Centenary of Nottingham Junior High School for Boys
5th July 2005, All Saints'
An extract from 'The Deserted Village' by Oliver Goldsmith,
describing the Village Schoolmaster
I must be careful. I don't know who was responsible for persuading your headmaster to read that extract from Oliver Goldsmith's poem 'The Deserted Village' but, if you listened carefully to the poem you will have heard that even the village parson acknowledged what a good arguer and debater the schoolmaster was. So I must beware in case I find myself told off at the end of this address for saying anything untoward!
But it was an interesting passage to choose to read at this centenary service for your school. Again I'm not sure what the motivation was for choosing it. Perhaps your teachers are a bit worried, and wanted to paint a rosy picture of themselves as kind and full of jokes and highly intelligent. Or perhaps it was to show how much better school is today than it was a hundred or even two hundred and fifty years ago (more or less when Oliver Goldsmith was writing). None of them are, I am sure, severe and stern to view. I love those lines
Well had the boding tremblers learn'd to trace
the day's disasters in his morning face.
The Principal of my Theological College, where I studied to be a priest, was a bit like that. We knew the moment he walked into chapel in the morning what the day was going to be like with him, not by the look on his face, but by the clothes he was wearing. If he was dressed in a dark suit with a big clerical collar on, we knew we had better watch out, whereas if he came in in his red woolly jumper and no tie, he was fine. The trouble was, he knew we knew, so sometimes he would try to fool us!
The historical context
Well, I hope that some of you may have read the whole poem that Oliver Goldsmith wrote. Bits of it are a little difficult to understand today, but actually it is a very clear and moving testimony to the death of village life – or at least, what Goldsmith saw as its death. You will find lots of references in it to things that happened at the end of the eighteenth century, that in the end became known as the Industrial Revolution, with people leaving the countryside to find employment in the new industries in the cities, and the agricultural industry undergoing great change to be controlled much more by the big landowners, with much less freedom for the poor people who had kept a few animals or grown just enough crops to feed themselves and make a bit extra. It is a sad, nostalgic poem, and sees the change going on in society as a bad thing.
As that wonderful book '1066 and All That' says in chapter 49, entitled the Industrial Revelation:
Most memorable was the discovery (made by all the rich men in England at once) that women and children could work for 25 hours a day in factories without many of them dying or becoming excessively deformed. This was known as the Industrial Revelation and completely changed the faces of the North of England.
Well, Goldsmith may not have been completely right. He may have been a bit of a romantic, and certainly if you read other poets and writers of the same era, you will get different views of what was going on, both in terms of the changes, and also rather more realistic assessments of what rural life was really like. Earlier on in the poem there is a long description of the village preacher which leaves you with a rosy glow, but which is a long way from the real struggles that many country clergy lived through. And that is nothing compared with the very real and absolute poverty of much of the rural population. The industrial revolution dramatically changed English society. It damaged some elements of life, but it also opened up great new opportunities for many. And that is the struggle that we all face in every era.
The morality or otherwise of progress
We live in a time when change is simply normality. We hardly have time to get used to one thing before it is out of date and replaced with the next technological development. We can hardly therefore get nostalgic about anything. I guess in education that is as true as in any context. Change after change after change. Some changes good, some more questionable, and everyone disagreeing over which is which.
So it would be easy to say, on a day of great celebration like today, if only things were like they used to be. The danger is that we only see yesterday through rose-tinted spectacles, as Oliver Goldsmith saw the Deserted Village. The fact is that we live in a world in which a very gifted species – human beings – wants continually to develop its God-given gifts. We want to live in a better world. As all that activity last weekend demonstrated (the G8 Make Poverty History demonstrations), we desperately want people – all people – to have better lives, to have enough to eat, to have good healthcare, to be able to learn, to be free. Today we know much better than any previous generation just how unfair the human world can be, how cruel it can be to those who are weaker, or do now have the advantages that we have. We also are aware that those of us who do have the advantage of good education, good diet, good health and enough money are very easily tempted to want more of everything, to be happier and more successful.
So that is the tension within which we, as with every previous generation live with. Progress is neither good nor bad. Progress happens. It happens because we are a gifted species. The question is what do we do with progress. How do we make use of it? A hundred years ago there were no aeroplanes. Today, we have aeroplanes that can take people from one side of the world to the other. What an education! We also have aeroplanes that wreak terrible destruction on our enemies. A hundred years ago we had no televisions. Today, we are helped to understand our world so much more fully right there in our living rooms; and we also sit there to enjoy films of awful and stupid violence and cruelty to others. A hundred years ago cars were unusual, and someone was fined for breaking the speed limit of 8mph. Today hundreds are killed on the roads through careless driving.
Making the world a better place
There never was a perfect time or a perfect place. At each step through history, humanity has done its best, often with very mixed motives, often having to face terrible evil as well as saintly goodness. And at every step we have learnt, even if we have not always been able to apply our learning and get better as a result. That is what we pray for – the ability, the strength, the humility to learn how to make this world a better place for all life. And the story of the religious quest of humankind – the certainty that there is basic and fundamental truth, which is good, and towards which we can move – and that that truth, which we call God, and which Christians would further define as God revealed in Jesus, is accessible to us, not so much as a model for us to follow, but as the inspiration that prompts us to seek only what is good and beautiful and true.
So as we celebrate this centenary of a great school, we can thank God for the inspiration and example of all those who over this past hundred years have sought both to educate and be educated for the good of the world, and pray that we in our turn may continue that great tradition of working for the common good. That was the spirit that motivated Oliver Goldsmith to write his protest against change. He may not have got it all right, but he could see injustice and selfishness and greed and he named it. May we have the same courage in whatever place we may find ourselves.
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