When teachers are traitors

What can we learn from Chaucer today?

The Canterbury Tales  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Canterbury Tales
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When Geoffrey Chaucer penned his Canterbury Tales in the 1300s, it was dangerous to denigrate religion.
England was a Catholic country with powerful clerics. Shaky statistics place one in 20 British males in the pay of the Church. That figure is probably faulty, but there were certainly a great many celibate priests trawling their parishes, looking for a living.
Men of the cloth included summoners, pardoners, bishops, friars and monks; they all collected money – and most of them weren’t celibate.
Back in those days you wouldn’t want to embarrass a holy man. Nor would you mess with the king, unless you had a death wish. Criticism was cut off at the source, along with your head. Chaucer’s Summoner, for example, an ecclesiastical official, is described as a pimply, red-faced, scowling fellow – and hot. “Hoot he was, and lecherous as a spawe,” comments the narrator, picking his simile with care. Sparrows were a byword for bad qualities in a man, and a summoner was a byword for corruption.
But Chaucer was happy with his own head, and had no wish to lose it by lambasting the church. So he covered his bases with lines like these: ‘He was a gentil harlot and a kinde; / A better felawe shoulde men noght fynde.”
The Tales are peopled with fellows like this – rascals, cheats, philanderers – most of them religious or in positions of power. Yet Chaucer calls them ‘gentle and kind’ and commends their clever corruption. Moreover, to make assurance doubly sure, he retracts anything that might have offended in an addendum, claiming that he didn’t mean any of it.
It’s gentle satire, but it’s satire nonetheless, and it has stood the test of time.
Shakespeare, too, trod a fine line.
Queen Elizabeth was not amused by criticism; she also lopped off heads of artists who undermined her, with no questions asked. Yet Hamlet articulates what his creator was burning to do: to show “the very age and body of the time.” Shakespeare couches criticism in allusion: King Lear, who took too little care of the homeless, is an indirect jab at the contemporary monarch. The Irish campaign does not get a mention in any of the 37 plays, but it’s there, lurking under the surface.
Each year I teach these wonderful works in my classroom: Gulliver’s Travels, Beowulf, Paradise Lost. The most marvelous thing about literature, to state the obvious, is how relevant the pieces stay, how utterly contemporary. Today’s pilgrims might not travel on horseback, but their tales ring true through centuries and in countries that didn’t even exist when Chaucer was writing. Corrupt clergy, the status of women, political intrigues – nothing has changed. Today we might read about the bejeweled and wimpled nun on a state-of-the-art Kindle, but her vicious anti-Jewish rant is depressingly same-old.
So here’s the modern Israeli twist: In Israeli universities will we soon have to do the well-nigh impossible and talk about Lilliputians without drawing parallels in our own world? The pesky, petty people that Gulliver encounters on his first of four islands fight endlessly about on which side to crack an egg. Go tell a literature class that petty politics don’t echo down the ages in governments today; what would be the point of the lesson? How do you teach anything? How do you teach Tanach, without making it relevant to our world today? And surely our world includes what we think of those ruling our world.
If Naftali Bennett and his crew get their way and make it illegal to present political views in class, I suppose I could wake up one day in jail. The thought is interesting to me, and slightly insane.
After all, I decided to come to Israel when I was 10. I packed up my sheets and supply of chocolate and many tubes of toothpaste and moved to Jerusalem at 17 – all out of a deep and abiding love for the country and a determination to be part of what I considered the miracle of the millennium.
Now, some four decades later, having lived here and paid taxes on a salary that’s a fraction of what it would be abroad, and having brought my kids up here to be productive members of society, am I going to be a criminal if I mention in class that I disagree with government policy? Or if I make what someone considers a “rebellious remark”? It’s mindboggling.
At the IDC where I teach government to students from all over the world, I have a fascinating warm-up for the first lesson of the year. Each student has two minutes to present a problem in their country and suggest how they would solve it if they were a minister. The Venezuelans have a field day, as do the French, and the Poles. The girl from Turkey described a brutal law involving rapists, which has since been repealed. Even Norway and Sweden have their issues. Darfurian problems overrun the two-minute slot.
Only the student from China asked permission to be exempted from the assignment. He claimed that he couldn’t do it. “There are no problems in China,” he explained.
Is this how our government wants us to educate the next generation? When I was studying the history of South Africa for matric, our wizened and wonderful teacher brought in a banned book. Boyce (I think the book was called) raised the interesting point that maybe the Boers had won the Battle of Blood River not because God was on their side, but because, unlike the Zulu, they had guns. She taught us this covertly, and we understood that if we reported back she would be sacked. It was the greatest history lesson I ever learnt. Suddenly, in one short school period, I understood that facts can be spun, history has layers, and the telling is all in the teller. I learned how to think, filter facts and spot fake news.
It was a lesson worth learning.
That’s the kind of teacher I want to be. If a thought-police unit is really established on Israeli campuses to enforce the ban and students snitch that classrooms are not “safe spaces”… if this alternate reality really does descend on us, I guess there are two likely outcomes: Israeli students will not learn how to think, or there’ll be one hell of a lot of teachers out of work.
As we go into the summer recess, let’s rest assured that in a land that has cradled civilizations and philosophies, this weird ruling will never come to pass.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC. peledpam@gmail.com