Lessons for life

The Boy in the Bubble: Education as Personal Relationship

It was once a mantra of Irish nationalism: ‘Educated that you may be free’. But even if Thomas Davis envisaged a slightly different kind of freedom in some respects, that notion of freedom lies at the heart of education.

For education gives people the freedom to enter into life fully through enriched opportunities to know themselves, to know others, and even to know God. God is not encountered a group experience but as a personal relationship.

Yet everyone would agree with Mark Patrick Hederman that education is in crisis. The call is for more “relevant” education, to train people to the benefit to business, as if business was co-extensive with society; as if people did work to live, but lived to work. The truth is that business wishes the people as a whole to undertake and pay for what is not properly their task.


Hederman’s book consists as is so often the case these days of a set of occasional essays. It is not entirely an organic whole, but the dominant idea is that the unconscious elements of our brains have to be recognised and that the solution is to development the creativity of the child. I have grave doubts about what passes as ‘creativity’ today.

It is significant I think that he draws on Alan McGlashan’s Beautiful and Savage Country, but nowhere refers to Liam Hudson equally significant book Contrary Imaginations. In that book Hudson shows that the artist and the scientist have in fact different forms of imagination, that true science was as creative as art or literature. His theme was that here is not a ‘one size fits all’ form of education. The needs of the individual have to be recognised.

Hederman goes too far, I think, towards an espousal of a simple minded form of creativity. Much of what passes as creativity in schools (and indeed in the wider world) today is actually a form of imprisonment, a restriction of choice, a failure to engage with the “contrary imaginations”.

True education

True education is something completely different:  classically speaking in all cultures it is was seen as preparation for life in the widest sense, not just job training. Yet today the idea of educating the citizen, the mature Christian, the essential person seems to have fallen off the agenda.

The author is well known not just as a writer, but also for his work as former headmaster at Glenstall, of which community he is now abbot.  One long chapter of this book is devoted to the Glenstal experience and what might be learned from it. His reflections on this crisis should be read by everyone with children, wherever or however they are being schooled.

“Our children,” he writes, “for all we know, may someday be living on the Moon, and preparing them for life on Sunnydale farm is not doing them any favours.” (Though a poor pedant like myself might wonder if he does not mean “Sunnybook Farm”, and whether he is really familiar with the actual experiences of Rebecca Randall in Kate Wiggins’ novel.)

The classics.

The purpose of education is to train the person to think and to understand. This was once achieved through a humane education based in Europe on the classics. Translating Greek was not meant to be useful in later life. It was meant to given an understanding of how language works, of how language carries thought, and how clear language cannot ever be in the service of lies.

But the lessons to be learned from reading Thucydides in the original are as illuminating today as they were in the days of the war against Sparta, a state where minds were indeed enslaved.


As always with Mark Patrick Hederman this is a book dense with ideas, and one drawing as usual on a wide range of reading.  But the essential emphasis that the centre of education is the single person and the single teacher is one which we should cherish and support. It is an ideal very much under threat, as much from the cost-cutting state as from fearful parents anxious for the future. 

In a religious sense, however, only a truly free mind can truly come to God. So all education, so long as it focuses on the free person, retains a religious aspect even when, as now, religion seems to be in decline in schools.