Empty Heads and Originality


Lord Byron: how wrong he was.

Two hundred years ago, Lord Byron asserted that Shakespeare’s fame could not last. Why? Because the Bard apparently lacked creative genius, as his plots were all taken from elsewhere and adapted:

Shakespeare’s name, you may depend upon it, stands absurdly too high and will go down. He had no invention as to stories, none whatever. He took all his plots from old novels, and threw their stories into dramatic shape

Byron’s hilariously mistaken assertion throws into clear relief one of the dominant ideas of progressive education: creative originality. As with most progressive concepts, this notion has its origins in Romanticism.

The Romantics believed that having adult knowledge foisted upon them would hinder the natural development of the child’s individual genius, which should instead takes its cues from nature in a kind of wordless communion between mind and world. But they used a lot of words in describing what they asserted to be indescribable, and of course their words were not their own. How could they be? Just like the progressives ideologues of the twentieth century, they had benefitted themselves from a traditional education which gave them the tools to express their ideas about how useless all tradition is for human development.

The false dichotomy between learned facts and creativity feeds into so many images that have come to dominate the modern mind. One thinks of Blake, the proto-Romantic:

But to go to school in a summer morn, —
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.
(‘The Schoolboy’)

The contrast all through this poem is between the joys of nature and the horrors of the classroom. Or consider Wordsworth’s promise of a painless education at the breast of Mother Nature:

One moment now may give us more
Than years of toiling reason:
Our minds shall drink at every pore
The spirit of the season.
(‘To My Sister’)

What is ignored here, of course, is that it is impossible to meditate on nature without the language and concepts that enable us to make sense of them. And how will we learn them if we insist on nothing but our own originality, with which we are supposedly born, and then gradually lose as the evil schoolmasters have their way?

The logical consequence of this false notion of originality is that we end up with few means with which to understand others or express ourselves. Wordsworth’s ‘unintelligible world’ (‘Tintern Abbey’) is the direct ancestor of Robert Frost’s ‘blanker whiteness of benighted snow / With no expression, nothing to express’. (‘Desert Places’) or Edward Thomas’ ‘avenue, dark, nameless, without end’ (‘Old Man’), or the incomprehensible private worlds of so much postmodern poetry.

Clear instruction in factual and conceptual knowledge enriches and enables expression and understanding; it does not hinder it. To argue otherwise is to embark on a journey that ultimately leads into the isolation of solipsistic imprisonment.

If we do not work hard to fill the heads of our pupils with something worthwhile, they really can come to the point where they believe that their Twitter updates are of more significance than Shakespeare’s sonnets: they have proven to be good pupils of the Romantics.


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