A Cure for our National Amnesia

Michael Gove's reform of the teaching of history needs to draw on the Judaeo-Christian tradition

It is both rare and welcome to hear an educating and educated speech by the Secretary of State for Education at his party conference. Michael Gove’s at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, particularly the section on the curriculum in our schools, repays careful study. He is generally right in his emphasis on the rigorous study of traditional subjects rather than wasting time on what he calls “pseudo-subjects”. We would expect him, as a student of English, to focus on the teaching of language and literature — as he does. His choice, though, of the “greats” — Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy — could have been expanded to include Herbert, Donne, Newman, Hopkins, Eliot, Chesterton, Greene and Belloc. 

It is, however, his comments about the teaching of history that are the most telling. He reminds us of that sundering of our society from its past which I have called “national amnesia”, and asserts that until we understand the struggles of the past we will not be able to value our hard-won freedoms. All of this, and more, is music to my ears, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

We must ensure that the teaching of history is not just about a number of significant events and personalities and that there should be a connected narrative. But how is this to be achieved and what is the “golden chain of harmony” that can provide the connection? Surely, this has to do with a world-view that underlies the emergence of characteristically British institutions and values: the Constitution itself (“the Queen in Parliament under God”); a concern for the poor; a social security net, based on the parish church, which goes back to the 16th century; and personal liberties as enshrined in the Magna Carta. 

The world-view that made these fundamental national building-blocks is the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the Bible. This is evident in the way the Anglo-Saxon assembly, the Witan, developed and the role of the Church in this development. Such a role has continued to be influential from the time of the Model Parliament of 1295 to this day. The question now with parliamentary reform hovering in the wings, is how the Judaeo-Christian tradition can continue to be called on, especially when proposed legislation raises important moral issues for the individual and for society. 

Against slavery: St Anselm abolished the “nefarious trade” in Britain in 1102

Both Edward the Confessor and the saintly Alfred made sure that English Common Law was founded on Judaeo-Christian principles, while respecting the customs of the people inhabiting these islands at the time. Christianised Roman Law was studied at the universities and schools and was also mediated through the Canon Law of the Church, which dealt for centuries with matters such as marriage and family, provision for the poor, and as a recourse for justice when it could not be obtained in any other way. It is only recently that public doctrine on marriage, family and the protection due to the human person, derived from the teaching of the Bible, has been ditched in favour of libertarian novelties that refuse socio-religious sanction for sexual relationships and that are able to limit the notion of personhood to accommodate scientific and commercial interests or, indeed, the particular wishes of individuals.

It was not only in the area of law but virtually every other kind of knowledge was mediated either by the Church or by Christians in their respective fields. It is often claimed that there was much knowledge in this country until fairly recent times of the classical literature, art and philosophy of the Greeks and the Romans. This is certainly the case but, as Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, this was often a knowledge “purified” of the cruelty, promiscuity, inequality and idolatry of paganism. The encounter of Christian faith with Greek philosophy was providential, as the Pope has put it, for the intellectual history of Europe. However, we must be clear that it was Jerusalem and not Athens that provided the fundamental orientation for the flowering of a Christian humanism at the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation. As Western Europe regained Hellenistic learning from the Islamic world (which had itself gained it largely from oriental Christian clergy), it also developed a critique from the point of view of Christian belief. Basic teachings, derived from Hellenism, on the eternity of the world, the denial of personal immortality and the resurrection of the dead and the primacy of philosophy over revelation were rejected because they were contrary to the Word of God. 

One of the significant changes that has been noticed in the transition from the medieval to the modern period is the increasing emphasis on an ordered universe that has definite laws governing its workings. We can call this the “Newtonian Paradigm” and it is responsible for the great leap forward in the theoretical and experimental study of science. The great Sinologist Joseph Needham, in his lifelong study of the civilisation of China, asked why it was that its civilisation, which had been so far in advance of Europe, began to fall behind towards the end of the medieval and the beginning of the modern period. Very reluctantly, he came to the conclusion that it was because of the influence of the Christian view of an ordered universe, in which there was predictability, that European science advanced and the Chinese fell back. Nor is this a matter of merely antiquarian interest. I am informed by generally reliable sources that China remains interested in the effect Christianity has had on Europe, not only in the area of scientific development but also in the ordering of society and the management of change.

The Newtonian Paradigm has been under pressure not least from developments in science itself such as quantum physics. However, as Professor John Polkinghorne has pointed out, the world remains a cosmos whose orderly pattern we can observe and admire. This last point should not be neglected: the transparency of an ordered universe to our mental processes is itself a matter for wonder. We should be clear that while the laws of physics describe the universe as it is, they are not the cause of it. Both these laws and the universe they govern require a deeper explanation than that “they just are”. The Judaeo-Christian tradition provides this in terms of a rational Creator, who is not only the creator of an ordered universe but of rational beings, such as ourselves, within it who can, even if in a limited way, seek to understand at least something of its immensity and complexity. 

Based on predictability, repetition, verification and falsification, the scientific method has been very successful, not only in identifying what it is that makes up the universe, but also in discovering how things work, as well as how they can be made to work for human advantage. Such a method, however, cannot answer the why questions, especially why there is something rather than nothing, or why the universe is not simply chaotic or ordered in a way not congruent with the workings of our own minds.

Similarly, to describe the process of growing complexity, convergence and the rise of consciousness in the course of evolution is not to explain why living matter has the capacity to make itself and why creatures evolve in these ways. Nor can such descriptions give an answer to the “what for” type of question. What is the world for? What are we here for? Have we a destiny and is there ultimate purpose to our short lives? Teleology is extremely important for our understanding of the world in which we live and of ourselves. Such an understanding will surely influence how we treat the creation around us, our fellow human beings and what estimate we have of ourselves. 

The biblical idea of Time, as a progressive, forward movement, underlies not only our sense of history, but the very possibility of development and progress. This is a quite unique gift of the Hebrews, which has largely been distributed by the Christian Church. Ancient ideas of Time are usually cyclical with endless repetition and rebirth. They would have been quite useless to an open, progressive and scientific civilisation. A Christian view of Time also provided for periods when we would be taken “out of ourselves” and become more aware of transcendence. The processes of secularisation have “flattened” Time into mere chronology. Tellingly, Holy Days have become holidays. 

We have to admit that fine Christian ideals about a society based on divine justice and mutual obligation have been violated and spurned by ruthless and wicked rulers. Human dignity, based on the Bible’s teaching that we have been created in God’s image, has been honoured more in the breach than the observance. There is both light and darkness in our history; both honour and shame. We have to repent of the perfectly vicious pages of our history: whether it is the reprehensible institution of slavery, or depriving indigenous peoples of their land and wealth, or the exploitation of men, women and children in the fields, mines or factories of this country. 

There are, however, also the “perfectly virtuous pages” of our history, which have been lamentably neglected. At least as far back as St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century, slavery was condemned as contrary to Christ’s teaching. The struggle, stemming from the Evangelical Revival in the 18th century, against the slave trade and then slavery itself, was explicitly based on the Bible. Reformers held that we could not enslave those who shared a common humanity with us and had been created for the same freedoms as we were ourselves. It should not be forgotten that this struggle went hand-in-hand with the battle to improve the working conditions of men, women and children in the mills, mines and factories of early industrial Britain. Universal education is a creature of the churches, of Christian men and women, not of government of any political hue. It began because literacy was regarded as vital for an informed faith and a moral life. Such an aim is worthy of education even today. The revival of nursing as a profession was, once again, the result of Christian commitment to the sick and needy. It is ironic, indeed, that nurses cannot now pray at work, under threat of dismissal, when their ward duties often began with prayer right up to the middle years of the 20th century.

So many of the precious freedoms that we value today, the fair treatment of workers and the care of those in need, arise from values given to us by the Judaeo-Christian tradition. These values, however, are grounded in the moral and spiritual vision of this tradition. It cannot by any means be taken for granted that these values will survive for long if the tradition itself is jettisoned. 

The prophetic trajectory in the Bible, confirmed by the teaching of Jesus himself, is self-critical, relentlessly pointing out the shortcomings of society, of ruler and ruled and placing before them God’s demand for justice and compassion. We should take pride in our free society, where such criticism is possible, but we should also acknowledge its origins. The tradition itself is necessary for bringing a critique to bear on contemporary cultural mores rather than simply capitulating to them.

I am glad that Michael Gove is setting out to remove our collective amnesia — and to enable us to see our history as a connected whole. This will need us not only to be imaginative about our relationship with our neighbours or our environment. It will have to mean also the rediscovery of our spiritual and moral identity and, therefore, of that which has given it birth.

The Judaeo-Christian tradition provides the connecting link to “our island story”. Without that tradition, it is impossible to understand the language, the literature, the art or even the science of our civilisation. It provides the grand themes in art and literature: of virtue and vice, atonement and repentance, resurrection and immortality. It has inspired the best and most accessible architecture. It undergirds and safeguards our constitutional and legal tradition.

But the tradition of the Bible is wider than that. Its concern is for the whole of humanity. In a rapidly globalising world, it is becoming an important way of understanding the spiritual and moral dimensions of life without yielding to the temptation of becoming a totalitarian ideology that seeks to provide for even the minutiae of daily living and leaves little room for freedom. As Peter Hitchens has shown, atheistic secularism also leads to totalitarianism by a different route. 

There is plenty of recent history to justify this thesis. Will we choose the renewal of a tradition which, as T. S. Eliot saw, is at the root of almost everything we value, or is it our future to wander in a sea of moral and spiritual eclecticism without a compass to give us our bearings?

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