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Are We Educating Humans? The Brideshead Test

Evelyn Waugh’s literary masterpiece Brideshead Revisited opens upon a melancholic scene in the life of middle-aged Captain Charles Ryder. His company is amid the latest in a long line of reassignments across England. They are impotent – running drills and writing reports as their countrymen die on the battlefield. He has lost his love for the army; they are leaving a camp that does not hold a single happy memory. Waking in the new camp, he asks the second in command the name of the location. Brideshead. It is a name with a conjuror’s power, and he is jolted back into his memories, to the days in Arcadia. Like Theseus, we follow the thread of his story until the final twitch – the unlikely salvation of our agnostic narrator.

His salvation is inexorably intertwined with the redemption of the Catholic Marchmain family. He is drawn in by the charismatic and popular Lord Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of the Marquess of Marchmain. Drawn into the inner world of the family, he finds that beneath the charming façade is a crumbling foundation – a family broken by addiction and fatherlessness, aristocrats in the dusk of the aristocracy. The threads of their lives weave in and out of one another against the backdrop of the decay and desolation of inter-war England. Ryder, with the eye of an artist, weaves an ache, reminding the reader that something worth remembering has been lost.

Beneath the layers of beauty, memory, and sacrament lays another theme: the miseducation of modern man. Just as the Marchmains are worth saving, literally and metaphorically, they are juxtaposed with the seemingly unredeemable modern man. Modern man is particularly typified in two characters: Hooper (in the Prologue and Epilogue) and Rex Mottram (Books I and II). Rex is a Canadian businessman who marries the desirable Julia Flyte, sister to Sebastian. Waugh issues a scathing commentary on modern man through Julia’s reflection upon her marriage to Rex:

You know Father Mowbray hit on the truth about Rex at once, that it took me a year of marriage to see. He simply wasn’t all there. He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole.[1]

Much of Waugh’s criticism of modern man lands squarely at the feet of educators. It is a clarion call signaling to us that something worth remembering has been lost. So how do we know if we are educating tiny bits of men pretending to be whole? Through the narrative, Waugh points the way toward the things that matter. Here are some questions that he raises for the educator.

Do our students love what they ought?

In the Prologue, Captain Charles Ryder describes his ambivalent affection for the younger fellow officer, referred to only as “Hooper.” Though he laments Hooper’s unlikability and general apathy, he places the blame squarely at the feet of his education. He laments,

Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry – that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast flowing tears of the child and the man – Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St. Crisipin’s Day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change.[2]

Quite simply put, Hooper was not taught love what he ought. From antiquity, education has taught the student to love what he ought. Socrates said it, and Aristotle (and others) repeated it. Quoting Laws, Aristotle writes, “Hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right education.”[3] In the place of affections that would stir him to courage, Hooper had an “over-mastering regard for efficiency.” He is a man without a chest if he is a man at all.

Do they have intellectual curiosity?

A second common characteristic of Waugh’s modern man is an utter lack of intellectual curiosity. To secure a church wedding with Julia, Father Mowbray is placed in charge of Rex’s so-called “conversion.” Reporting upon his progress, the priest laments Rex’s lack of natural curiosity. He has no interest in what the church believes but only wants to be told what to think so that he can sign on the dotted line.

Rex lacks wonder, which is affirmed by Plato and Aristotle as the foundation for philosophy (the love of wisdom). Aquinas builds on this idea, describing wonder simply as a kind of desire for knowledge. Rex is not alone in his lack of curiosity. Charles Ryder describes his disgust with his fellow students as he studies at an art school in Paris. They never go to the Louvre, except when an artist in the style of the month has been “discovered.” Stuck in their chase for the newest thing, they lack wonder. As a result, art is dying. “Half of them are out to make a popular splash like Picabia; the other half quite simply want to earn their living doing advertisements for Vogue and decorating night clubs.”[4]

Can they see beauty?

Charles Ryder’s England is destroying historic homes to make way for progress. In fact, his success as a painter is through his architectural paintings; he is hired to paint the great manors before they are demolished. He sees Brideshead’s beauty. It plays a starring role in his narrative; he speaks longingly of its transcendent and sacramental nature. Hooper, like the art students, does not. Arriving at Brideshead, Hooper describes it as “not a bad camp” and a “great barrack of a place.” He is primarily concerned with his lodgings and the nearest pub. Beauty is irrelevant. Efficiency has killed it.

The irrelevance of beauty points towards an irrelevance of sacrament. In the exact middle of the book, Rex and Charles partake together in a feast in Paris. The meal is dripping with sacramental imagery: “the crunch of the bones, the drip of blood and marrow.”[5] The wine flows freely. Waugh’s incisive description of Rex’s response to the fish is the ultimate insight into the soul of modern man: “The sole was so simple and unobtrusive that Rex failed to notice it.”[6] He does not notice any of it. At the end of the feast, “He leaned back, blew a cloud of smoke across the table and remarked, ‘You know, the food here isn’t half bad; someone ought to take this place up and make something of it.’”[7]


I leave you with the image of a tortoise. It is a gift to Julia from Rex; he has had her initials engraved in diamonds on its shell. Shall we similarly take a progressive education and set it with diamonds – a great book here, a Socratic dialogue there? No, progressive education must be torn up at the roots, and, in its place, something worthy of diamonds must be forged: rightly ordered, wondering at beauty, transcending this ghastly modern age.


[1] Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (NY: Back Bay Books, 2008), 200.

[2]  Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 9.

[3] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1104b.

[4] Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 152.

[5] Ibid, 174.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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