Where Is The Song In The Heart Of Education?

By Kieran EganKieran Egan #imaginED

Lesson objective: To show the emotional importance of the content.

For six months during a previous century—hard now to remember which one but you’ll see from what follows it doesn’t really matter—I was a Franciscan novice, in a Friary on the edge of the Surrey Downs in England. Our weekday mornings involved lessons on the Rule of St. Francis, Liturgy, Franciscan history, and other subjects that would introduce us to the religious life.

At the beginning of this culmination of a very Catholic upbringing, I walked over the uneven parquet floor into the convocation room with my six fellow novices—the floor slabs having been loosened after more than a century of beating by novices’ feet. Self-consciously looking down at our pale and cold sandaled feet, and too aware of the flapping of our capacious brown habits, we sat behind tables with blue notebooks ready for our first lesson on the Psalms. We sat in silence, young men in our late teens or early twenties, strangers to each other and each of us fearful of this strange world into which some sense of a “vocation” had drawn us.

song #imaginED

Looking out over the misty and rain-sodden friary garden, we heard the clatter of sandals announcing the arrival of Father Adrian, whom we had so far seen only distantly in the refectory. Thin, grey-haired and energetic, he sat behind the small table at the front of the convocation room, waited a moment, and then in a clear, quick, clipped voice began: “If you look at any religion in operation you will find a morality; when you look at it reflecting on life and itself, you will find a theology; but, my dear brothers in St. Francis, when you get to the very heart of a religion, you will find a song. The song at the heart of Judaism and Christianity is the psalms.”

A good start to what had seemed an alien subject; it came with the force of a simple revelation. This elderly, bright-eyed Englishman went on to connect the psalms to carnival and displaced my years of experience of dreary tuneless droning in the churches of my youth with images of ecstatic King David dancing and singing like a wild man in the streets of Jerusalem. I had come to the Novitiate reluctantly, submissive to a joyless vocation, but the image of the dancing psalm writer seemed suddenly like hope.

song #imaginED

Of the seven novices, only one is now a Franciscan, and Father Adrian lies in the graveyard of what is no longer a Franciscan friary. My children and grandchildren, and even my wife, are pleased that my vocation did not take, and that I have since heard and been seduced by other siren songs.

The lessons with Father Adrian about the psalms, during which we occasionally took dictation and occasionally made notes, and, in unusual circumstances, were permitted to ask a question, hardly exemplify what educational psychology textbooks prescribe as good learning practices. Yet more than half a century later I can recall, and am moved by, the clipped voice, the ironic eye, and masses of information about the psalms and what I might now be inclined to call their anthropological, social, psychological, and religious roles and meanings.

song #imaginED

We seem to spend much energy in Education focused on incidentals—instructional methods, learning styles, multiple intelligences, personalized learning, brain-based strategies, the vast promise of technology, and endlessly on—seemingly unable to bring into focus the purpose and meaning of the enterprise. It is reminiscent of Tom Paine’s complaint about people whose imprecision of focus means they pity the plumage but forget the dying bird. The dying bird, here, is a condition of education in which a small change in assessment procedures makes headlines in the press while what it means to be educated doesn’t engage most minds for three minutes (and you will remember A.E. Housman’s: “thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time”).

Everyone, I am sure, can point to experiences such as the one I opened with that have had a profound educationally valuable impact on them, but discussions of education in the press, in government documents, in Educational journals and books, seems to involve a vanishingly small amount of time and effort in trying to distill for practical use what it was about those experiences that made them so important. Instead we are invited to examine the plumage of our educational system, and perhaps enhance some of the colours or designs.

music #imaginED

I wonder what Fr. Adrian would make of the vast output of words on instructional methods, learning styles, multiple intelligences, personalized learning, brain-based strategies, the vast promise of technology, and whether years studying it would have made him a more effective instructor. Would he have written his objectives for that first lesson on the psalms in the approved form, and brought in a multi-media presentation adapted to the various learning styles likely present in the room?

Instead all we got was an old man talking about something that engaged his emotions with a quiet ironic passion.

What, he would ask, is the song in the heart of education? If you can’t whistle it, or hum it, or sing it, or even know that it’s there, what hope for making it sing in students’ hearts?

Lesson objective: To show the emotional importance of the content.

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Housman, A.E. (1931). (Ed.) Juvenal’s Saturae [The Satires], (Cambridge University Press, [1905], p. xi.

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