I’ll never forget when uncanny silence reigned in the awful comprehensive where I worked as a newly qualified teacher. It reigned for just two minutes during the whole academic year: at eleven o’clock on 11th November. It turned out all those young people were not, in fact, incapable of behaving themselves after all.
On Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday, one could forget that one lives in a country almost bereft of living tradition. Suddenly, it’s everywhere: parades in uniform; public ceremony, accompanied by solemn words and music; almost universal respect for a shared, communal event; acknowledgement of death; widespread churchgoing.
On Remembrance Day, people seem to be able, to use Dickens’ words, to acknowledge that they are ‘fellow-passengers to the grave’. Despite the trivialities and relativism of our modern culture, and the way we hide death and suffering away, to be dealt with by professionals, people join together in a kind of national funeral.
There are many lessons for teachers and schools in this national phenomenon. Remembrance Day makes clear that when something is serious enough, then people demand ceremony and fixed ways of acting. The reading from Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ is a liturgical act, which actually reconnects us with the original purposes of art as something sacred and communal, very far removed from the Romantic ideas of individual self-expression which have led us down the cultural cul-de-sac in which we currently find ourselves.
No-one would be satisfied if they attended a Remembrance Day service and a different poem were recited, because ‘that’s all a bit old fashioned’ and ‘it’s time to liven things up a bit with something new’. No: when dealing with a truly serious event, people want fixed and time-honoured forms of acting and speaking. They instinctively know that it is by such acts and words that they are giving the proper respect where it is due.
Would it occur to people attending these ceremonies to criticise them because they were the same as last year? Of course not; people attend in their millions because it is one of the few opportunities they have to participate in something which doesn’t change.
Ordinary people are starved of ceremony and tradition. It was stolen from them in the sixties by an intellectual elite. It’s time schools started to give it back to them.