Education Viewpoint: Treasures buried by secularism

IF I WERE asked to name the three most fertile sources of vocabulary and ideas in my formative years, I would unhesitatingly answer: the Authorised Version of the Bible, The Book of Common Prayer and traditional hymns.

King James's 1611 translators surely produced the most far- reaching book ever to appear in English. Their simple words, written in uncomplicated syntax, were read by an increasingly literate population and heard aloud in churches. They influenced generations of writers, from John Milton and John Bunyan in the 17th century to D H Lawrence and Seamus Heaney in our own.

Moreover, the Authorised Version contains some of the most beautiful poetry ever written: lines such as, 'I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help'; or, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.' Strange, then, that most schoolchildren are failing to encounter it.

In school, the Bible falls between two stools. Most religous education departments and syllabus compilers reject it because the language is 'difficult' - an extraordinary view, given that its whole purpose was accessibility. That is the beauty of its timeless cadences. You cannot make 'Let us go over unto the other side of the lake' much plainer.

Yet most teachers unaccountably favour travesties such as The Good News Bible. It may contain the stories and teaching, but why restrict pupils to only one sort of learning at a time? There is no reason why they cannot explore the content of the Bible and develop an appreciation of its linguistic beauty at the same time.

Although the Authorised Version is mentioned briefly in the national curriculum, English departments usually refuse to introduce it. Many English teachers write it off as a 'religious' text. In many cases they fear that to discuss it with pupils would compromise their own agnosticism; they are apparently unable to see that this collection of writings is of far greater educational importance than any individual doctrinal squeamishness. Then there is the Book of Common Prayer. The 1662 version is a compilation of earlier drafts, largely thought to be the work of those hapless clerics but wonderful poets, Cranmer and Ridley. Sadly, even those children who are taken to church are unlikely to know much about it, given the prevalence of Series Three and its instantly forgettable, ugly turns of phrase.

The awkwardness of 'And also with you' in place of 'And with thy spirit' is just one example. Yet expressions from the Book of Common Prayer are part of our day-to- day idiom: 'Peace in our time', 'earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust', and 'perils and dangers of this night'. When P D James entitled her 1989 novel Devices and Desires, she trusted that readers would recognise the quotation. Regrettably, many certainly would not.

Traditional hymns are an endangered species, too. In schools where they still sing anything at all in assembly, it is much more likely to be 'God's in the playground, God's in the yard' or 'He's got the Whole World in his Hands'.

Phrases such as 'slow to chide and swift to bless' or 'Lo he abhors not the virgin's womb' provided us with excellent and easy ways of learning unfamiliar words. Any speech therapist will confirm that it is often easier to get the tongue round a tricky word if it is sung; and if you hear a word often enough in context, the meaning emerges unbidden.

Moreover, a riffle through the pages of Hymns Ancient and Modern, or English Hymnal, shows that many important poets are represented. Herbert, Cowper, Newman and Christina Rossetti are all there. The singing of their poetry is a simple way of becoming familiar with their words.

How grateful I am that my teachers ensured that I learnt and sang (to Parry's superb music) the sublime words of J G Whittier: 'Breathe through the heats of our desire/ Thy coolness and thy balm;/ Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;/ Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,/ O still small voice of calm]' And what a comfort those words have often been.

This country has been a Christian one for 17 centuries. Our language, art, music, architecture, literature and law have therefore long been fashioned and underpinned by Christian assumptions. That historical fact remains unaffected by increasing secularism; it is also far bigger than individual religious belief, or lack of it.

We hear a great deal from the Government and its friends about the cultural heritage to which pupils are entitled. They are right: it is elitist to deny children, many of whom are already deprived in other ways, access to the beauty of the past and to that which shaped our own sensibilities. The 'here and now' mentality, so rife in my profession, limits children to what seems immediately relevant. Thus, doors remain locked to pupils, who rattle about in the cell of an ignorance imposed by bigoted, if well-meaning, teachers.

The writer teaches English at a secondary modern in Kent.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Senior Textiles / Fashion Technician

£22000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To contribute to the day-to-da...

Recruitment Genius: Health and Social Care NVQ Assessor

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: It is also essential that you p...

Recruitment Genius: ICT Infrastructure Manager

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Edinburgh city centre scho...

Recruitment Genius: Plumber

£30000 - £31000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An independent boys' school sit...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'