I hated SCHOOL when I was a boy, even though from grades three through eight I didn’t have to ride a SCHOOL bus, and at least I wasn’t sent to the enormous child-cannery known as the consolidated public SCHOOL, where a thousand children go to waste their young lives away.
Why did I hate it so much? Something resounded in my soul when, much later on, I read for the first time the opening of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, a satire on what you get when you conceive of the world as a great factory, and the people in it as mere “hands,” mere tools. “Now what I want is facts!” cries the blunt and unimaginative schoolmaster, Thomas Gradgrind. “Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” The poor little girl who ends up in that SCHOOL because her father, a circus performer, wanted a better life for her and thought she could get it at this SCHOOL, is pinned to a number: she is Girl number 20. And when she is asked to give the definition of a horse, she is stunned – a definition? She has spent her whole young life among horses. But the model student, Bitzer, a lad already crushed, whose imagination, not fed by wholesome reading and the fine realities of a human life, gives us the definition all right. “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”
“Now,” says the schoolmaster to the girl, “you know what a horse is.”
I’ve long thought that our SCHOOLS now are miracles of inhumanity. They are as soul-smothering as what Dickens held up to satire, but without the facts. That is, while they crush you, they warp your imagination, and they teach what isn’t so.
The thing about such a SCHOOL, with its bells and sirens, its work that doesn’t flex the muscles or the mind either, its time-dragging, its dreary repetition, is that it is quite the opposite of what the word originally meant. In ancient Greece, if you had to learn a trade, that was unfortunate for you, but necessities are what they are. To the extent that you must do such work, you did not have leisure: you did not enjoy skhole, free time, leisure. The Greeks saw that if a man did have leisure, he could enter into conversations about what was good or true or beautiful, in the free play of thought; and that leisure, and, later on, the place where you could have such conversations, was – to give the word its English form – SCHOOL. Imagine a group of friends gathering at someone’s house to have some drinks and to talk about love. That’s Plato’s Symposium, literally the Drinking Party, but it is also SCHOOL, in its original and most fruitful sense.
The Yiddish word SHUL is a derivative from the Greek, by way of the German SCHULE, SCHOOL – by then, especially in Prussia, more like the industrial child-tanks we know and do not love, than like what the Greeks meant by it. But the heart of a Jewish education, going back to ancient times, was the worship of God, and in that sense they were far more like the Greeks than either people might have perceived. For the worship of God is supremely free; it is a gift of praise in response to a gift of grace, even to the gift of existence itself. In worship, man soars above the everyday, and touches upon the eternal. He doesn’t reckon up his shekels or his drachmas or his dollars. He doesn’t think about the name-plate on his desk. He sings, for the sheer love and gratitude of it.
And that is why the phrase SCHOLA CANTORUM is so apt – a SCHOOL of singers. What sweeter thing can you do, than sing to God?
“But what about SCHOOLS of fish?” you may ask. Well, that SCHOOL isn’t related to this SCHOOL. The similarity between the words is purely coincidental. A SCHOOL of fish is a CROWD of them, from Old English scolu (pronounced SHO-loo), a BAND, a TROOP. So I guess what we have in our SCHOOLS are children crowded like mackerels in a fish-trap, and not like Greek lads singing hymns to Zeus, and talking about the common good, because they have the inner time for it, the leisure.
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