, my intellectual accom­plishments, or the production of similarly acceptable yardsticks of success. I have no intention of doing so. Apart from the arrogance of such dis­closures, the whole point of my argument is their irrelevance. I do not subscribe to the orthodox religion, and the reason for my apostasy is precisely my Classical education.

Nevertheless. it is true that, after so many years spent studying Latin and Greek I did suffer inevitably, I think,  a revulsion. At university I told myself I would have nothing more to do with Classics. The studies that I would pursue would be of a totally different kind, down-to-earth and of my own choosing. But the discipline I had undergone did not in fact, permit of this difference or of this choice. I found myself attracted to the theoretical side of my subject, which was Economics, to its elements of logic, and, in my spare time, to poetry (which was not new) and to modern languages (which was).

I can now return to my original argument,-; and if it is now seen to be as patently political as personal, that is by no means accidental. A country’s evolution beyond its Form VI days of responsibility, but limited indepen­dence, is not greatly different from a schoolboy’s.

If we begin a new life every seven years, we do not begin it with a new mind any more than with a new body, and no purpose is served by regretting this unalterable fact. On the contrary, frustration that way lies. But at the same time, there is no merit or benefit in believing that this early period, when one’s intellectual inheritance was being accumu­lated, is. superior to the periods beyond. Our school days are the happiest of our lives only in other people’s opinions. We have no way of judging the fact at the time, because we have no other periods with which to compare them, and they have no way of judging at all, because they are different people. The prospect would, in any case, be dismal if it were true. Fortunately it need never be, if one has been properly educated. The period in which one is now living should always be the happiest, which, of course, implies that the next will be happier. One should be able to say of every past period of one’s life, “Those were not the days”, and for a country’s evolution no less than for personal evolution, that is the only possible philosophy.

‘l’he headmaster who censured my nineteen-year-old “Last Will and Testament” was, if he thought to censure my rejection of my intellectual inheritance, performing a gratuitous act, since such rejection is impossible. If he did it because he thought I would later regret having publicly rejected my school days as the happiest of my life, then he presumed that I would never evolve beyond the stage of being a school­boy, which was an implied condemnation of the education which he had given me. That I neither condemn nor regret is perhaps the best defence of the Classical tradition that I can advance.