Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Building Jerusalem?

One of the things I do here regularly is to attend school speech days. I always have mixed feelings about them. Don’t misunderstand me. The students deserve their prizes and their moment of glory. The speakers, however, are always the great and the good - and, sadly, also normally the boring. There are obviously exceptions, but School Committees always choose the speakers their members like.  People that they want to impress and that they want to be seen to be friends with.  I just wish we could reach a compromise and get a good person who was also fun, mildly interesting, and inspiring. 

The other day at a school speech day, we began with the hymn by William Blake (if indeed it is a hymn) Jerusalem. This is a hymn often still sung at such events. 

And did those feet in ancient time
walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy lamb of God
on England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
among those dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I shall not cease from mental fight,
nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
till we have built Jerusalem
in England’s green and pleasant land.  

It is a bit strange to be singing about a rural idyll in urban Hong Kong, but that’s another matter! And obviously Jesus' feet did not 'walk upon England's mountains green'.  And no, the 'Lamb of God' did not appear in England.  

The real irony, though, lies in singing a work by Blake in schools following a western style of education.  Blake himself had a very negative view of the system of education followed by many both here and in the west in general.  

In the hymn, Blake makes reference to the 'dark Satanic mills'.  Commonly, these are taken to refer to the cotton mills of industrial England.  If you do your dates, this is very unlikely. Much more likely, in fact, is that what Blake was condemning was the sort of education that some of the Schools who sing this hymn promote!  The ‘satanic mills’ were not the factories of the industrial revolution, but the universities of Europe, which, in his day, awarded degrees, but failed to educate.  And who still do. 

If you think this is a fanciful interpretation, and not all would agree with it I know, it is worth remembering that in Blake’s epic poem, Jerusalem (somewhat confusingly the hymn, Jerusalem, occurs in his preface to another poem) Blake writes these lines:  

I turn my eyes to the schools and Universities of Europe
and there behold the loom of Locke, whose woof rages dire,
wash’d by the Water-wheels of Newton: black the cloth
in heavy wreaths folds over every Nation: cruel Works
of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
moving by compulsion each other, not so those in Eden, which,
Wheel within Wheel, in freedom revolve in harmony and peace.

Blake believed that the education system of his day stifled imagination and creativity.  Whether you agree that the 'satanic mills' of the hymn refer to universities or not, Blake would not have been happy that his hymn was being used to celebrate a type of education that he himself deplored.  

A very good friend of mine in university education, here in Hong Kong, just this week said to me that his greatest challenge was simply to get his students to think.  Our education system is the product of the enlightenment and the era of alleged scientific discovery and progress.  It encourages us to think we are superior to those from the past; to those from pre-scientific days.   Even in the Church, we patronize those of previous generations as primitive, ignorant, and superstitious.  

I wonder.  

Are we really more intelligent than they when it comes to the things that really matter?  Perhaps the great thinkers of the past have more to teach us in the present than we care to admit.  When the universities of the west first began people went to them to study theology and to learn about God. Now it is to study subjects such as business or media studies and to get a qualification.  

It makes you think, don’t you think?

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