It was at a dance festival where the thought first occurred. A rather good dance festival, as it goes. Featuring 16 or so (I confess I lost count) local schools who put on their own particular dance for an auditorium filled with proud family and friends. All ages, all abilities, all themes.
Did I mention it was good? It really was. The kind of thing that leaves one with a warm glow and a feeling of satisfaction that we, too, in some small way, help make this. That for everything we have to carp about, the kids will be alright. They will.
And my own daughter? Well, her and her Reception class danced the story of Noah. It was excellent. I, on the front row (like any self-respecting embarrassing Dad), could not have been more proud. It was the only dance with a religious theme, mind (another school [rural, CofE] performed an excellent telling the story of St George, with full Wagner-esque pomp ). These four year olds, telling the story of Noah, each movement meaning something, each child in his or her particular place, moving at a particular time, along to particular music, a sort of beautiful, post-toddler kinaesthetic symphony.
And then I heard it: ‘what’s that then?’ It was from an adult couple in my vicinity. They were referring to the rainbow. And the appearance of dry land, I think. Anyway, it soon became clear that they were not the only adults sat round and about who did not know much about the story of Noah. Or what happens in it. Or what certain fundamental aspects of the story mean. Or what they tell us. Or how they shape us. Still.
And so that thought with which I started: my four year old daughter, and her colleagues, already in possession of more knowledge, in this regard more cultural capital, than a selection of perfectly respectable, intelligent, discerning adults. And if it’s Noah for four year olds then we might imagine where the boundary lies come sixteen.
But it linked to something that has had me curious for a while. It’s this Hirschian revolution thing, which I’m a fan of really. I’ve always wondered why it is so light on the theological. So scant with the scriptural. Hirsch, to be sure, does give (brief) mention to these things, and his devotees at least tip their hats in that direction, but it rarely goes farther than that. And the question would have to be: why not?
If cultural capital is an important thing, then scriptural knowledge is central to that. Indeed, if cultural capital and intellectual heritage is an important thing, then theology is central to that. Literature, art, music, science, philosophy, law, language – take your pick. To the extent that I’ve just deleted a paragraph worth of apologia for such a claim on the basis that it seems so startlingly obvious that anyone who either cherished or possessed any of the above couldn’t really fail to acknowledge or be aware of it.
But then that last bit is the key, isn’t it? Being aware of it. Our canon is currently fighting a war against claims of imperialism when it should be fighting a war against threats of philistinism. For currently it sacrifices too much in the name of being open minded, and in so doing gives away the key to distribute precisely that cultural capital which really does open minds. And so the philistinism creeps on and consumes the canon, as those charged with populating it become less and less aware of that with which it might be populated.
It’s a common enough recognition, that the Dark Ages were a period of time when Western culture was nearly drowned by philistinism, to be preserved only by the monks in their scriptoria, East and West, frenziedly copying down the jewels of human thought, Christian and heathen alike. They saved the West, or so the annals tell it.
The thought never occurs that such a project might ever be needed again. Not because the knowledge will disappear in a flurry of ashes as libraries burn to the ground, but because it might lie as dust, itself the sign of neglect, forgotten in plain sight, a relic that disintegrates through lack of curiosity from a modern day Eloi who have decided there are more important things to pursue.
And so we should raise a glass to our Catholic schools, indeed to all faith schools who authentically live their calling, busily preserving the treasures of our culture, the roots and foundations of it and all, the modern day monks in their scriptoria, frenziedly preserving what the contemporary has decided, in its own fit of philistinism, to casually cast away.
And a casual reminder to those who don’t of why they really should.