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If your intentions are carried out, it may be that a new Athens will arise in France and an Athens fairer than of old, for our Athens, ennobled by the teaching of Christ, will surpass the wisdom of the Academy. The old Athens had only the wisdom of Plato to instruct it, yet even so it flourished by the seven liberal arts. But our Athens will be enriched by the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit and will, therefore, surpass all the dignity of earthly wisdom.

When I first came across this passage, taken from a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne, ‎it stopped me in my tracks. Here, at the end of the eighth century, a scholarly monk, writing to a barbarian king, sketched a system that would strive to unify faith and reason, spirit and intellect, religion and science, Christianity and humanism, AD and BC. I felt as if I had been handed the original “mission statement” for the whole tradition of Western education.

The internationalism, too, is breathtaking. Alcuin was from York in the north of England. The court of Charlemagne was in Aachen, capital of the Kingdom of the Franks and now a city in modern Germany on the border with the Netherlands and the French-speaking portion of Belgium. The two men had originally met in Italy. Alcuin writes of a reviving tradition of learning founded in ancient Greece, which would be raised to new heights by a religion that had emerged from far-off Judea.

Their educational blueprint stood the test of time. The idea that Charlemagne “saved civilization isn’t so far wrong,” thought Kenneth Clark. Yet we now risk losing what they gave us—whether because of squeamishness, in an age of multi-culturalism, about the transmission of one culture (however broad and catholic it may be); or because an academic degree now signifies little more than a “punch on the ticket for starting off in any upscale career” (Tom Wolfe); or because the exigencies of education as a mass of specialist disciplines mean that we no longer see it as the disciplined, collective pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

The idea of holding up a mirror made in the Dark Ages to our own efforts at education may seem implausible. But we ignore these educational visionaries at our peril.

In another letter to Charlemagne, Alcuin wrote of the actual education he was overseeing at the monastery of Tours in central France: “I . . . am doing as you have urged and wished. To some who are beneath the roof of St. Martin I am striving to dispense the honey of Holy Scripture; others I am eager to intoxicate with the of wine of apples of grammatical refinement; and there are some whom I long to adorn with the knowledge of astronomy, as a stately house is adorned with a painted roof.”

Scripture, grammar, astronomy: Charlemagne took an interest in all of it. Here, under construction in the Kingdom of the Franks and the Holy Roman Empire, is the Christian Humanist curriculum, the Atlantic world re-establishing contact with the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean.

Significantly, Charlemagne wanted his new Athens to be far more egalitarian than the original. He advised the directors of cathedral and monastery schools “to make no difference between the sons of serfs and the sons of freemen, so that they might come to sit on the same benches to study grammar, music and arithmetic.” And so, Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans, who organized schools throughout his diocese, forbade instructors to take fees—the first instance in history, it has been said, of free and general education.

Alcuin and his companions had their work cut out for them. Written Latin was in an atrocious state; poetry had been all but abandoned; theology too. A new Athens would not spring up overnight. There was hard work to be done.

One hundred years on from Alcuin’s letter-writing, Alfred the Great, who had visited both Rome and the court of Charlemagne during his childhood, was fretting about the state of learning in England.  His response was to identify “the most needful books for all men to know” and then to translate these books into the vernacular. Alfred’s syllabus incorporated scripture, The Consolations of Philosophy by Boethius, St Augustine, Bede, and Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care. Other books compiled during his reign included Bald’s Leechbook (on medicine) and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The king wanted “all the young free men now in England, who have the means to apply themselves to it, to be set to learning.” Those with the potential to be promoted to a higher rank could then be taught Latin.

Alfred’s style is less florid than Alcuin’s, and his ambitions grittier, but both these Englishmen, a century apart, were putting their shoulders to the same wheel. Chesterton heaped praise on Alfred as the man who, by translating Boethius, “brought into England the full tradition of Europe; the tradition of the Christian creed resting upon the Pagan culture.” In his 1961 novel The King of Athelney, Alfred Duggan depicts his namesake settling to his task with a “sense of being on the verge of the vanished civilization whose ruins he had seen long ago in Rome. To hear the melody of Claudian, to catch every nuance of Orosius, was worth the effort of poring over crabbed letters by candlelight.” In Duggan’s depiction of Alfred meeting his future mother-in-law, Eadburh, for the first time, she has a copy of Livy’s History of Rome open on her knee. Alfred is deeply impressed.

The end goal of all of this activity was wisdom and all the fruits that wisdom would bear. Alcuin to Charlemagne again:

In toiling toward the happy life nothing is more lofty, nothing more pleasant, nothing bolder against vices, nothing more praiseworthy in every place of dignity; and moreover, according to the words of philosophers, nothing is more essential to government, nothing more helpful in leading a moral life, than the beauty of wisdom, the praise of learning and the advantages of scholarship.

He then quotes Solomon on the value of wisdom, completing a typical appeal to the joint authority of pagan learning and scripture.

Alcuin also initiated a whole chain of pupils-turned-masters who would spread learning across Europe and down the generations. For over a thousand years, in monasteries, cathedral schools, palace schools, universities, academies, and all the variations on a “howse with seates in yt for Children to be towght in,” the educational program inaugurated by Charlemagne and the monk of York would ripple onwards.

This vision would, of course, undergo myriad interruptions, shifts of emphasis, attenuations, and outright shocks. Nevertheless, Christopher Dawson was able to discern a single tradition of liberal education originating in ancient Athens and still dominant in the English universities and public schools of his turn-of-the-twentieth-century youth.

I write all of this as neither a historian nor an educator. However, as I am a father of four, education—its past, its future, its purpose—is never far from my mind. Whatever one’s vantage point, surely it is possible to savor the idealism of men such as Alcuin and Alfred, and to acknowledge our ancient debt to them. Here are the origins of education as an induction into the best that has been thought and said in all the domains of knowledge, stretching back into pagan antiquity. Here, too, is education as part of our collective effort to approach the three “transcendentals”: to furnish our minds with beauty; to encounter and absorb the truth; to know and follow the good.

But what could this vision of education ever have to do with the thing called real life? As Dawson himself once wrote: “At first sight it seems highly absurd to take an English farmer’s son or the son of a German shopkeeper and drill him into writing imitation Ciceronian prose or copies of Latin verses.” Yet this system “set the stamp of a common classical tradition on a dozen vernacular European literatures and gave the educated classes of every European country a common sense of the standard classical values.”

Let’s fast forward from the eighth and ninth centuries to Crete, April 1944. The Greek island is under German occupation. The conflict between the occupiers and the local resistance is brutal. This is life at its realest and rawest. Death is one mistake, one barked order away.

As dawn breaks one morning, General Heinrich Kreipe stares at Mount Ida and murmurs the opening lines of an ode by Horace: “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte”: Do you see how Soracte stands there with its blanket of deep snow?

The young English officer sitting next to him—for Kreipe has been abducted by a party of Cretan guerrillas and British commandos—continues where the German breaks off and recites the remaining stanzas. Many years later, this same Englishman wrote that it was as though “for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. . . . Things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

The English soldier was Patrick Leigh Fermor, later to become a renowned travel writer. His story about the abducted general is an illustration of Dawson’s belief in a European republic of letters, a free, spiritual community of which every scholar of whichever nation was a citizen (even if, as in the case of Fermor and Kreipe, their nations were at war); of common values surviving under the most extreme stress (and providing a glimpse, perhaps, of a way back from the most lethal enmity to cooperation and renewal). As Fermor put it, he and General Kreipe “had both drunk at the same fountains long before.”

Fountains, I would suggest, originally built over a thousand years before by Alcuin of York.

John Duggan is a freelance writer based in Surrey, England. 

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