Cheese is a thing of sublime European importance, if only because of its antiquity. I do not intend any idiotic joke in speaking of the antiquity of cheese. Cheese and wine are the two things of which we can read in the remote pastoral poems of the Romans. And in connection with such really ancient matters there is a curious thing to be noticed. The older things are the more they are really fresh and free and varied, the more they differ really from town to town and from valley to valley. The new things are entirely the same wherever they go.
Bears’ soap in the Hebrides is the same as Bears’ soap in London. There is not some dark and delicate variety of Bears’ soap suited to the stormy islets in the ultimate sea. The men who use Bears’ soap do not find it smell faintly different; the children who eat Bears’ soap do not find it taste with an exquisite difference merely because it is experienced in that fringe of indeterminate and rainy island where, as Mr. W. B. Yeats would say — “Time and the world and all things dwindle out.”
The people in the Hebrides either know Bears’ soap or they do not: their enemies say not. But if they know Bears’ soap at all, it is Bears’, not theirs. It is the same exact and excellent article that is sold in a shop in Regent Street. But it would not be thus if the soap were cheese. If the people of the Hebrides had a cheese it would be an awful, shadowy, Hebridean cheese. It would taste of the terrible headlands and the hopeless sea.
It is so, I say, with all the old things, and with cheese especially. Cheese changes from county to county. Cheese can even change, like wine, from valley to valley. It is exactly because it is very old that it is always various and surprising; and it is exactly because humanity (with one dreadful voice) demands cheese, that cheese is always different…. It is precisely the things that have been most continuous that are able to be most diverse. The more old a thing is the more full of life it is. — G. K. Chesterton, “On Local Cheeses,” Collected Works 27: The Illustrated London News, 1905-1907 266-267 (I’ve divided this into paragraphs for easier reading).
In his discussion of hearing (vs. reading) the Word, Eugene Peterson says that we all suffer from “an unfortunate education,” which “has come about through the displacement of learning by schooling”:
Learning is a highly personal activity carried out in personal interchange: master and apprentice, teacher and student, parent and child. In such relationships, the mind is trained, the imagination disciplined, ideas explored, concepts tested, behavioral skills matured in a context in which everything matters, in a hierarchy in which persons form the matrix…. The classic methods of learning are all personal: dialogue, imitation, and disputation. The apprentice observes the master as the master learns; the master observes the apprentice as the apprentice learns. The learning develops through relationships expressed in gesture, intonation, posture, rhythm, emotions, affection, admiration. And all of this takes place in a sea of orality — voices and silences” (Working the Angles 93).
As Peterson points out, what he is describing here is the way children — even infants — learn from their parents. Interestingly, I noticed that my son picked up the music of “Thank you” before he could say the words: he was imitating our pitches, first a higher one (“Thank”) and then the lower (“you”).
But learning, Peterson argues, has been replaced by schooling:
Schooling is very different from learning. In schooling persons count for very little. Facts are memorized, information assimilated, examinations passed. Teachers are subjected to a supervision that attempts to insure uniform performance, which means that everyone operates as much alike as possible and is rewarded insofar as the transfer of data from book to brain is made with as little personal contamination as possible. In schooling, the personal is reduced to the minimum: standardized tests, regulated teachers, information-oriented students” (94).
Peterson admits that this sort of schooling does not replace learning all at once: elementary school teachers must interact with their students as persons. But he suggests that the replacement increases as the student progresses in his education, so that in the end the student’s education can be “summarized on a transcript in number, the most abstract of languages. Learning, a most intricately personal process, will not submit to such summarizing” (94).
I’m not entirely sure how to evaluate what Peterson is saying here, and I invite your feedback. Some of what he says sounds accurate. Some even seems inevitable: include more than one person in your classroom and you have to standardize; you simply cannot teach Jane at her pace and Wendy at hers, ensuring that each girl learns what you are teaching and has adequate personal interaction with you to do so.
But I can see, too, the problem he points out with standardization: if you are going to require a certain grade point average for admittance into a college or university, you also want that grade point average to mean the same thing, no matter what school the student graduated from. And the best way to achieve that goal is to reduce education to things that can be standarized: facts and numbers and dates and so forth.
I’m still thinking about these things, and again I welcome your thoughts.