Friday, February 27, 2009

learning the great stories

Andrew Motion is reported as saying that children should learn the Bible at school (even though he is an atheist). What he actually said was a little more nuanced - he said they should learn the stories from the Bible, the Koran, and the Greek and Roman myths. Certainly - but what about our indigenous literature - that of the Celts (the Tain Bo Cuailnge, Y Gododdin, etc), the Saxons and Norse (the Voluspä, the Hávámál, Gylfaginning, etc)? What of the great Hindu texts like the Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads? Or great Buddhist literature, like The Journey to the West? Or great Sufi texts (The Conference of the Birds, the Rubaiyat)? And so on.

He stipulated the Greek and Roman classics and the Bible because much of English literature is based on them; but future literature will never include stories from other traditions unless they are taught in schools.


Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

You write, "but future literature will never include stories from other traditions unless they are taught in schools."

I think you worry about this needlessly, Yewtree.

Culture, like language will always evolve, because that is what cultures do. And the inclusion of the alternative stories will be included as they become part of our culture beyond the walls of the schoolhouse, not just within it. True, we emphasize Classical mythology now because, it having been taught in (for example) Shakespeare's day, our literature (including, for instance, Shakespeare's plays) is stuffed with it.

But Shakespeare's plays (for example) are also one of the places we can find the folk stories that are the descendants of the indigenous folk tales and legends of the people of England. How many Pagans would ever have heard of Herne if Falstaff hadn't heard the legends, and one form of them entered Shakespeare's plays?

The process didn't end with the bard. The Norse gods and Old English culture can never die while Tolkien is still read. Poets like Yeats--not much studied at earlier grade levels, but important in college and beyond--carry the Celtic threads forward. And I look today to comic books and to the more creative pop-culture icons, folks like Joss Whedon, for beginning to weave us a more multi-cultural tapestry of myth and legend.

The stories will not die. But they will become increasingly inaccessible to those without advanced education without some introduction. I do think that, given their place in our culture, the Bible and Classical mythology should have a place in our curriculum. (If nothing else, I'd like my students to be able to absorb the full impact of Martin Luther King's I Have Been to the Mountaintop speech, given immediately before his assassination, at a time he knew his life to be in grave danger. Without knowing the story of Moses, the speech is almost without meaning to its hearers.)

I hope to add Norse mythology and a few brief Bible stories to my usual gamut of Greek myths this year, though it will be difficult, both in terms of time and materials available to support it. But I know that, when I do, students will recognize a few of the figures, making the connection for the first time with other cultural media: characters in video games, movies, and comic books.

A good story is hard to kill.

Bo said...
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Bo said...

What's profoundly shocked me is the level of vitriol heaped on Motion by atheists for this suggestion, many of whom have said that no, the Bible should not be taught, *at all*, and all children should be kept hermetically sealed off from religion.

This would be a profoundly stupid act of cultural vandalism, of a practically Stalinist cast of mind: children who have not heard of religion or been exposed to it will be immune to its irrational, negative effects. In fact, they will be far more susceptible to that in religion which is hateful and fearful and least sophisticated, when they are eventually exposed to it: and exposed they will be, because religon is a fundamental human impulse, whether for good or ill, not something to be eradicated like typhoid. I'm reminded of what Camille Paglia said about Catherine McKinnon: 'She would lobotomise the village in order to save it' - similarly some of the ranting atheists would mutilate the education of our children in order to prevent them being 'infected' by religion.

Paglia has suggested sensibly that the core of a humanities curriculum in colleges should be comparative religion: wide-spectrum, non-partisan, with a focus on literature, philosophy, history and history of art.

So three cheers for Motion.

Yewtree said...

Yes, even Richard Dawkins thinks the Bible is part of our cultural heritage.

Yewtree said...

@ Cat: yes, there's something to be said for being the subversive alternative, and therefore hip :D