Let the young look up

I have been dismissed from every teaching job I have ever done. I arrive wanting to give my students something of what I have received. But I find the whole college is giant conspiracy not to deliver what is promised, and to squeeze out anyone who points this out. I find greatest difficulty in raising their expectations enough that students become capable of receiving even a first instalment, or of realising what it is, or of picking up the attitude and practices of knowledge-seeking, or of coming to understand that there is more, much more, all available to them. Our ancestors in the Church have kept for us, and are anxious to supply to us, a mountain of life experience. They can set off an avalanche for anyone ready to jump into it. I don’t see why in this short time in this college dedicated to learning, we should hold one another back from this vast accumulation of experience, any part of which will make you very much happier, stronger and more resilient. You have a long life ahead of you which is very likely to go much better if you do in these short years of study, what we all say we want to do – learn, by making our forebears’experience our own.

I want these students, and expect my colleagues, to load their pockets with the wisdom of ages. By the way, if your colleagues do not read and debate papers with each other in a senior seminar it is a sure sign that they have stopped learning and the place is dead. I want to see the young ambitious and greedy. But they arrive at college bored and listless, made old and dependent by years of Powerpoint and handouts.

My colleagues, however, want to be like their students, and to be liked by their students, so staff and students enter a covenant of demanding nothing, of mutual holding back. That way no one is left behind, and no one, by walking on ahead, is allowed to hint that the whole crowd are being robbed and are robbing one another.

In my own school and university years I never managed to find respect for any teacher who wanted to make friends with me. I wanted to look up to them. I considered a pedestal to be the proper place for them. They were not my equals, but my superiors. Their first job was to show just by their demeanour what a lot I had to learn, by which I mean, what a huge amount there is to learn. Then I would know that I was at the foot of the mountain, in the right place to learn it.

I don’t expect you to want less than I did. In any college I am paid to raise your expectations. If I can’t, I am not earning my money. I expect you to want what I wanted or more. You think that you can keep your expectations modest, but learning is a semi-communal activity, so you can’t keep your expectations low without pulling ours down too. The Lord is calling us. You stay here if you want to, but we are off, for we want to catch up with him. Where is the Lord? He is in conversation with Irenaeus and Athanasius. If you go into the library and start with these two saints, you can listen in. You can’t stay here anyway. Satan is coming with his bulldozer and every place vacated by the Lord’s people he will raze. Satan always leaves rubble and ugliness as his monument to those who dawdled and got caught.

Similarly, ministers who want to attract the young and who want to be liked play amplified worship music played by a band. They believe that this is ‘contemporary music, ‘modern’ music. Modern – is there any concept more old-fashioned, quainter, than ‘modern’? Modern – it sounds so tired. It seems such a long time ago now. Modern – it means nostalgia for people with paunches. The young are through all that and out the other side. Play your modern music if you want them to get up and leave the room.

But if you are hoping they will stay, ignore them. That’s right. Ignore them. Get down on your knees as though they weren’t there. Say Evensong. Sing the responses. Apart from the psalms, you can do it without the book. When Evensong does its work the congregations and choirs of saints of all ages will sing to them. You won’t need to worry about the young people after that. Desire will awake and curiosity will lead them on. Stop reading the bible, and start singing it. Once they have got used to hearing Scripture and singing the service, they will want to know what they are hearing and singing. Then they will want someone to open Scripture for them. They will want to know what the teaching of the Church and is and has always been. They will be at the foot of the mountain. Maybe they’ll come to you. You ready?