Technically, it would be wrong to say I didn't know what I was doing. After all, at that exact moment, I knew I was experiencing pain (that does count as "doing something"). The pain came from a torturous suite of external pressures. For one thing, there was the skin-scything, extremity-bluing, cell-freezing, December-night gales blasting in from the Pacific. They had me between agony and numbness. To the extent I could still feel my fingers, hands, toes, feet, they felt like they were being crushed in a vice. I couldn't get warm. Still, I couldn't, or wouldn't, stop.
Then there was the sharp, overwhelming ache from muscles, bones, and nerves carrying more weight than they were ready for. In this case, it was some 230 pound Samoan kid I'd just met. I had him draped over my shoulders, fireman-carry-style, as I sprinted yet another forty metre dash. And all that awaited me, at the end of the Samoan-laden forty metres, was me dropping to do yet more push-ups in the sloppy, chilling, grassy muck. Worse was that during the push-ups, the Samoan kid would be half-lying on my back to create more weight. As all this went on, my body screamed for more oxygen. I couldn't breathe fast enough. It was also screaming for more blood circulation, but my pulse was already racing at max capacity. In short, all my physiological alarm bells were screaming, like Scotty on "Star Trek", "I'm givin' 'er all I got! I cannae do more, Cap'n! STOP!".
So, at that microscopic level, I knew what I was doing: I was experiencing biting pain. At the macro level, I also knew what I was doing: the only thing left for me to do anymore. My life had recently turned into a metaphorical cross between a dumpster fire and an infinite wasteland. From the personal to the professional, everything I'd built the previous two decades had disintegrated. There was no way to put it back together again. I was now alone, in my early forties, unwillingly embodying nothingness. And it felt like there was no way out except through. I had to start somewhere. Maybe, in some way that didn't make sense, this new madcap endeavor was the way through, spiritually, mentally, physically, socially, everything-ly. It felt that way, anyway. And I couldn't think of anything else to try.
And so, I ignored the terrible sting and all the internal alarm bells. I kept on fireman-carrying guys as I sprinted, doing push-ups, squatting and doing sit-ups fast as I could, and a dozen other agonizing moves, not just that night, but for months, years, afterward. Deep within I would find my cosmic wormhole, disappear inside it, and come back out the other side. Or something like that. So I kept up the agonizing exertions, because... well, because funnily enough, the whole project began to work.
The roots of this strange personal experience, which I'll describe in more detail as we go, began two centuries ago this very year, in 1823.
For as long as he could remember, Thomas Arnold had dreamed of an opportunity like this. An Oxford-trained classicist, the 33 year old father of five had bumped around for years, making a modest living as a private tutor and small-town headmaster. He'd long hoped for a more stable and lucrative position. Most of all, he longed for an educational role which would allow him to realize, on a large scale, his clear vision of what modern education could, and should, look like.
And now, praise be to God, the devout Christian educator had landed just such a position. He would become the new headmaster of a large, private boys school called Rugby, in Warwickshire. He would start that very year (1828). Once settled, he vowed to use his position to create a dynamic new form of education.
All people were created by God, believed Arnold. In each lay the spark of divinity. His role as an educator would be to draw forth and expand this divinity. Through education, he would give every student under his care the best opportunity possible to become everything God wanted him to be. In particular, he would follow and expand upon the template provided by the modern English gentleman. In Arnold's words, this "Christian, manly, enlightened" figure was "a finer specimen of human nature than any other country could furnish". In his new position, Arnold would do his best to even further improve this carnal culmination of divine purpose.
According to Arnold, optimal education required first the inculcation and cultivation of "religious and moral principle". It would also require training students in "gentlemanly conduct"—that is, the finer points of chivalrous behavior. The teaching of facts would come third in importance. It's not that knowledge about the world wasn't important. It was that, for Arnold, who you were and what you did was always more important than what you knew. Educators too often forgot that, believed Arnold. He never would. Character and right behavior would always come first.
Historians would later describe Arnold's philosophy as "muscular Christianity". Arnold himself never himself used this phrase, but it's accurate enough. His students wouldn't just be scholars and gentlemen. They would be rock-solid men of Christian faith, as well as leaders, legislators, diplomats, inventors, industrialists, priests, artists, fine fathers and husbands. They would be men of success, action, achievement. They would be the modern incarnation of the knights of old: courageous warriors for truth, right, Britain, their fellow men, and most of all, for God.
Achieving this at Rugby would require more than teaching Greek and Latin. Arnold's educational reforms would be holistic. Classes in Christian theology would enrich the boys spiritually. Habituating the boys to proper conduct would enrich the boys behaviorally. Academics would enrich the boys intellectually. But athletics would enrich the boys physically.
On that note: Arnold himself wasn't particularly athletic, but he believed competitive games engendered masculine virtues in his students: fair play, teamwork, strenuous effort, strategy, and magnanimity in both victory and defeat. Sport was therefore something he would foster at his new school.
So you can imagine Arnold's reaction when he showed up to Rugby School, and saw a horde of his future students playing a peculiar ball game, unique to the school, out on the front lawn.
Two groups of boys—each side usually numbering several dozen—jostled to advance a ball downfield and across the other team's line, mostly by punting, or kicking the ball along the ground. Touching the ball down on the other side of the opposing team's line would earn the scoring team a try at kicking the ball through uprights. If the boy successfully made the kick, his team got points. Whichever team got the most points by the time the whistle went, won.
The raucous, unrefereed game included pushing, shoving, "hacking" (kicking opponents' shins), "scrummaging" (boys forming into packs to push against each other), punching, tackling, and various other forms of violent assault. To modern sensibilities, the game sounds barbaric. To the rambunctious teenage boys, it was addictive. And to new headmaster Arnold, it was a natural manifestation of a raw vitality God had implanted within every bosom—especially those belonging to young boys. The challenge was to sublimate that vitality (not suppress it). That is, it needed to be routed into beneficial outlets. As I noted, Arnold had always believed games and organized sports made up such outlets. And now, here before his very eyes, was the most rough-and-tumble contest he'd ever seen on a school yard. A bit of streamlining here and there—a few new rules, a bit more organization, et cetera—and Rugby School's in-house ball game would be just the sort of thing he needed to round out his new form of holistic education. What luck. Or was it providence? As he settled into his new position, the new young headmaster has to have wondered if his novel ideas would work as well as he hoped. If they did, maybe other schools would pick up on them, too. Maybe the "muscular Christianity" he wanted to promote would spread. Maybe he could really make a difference in this world. And who knew—maybe even the peculiar in-house ball game would spread, too. (Maybe even to forty something year old men, two hundred years later, in the throes of existential despair).
More next week.
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