Education Viewpoint: Treasures buried by secularism

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The Independent Online
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.