There are few things better than a good letter, says this old teacher and aficionado of writing, so I was delighted recently to receive two extraordinary emails, one on top of the other, from a recent graduate who has gone to study abroad. The first one, long delayed, was an account of a trip he & a few classmates took during the summer to another country known for the esteem in which it holds its poets, artists, craftsmen and other heroes. In it he tells about the poetic and other monuments they visited (and the food they ate, speaking of their own heroic labours). A fine letter about a fine trip, and incidentally a refutation of Yeats when he says of the young, ‘Caught in that sensual music, all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect’.
But the second letter: it would not be too much to say it was dithyrambic, at least in tone, and happy, as Wordsworth was happy in saying, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.’ When Barzun said that entering university should be ‘a revelation of wonders undreamed of’, he was speaking of experiences like my former student’s. He reports working hard to do well in his chosen course of study, which has been gratifying; but he saves his greatest and most enthusiastic praise for his co- and extracurricular activities, particularly reading poetry and making music, but also his projects at building things.
Poetry and music! How sensible in a STEM major, which is what he is. He is a positive echo of Darwin, another STEM major (do we see why this is an idiot acronym?), who neglected what my former student has been embracing. Darwin reported in later life, ‘If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness….”
Happiness! It is easy to forget this desideratum, or to lose sight of it among the other things we hope education will do. (I speak here of honest, informed, non-magical hopes. By contrast, much contemporary thinking about education seems to aspire to Lady Bracknell’s assertion that ‘ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.’)
The type of happiness I want to speak about now is reported in Robert Louis Stevenson’s wonderful essay ‘The Lantern-Bearers.’ It is the type my former student has been experiencing. Briefly, the lantern-bearers exist in a town of Stevenson’s boyhood, where every autumn they ‘tasted in high degree the glory of existence.’ They did so by carrying bull’s-eye lanterns lit but hidden from passersby. They were devoted to this fine but hidden light, which they shared when congregating on the links outside town where they shone their lights.
A prosaic ‘realist’ such as Stevenson despises but the Gates Foundation approves of may complain that the boys smell of hot tin, they burn their fingers, they meet in a damp sandy dirty hole, they have unremarkable conversations, and there is no way to ‘measure’ what they are learning and thus no value reliably added. This ‘realist’ would miss the point. I have written about my school’s ‘Cave of Music’, but there is more to say about its musical lantern-bearers. Some of them gather before 7:00 a.m. in the damp of early morning to make music. (Sound, unlike the light of a bull’s-eye lantern, is not easily hidden). Some break into song in the stairwells or gather to sing Renaissance madrigals at sundown in the quad outside my window. Some, the rascals, when they think I am not looking, take out their sheet music to confer secretly during class. Some pursue their music after graduating. Another former student, who joined his college choir abroad, is back home and has joined a choir of alumni who still sing under the baton of our headmaster, who used to be the choirmaster. (Who says administrators can’t be lantern-bearers?) The group of graduates reported above, who visited the monuments of poetry and history, are lantern-bearers. And so is my letter-writing ‘STEM’ student.
Education must allow them to bear their lanterns, for Stevenson says, ‘The true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides.’