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George Orwell, the author of "Animal Farm" and "1984," had a truly horrible childhood. In a riveting essay, "Such, Such Were the Joys..." (available simply by searching the Internet for the author and the title) Orwell describes his early education. Shipped off to an all boys, English boarding school at 8 and beginning his six years at the school, he wet his bed. This quickly brought him to the attention of the power-behind-the-throne, the headmaster's wife. With all the maternal instinct of a cobra, she collared young Orwell as he was coming out of the dining hall and introduced him to a female visitor. "Here is a little boy who wets his bed every night. Do you know what I am going to do if you wet your bed again? I am going to get the Sixth Form (eighth graders) to beat you." And from there, Orwell's life at school went downhill.
Young Orwell was set adrift in a cold, joyless place where insensitive and arbitrary grownups ruled with few checks. At the school on a half-tuition scholarship, he was looked down upon both by adults and the boys from wealthy merchant families and the aristocracy. Early on, he was treated to the British caste-and-class system in the form of ridicule of his parents' poverty by fellow students, and the school adults' unjust favoritism to the rich and well-connected.
While he graduated with honors and a prestigious scholarship to Eton, the school had taken a toll on Orwell's psyche. What he imbibed from the school's "hidden curriculum" (or what he called "the unalterable laws") was "that I was damned. I had no money, I was weak, I was ugly, I was unpopular, I had a chronic cough, I was cowardly, I smelt." And toward the end of his essay, he adds, "I did know that the future was dark. Failure, failure, failure -- failure behind me. Failure ahead of me -- that was the deepest conviction that I carried away." And this was the educational legacy of one of the most gifted minds of the 20th Century and fiercest fighters against big government and totalitarianism.
Against the backdrop of Orwell's schooling and other accounts of pre-modern education, it is easy to feel satisfaction with the way in which we are preparing today's children for their adulthood. There is no caning or dunce caps. Corporal punishment has been eliminated in all but 19 states, and then only under careful regulations. "Nurture their self-esteem" is one of the foremost mantras of our ed schools. And although everyone but a handful of widely detested, goodie-goodie students knows that the other mantra, "learning should be fun," is a barefaced lie, educators daily saunter into class under this dubious banner.
The subject matter of Orwell's "classical" education was a rote-learner's paradise, "orgies of dates with the keen boys leaping up and down in the place in their eagerness to shout out the right answers, and at the same time not feeling the faintest interest in the meaning of the mysterious events they were naming." While laughable and sad, this pre-World War I description of the curriculum sounds rather similar to the current complaints of both students and teachers about our current world of statewide, high stakes achievement tests, where days and weeks and months are devoted to prepping for "THE TEST," which boils down to taking and re-taking multiple choice and fill-in the blanks objective tests.
The primary "motivational tool" -- other than the cane -- in Orwell's schools was the threat of failure, a threat that fell heaviest on boys from more modest homes. If you don't buckle down and perform you will end up as a clerk, "a little-office boy at 40 pounds a year." How far is that away from the twin threats of today? "You'll never get into a descent college with those marks!" and "Can you say, 'fries with that?' cause that's the only kinda work you'll be ready for."
One of the reasons why home schooling is the fastest growing educational movement in America today is that when many parents look at our current public school system, they see an Orwellian world. While on the surface, it is "softer and gentler" education, it is profoundly corrupting and limiting. Amid the tests and the raw competition for grades, the human spirit of the child is shaped according to the design of state-appointed secularists.
The hazing of Orwell's school days is hardly different from the bullying which goes on in schools today. In fact, a recent British report confirmed the comparability and suggested it might be worse. Now, however, children have new tools to torture their mates in the form of cyber-bullying, using the Internet to spread rumors and threats. This ignored or purposely unseen social world of our school bends children and adolescents to its values, values which frequently flow down unchecked directly from a sex-soaked, commercial culture.
Having had religious knowledge crammed down his throat, Orwell left his school knowing about Jesus and the Bible, but fearing and hating God. That is one thing we modernists can rest easy about. Except for a little mild ridicule and the occasional derisive dismissal of religion, our children will leave our schools and enter into adulthood innocent of the slightest spiritual understanding or knowledge of their Maker.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited "Why I Am Still a Catholic" [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill.