Headmaster of Ampleforth, Pr Dominic Milroy OSB, considers youthful virtue
THE supposition that children possess "innocence", and that it is an adult responsibility to help them preserve it, is a very English one.
It has a strong charm and idealism, and a genuine capacity to inspire, which can only come from its being rooted in a certain very important truth. "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." Jesus was not in fact referring to innocence when he used these words: he was referring to the simple and unselfconscious humility which enables children to put themselves second and to avoid self-importance. This is where the real moral strength of childhood lies.
Innocence is, strictly speaking, the same as ignorance. It implies an unawareness of evil. The supposition that this is a condition which should be cultivated and preserved is at least questionable, partly because it is linked with a puritanical dualism which tends to equate evil with sexuality, partly because it expresses a fairly radical pessimism about adult human nature.
The innocence of children really has very little to do with their le-I■swledge of sexuality.
Chile by nature, extremely curious about such things, and in most societies they learn pretty early (from sheer proximity) what is going on. The imagination of children is closer to Chaucer than to Wordsworth. Indeed this comparison points to the flaw in the more soulful representations of childish innocence.
Wordsworth's powerful (and influential) image of the child "trailing clouds of glory", which gradually disappear under the impact of adulthood's "prisonhouse", is idealistic in both senses of the word. It expresses a strongly romantic nostalgia for paradise, and it expresses a strongly unrealistic perception of children. This is what makes it so pessimistic.
Our own attitude to innocence needs above all to be full of hope. Innocence is not a childish virtue that has to be protected. It is an adult virtue that has to be built.
This means that we are giving the word a new and stronger meaning, associating it not with ignorance of evil but with a capacity to remain deeply untouched by it. Fortunately, we all know many adults who have built this profound and attractive quality in their lives. It is profound because it has to be, and it is attractive because it is an image of real inner freedom.
Pierre Fresnay gave a remarkable portrayal of it, .nany years ago, in the film Monsieur Vincent. St Vincent de Paul is presented as a person who is truly mature in his perception of good
and evil, being so attracted by good that he can no longer fully comprehend the attraction (that is, the temptation) of evil. Christ himself was, in this sense, the personification of innocence. He was able to transfigure and ennoble the concept of human sexuality by the absolute freedom with which he encountered human relationships, healing what was evil by reaching out to touch it.
The children of wise and supportive families receive this healing touch without being aware of it. There are two ways, in particular, in which schools can complement this, both through the curriculum and through the ethos which reinforces it.
In the first place, they can expose the imagination of children to the attraction of strong images of adult innocence, thus innoculating them against the insidious influence of the trash which the market place will subsequently offer them. The worst aspect of soft pornography is that it trivialises great themes, and the best remedy for it is not censorship, but constant exposure to the same themes treated at their best and not only through books intended specifically for children. The imagination of children is spacious, receptive and discerning, and when it is treated with respect the effects are long-lasting.
In the second place, our schools must set out to place the assumptions underlying the Children's Act within their rightful context. The Act assumes that children, growing up in the age of child-abuse, need to be protected against adults. There is, unfortunately, an important dimension of truth in this, and it is our duty to give it the strongest support. But there is another and more important truth at stake, namely, that the natural and overriding relationship between adults and children is one of trust, and that this is of the deepest value when it is taken for granted by children.
This is, in the last analysis, the raison d'etre of our schools, and it is by far the most important aspect of our hidden curriculum.