Friday, 9 March 2012

Is education a 'disconnected relic'?

I had a strange experience at a concert performance of the St. Matthew Passion last night. Performed by the Thomas Kirche choir (celebrating its 800 year anniversary), it was deeply affecting. But all the more so, not because of the intrinsic beauty of the music, but also I found the experience moving because of what it meant to me. So after three and a half hours, the music closed, tired singers, rapturous applause (too soon) and we made our way back into the world. And there then followed an absurd situation with a car park ticket machine. I managed to lose my ticket between paying for it and reaching the car door. The equisite beauty of the music was lost in my vexatious rage at my predicament!

On reflection (and being slightly calmer) I am wondering about the collision of meaningfulness of the music as compared to the meaningfulness of my anxiety at not being able to leave the car park. I certainly felt more vexed partly because of the contrast between these experiences: I was tired, and experienced a certain unwillingness to re-enter the dirty, messy world again after being seduced and moved so much by the music.

How would church goers in Bach's time have reacted after a liturgical performance of the piece? What was the re-entry into their dirty world like? Might they too have had an unpleasant experience as they stepped out of the church into the smelly and grotesque world around them? I might be wrong, but I think it was different for them because they were immersed in the context that the music itself was the expression of. They understood it in those terms (in the same way that Shostakovitch's Leningrad Symphony was understood by the people of that war-torn city)

Here, I think there is an important difference. For the performance we heard for all its technical mastery (and sheer power of endurance) wasn't liturgical. It was divorced from the world within which it acquired meaning. It is a disconnected relic.

I'm beginning to think that we live amongst so many 'disconnected relics'. In the same way as the St Matthew passion behaves as an object of apparent meaning to us, it sits at odds with everyday life. And the modern human condition of anxiety and risk is somehow related to the disconnectedness of meaning. As human beings we seek to connect meanings: to relate the meaning of our children being born, falling in love, going to work, grieving for relatives, and so on. But in a world of disconnected relics, there are no connections that can be made, because the ground of meaning disappeared long ago, leaving the relic behind.

I think the risk society can exploit this to drive the generation of wealth. Put out disconnected relics like a "special once-in-a-lifetime performance of a Dufay mass" (for example), or a undiscovered Beethoven manuscript, or Leonardo drawings, or a Picasso and the disconnectedness serves to drive the need in already fractured lives which strive towards something that promises some secret balm to the fractures. But it can't.

I believe the path to healing the fractured meaning in our lives lies in our deep love and knowledge of each other. And the risk society needs nothing else than to atomise individuals - with technology, mortgages, semi-detached houses and cars - to keep us away from that knowledge.

But what then of education - that means by which surely meanings might be consolidated? That may have been what education meant at some point in history, in some place. But like the Picasso and the St. Matthew Passion, education may have become a disconnected relic, there only to promise the hope of something which  has long gone. And in the process, drive deeper the fears and anxieties that will keep us paying for it, for our mortgages, and keep us driving our cars.

Maybe this isn't new. I'm reminded of Louis MacNeice's bleak assessment of the British Library Reading Room:
Under the hive-like dome the stooping haunted readers
Go up and down the alleys, tap the cells of knowledge -
Honey and wax, the accumulation of years -
Some on commission, some for the love of learning,
Some because they have nothing better to do
Or because they hope these walls of books will deaden
The drumming of the demon in their ears.

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