The Ballad of Pangur Bán

One of the strange byproducts of being even slightly famous is that certain stories from your own life become apocryphal tales over time as they are told again and again, each time with more embellishments added.

One such tale, based on a true story, is that when I was a high school student in America, I spent an academic year in Israel, officially studying ancient Jewish history (in effect, that of the “Old Testament” as expressed in Christian terms) and unofficially studying the politics of the entire Middle East. When I returned to high school in America, I enrolled in a course which purported to teach the history of the Middle East.

At some point during the semester, the teacher was expounding some doctrine from her textbook and I raised my hand to interrupt her. I informed her that the information from the book was incorrect and outlined several reasons why I knew this was so. The teacher demurred and stated that she agreed with me but because the textbook was the foundation of our course and of our upcoming final exam questions, we had to learn what the book said regardless of what may or may not be factually true.

I then rose to my feet and said that if our purpose as students was solely to learn incorrect information from outdated books then there wasn’t any reason why I needed to participate in such a farce any longer. I then got up and left and never returned to that (or any other) school.

Again, this is the apocryphal version of what actually happened, but I was reminded of it the other day when I was reading a poem called Pangur Ban:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

That is Robin Flower’s English translation of a poem written in Gaelic about 1,300 years ago by an unknown Irish monk. It’s a beautiful allegory, comparing his cat hunting mice to his own “hunting” or pursuit of knowledge.

We’ll never known with certainty the name of the monk who wrote that poem but we know the circumstances under which it was written. He and other monks were employed (for life) in a scriptorium or “writing room” at the monastery, in which they laboriously and exactingly copied (and illustrated) books by hand. Mostly these books were the Bible and other religious texts of course but due to Ireland’s remoteness from the European continent (and the reach of the Pope and his agents), many secular texts from classical Greece and Rome were also preserved by the efforts of these copyist monks.

Spending your entire life laboriously copying texts must have been a difficult job, even as it was important in both a religious sense as well as in preserving the written word, for in the days of our unknown Irish monk very few laypersons were literate. Occasionally the monks would scribble little words or poems of their own in the margins of these books and that is where the poem of Pangur Ban was ultimately discovered.

I mention the story of my own experience in schooling with the Irish monk’s poem written in the margins of the Bible because lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about both literacy and the concept of education.

You all know my policy on privacy so I really don’t feel comfortable saying names or using identifying information but basically a lot of “big cheeses” and other Persons of Quality, in collusion with a coterie of Misery Pimps, have become quite fixated on Gypsies, particularly Gypsies from Romania, and have been reading and discussing several things I have written on this topic.

The law here in Romania, at least on paper, is that education is compulsory for children, meaning that all children are required to do it and that it is not a choice. This is the norm for Europe, North America and most of the rest of the world. Whether at an accredited for-pay institution (“private school”) or government institution (“public school”) or by others who agree to follow government standards (“home school” – technically illegal in Romania), all children in all modern countries are required by law to be forcibly educated.

This intersects with the condition of Gypsies because very few Gypsies receive a “full” education (meaning they do not complete the legally mandated number of years in school) and almost none of them receive a secondary education (going beyond the legally mandated requirements). The Misery Pimps, many governmental organizations, NGOs, do-gooders and kind-hearted Persons of Quality all agree that Gypsies either avoiding or being denied a full education is a tragedy and a horror and an all-around terrible thing which must be rectified immediately. They also all agree that if only a full education could be forcibly imposed on Gypsy children then a host of problems would be avoided, such as a poverty, malnourishment, criminal behavior and disease (to include shorter life spans, etc).

Even on my own Facebook feed, completely unrelated to the fate of Gypsies, I regularly see posts that applaud and celebrate mandatory education, forced literacy and other aspects of compulsory schooling (such as praising teachers or urging an increase in their pay) etc, etc, until it becomes one of those things that’s “completely obvious” that 1) education is great and 2) being able to read is frigging wonderful and awesome and fills you with joy and rainbows and unicorn dust will rain down on anyone who is educated and literate forever and ever, amen.

Well if that is your position then yes, it seems quite self-evident (Thomas Jefferson style!) that since these two things are so awesome then of course they should be given those poor widdle downtrodden Gypsies. And if those Gypsies are silly and stubborn and try to refuse those gifts, we should sit them down and ram these blessings down their throats. And even though they’ll complain now, later when they’re discoursing on Aristotelian rhetoric and using calculus to improve rocket telemetry, they’ll thank us. So it becomes one of those “it hurts me worse than it hurts you” kind of deals to force an education on these poor buggers against their will.

The problem is that you don’t have to be a Gypsy to reject education, as both my own story and that of an Irish monk both demonstrate. And that’s a little confusing to people, especially ones who have been inculcated at an early age that both literacy and compulsory education are magic pony yum-yums that are the specialist most bestest funnest things ever devised by modern humans.

And so with that lengthy introduction, now we get down to the topic at hand, which is education itself.

What is Education?

If you’ve ever tried to learn Spanish, you will rapidly come across a seemingly intractable problem, which is that reality itself is considered to have two aspects. One aspect of reality is permanent, solid, deep, unchanging and fundamental and is expressed by the verb ser (to be). The other aspect of reality is in flux, the superficial and the temporary, as expressed by the verb estar (to be). So all of reality, in the Spanish language, is described as either being in one sense or the other.

But when you’re coming from a background where this is only one reality, how do you know when to use estar and ser? Entire books have been written on this subject as it is quite difficult to learn. Even native Spanish speakers just shrug and say ser es y estar esta in explanation.

Likewise the concept of education itself is one word in modern times but comes from two vastly different roots. Going to school to learn to read and write is one kind of education but being 60 years old and learning to ride a horse is also another kind of education. Certainly any time you learn anything, that’s an education, so where do we draw the line between learning how to fly a kite and the kind of compulsory education that people want to enforce on the Gypsies?


Educated people can never resist a word if it comes from the Greek, and pedagogous is one that the ancient Athenians themselves used. In modern times it’s used by teachers as a fancy word to describe their profession and the word sounds good on your CV when applying for a job.

The root “peda” is pretty easy to parse as it means “pre-pubescent child” (the same root as “pedophile”) and the “gogue” part means “leader” (similar to “demagogue”). Therefore a pedagogue meant a “leader of children” and it’s this definition that modern teachers love to claim for themselves.

What few people wish to remember now is that the pedagogues in ancient Athens were all slaves (adding an interesting dimension to the salary struggles of modern teachers hehe) whose job was to follow the children of their masters and whip knowledge into them. Think of them as “drill sergeants” if you like. The pedagogues weren’t composing original material to instruct the children but instead were endlessly repeating the proscribed material to them, forcing them to repeat it over and over until it was memorized.

Here’s a little passage from a contemporaneous Greek poem called The Clouds, written by Aristophanes, discussing that super fun system of pedagogical education:

Very well, I will tell you what was the old education, when I used to teach justice with so much success and when modesty was held in veneration. Firstly, it was required of a child, that it should not utter a word. In the street, when they went to the music-school, all the youths of the same district marched lightly clad and ranged in good order, even when the snow was falling in great flakes.

At the master’s house they had to stand with their legs apart and they were taught to sing either, “Pallas, the Terrible, who overturneth cities,” or “A noise resounded from afar” in the solemn tones of the ancient harmony. If anyone indulged in buffoonery or lent his voice any of the soft inflexions, like those which to-day the disciples of Phrynis take so much pains to form, he was treated as an enemy of the Muses and belaboured with blows.

So children were marched to school in complete silence, even when it was heavily snowing and if they “indulged in buffoonery” (“goofing around” in modern English) they were badly beaten. Minus the corporal punishment angle, it’s pretty clear that modern schooling isn’t a whole lot different than this original form of pedagogy.

In Ancient Greece luckily only the male children of free citizens were forcibly educated. In modern times, every child of both genders is now required by law to be educated. And so to describe this course of compulsory or mandatory education, we will use the term pedagogy.


Another Greek term, didacticism, refers to a different kind of teaching, more akin to wherein ideas and concepts are developed in the minds of students. When you are, in effect, your own teacher, this is called autodidacticism or “self (auto) teaching”.

When I was a much younger person, for a brief time I was a teacher of what was termed a “pre-school”, meaning it was a structured educational institution for very young children, in this particular case 3-year-olds. I was very surprised to see that these children were quite determined to learn certain things completely irrespective of what I or anyone else might have intended for them to learn. The focus of nearly all of their activities was to mimic the “work” that they had seen adults (presumably mostly that of their parents) do.

In other words, their play was almost all about pretending (since we wouldn’t allow them to do it for real) to do all of the things that they’d seen adults do, from washing dishes to cooking food to cleaning up the house to working with tools and building things, etcetera. Being as we were a school in America, we even had a toy cash register and the children also loved to simulate being “clerks” and adding up purchases and handing out “change”, etcetera.

At the time, I had never heard of Maria Montessori but later I was quite intrigued to learn that she had essentially noticed the same thing. It turns out children of all ages, when given the space and time to do so, are all fantastic auto-didacts. Essentially, they know what interests them and then will direct their own education on these subjects. The entire concept of a Montessori school is to provide the space and time and materials so that the children can self-direct their own education.

It is, in essence, the complete opposite of pedagogy because instead of compelling children to learn certain things, it is believed that a fundamental aspect of human nature is this drive to self-educate and therefore learning does not need to be imposed but only allowed to flourish.

The Land of the Hindoos

So what exactly is the purpose of a compulsory education? That is a question that few people ever ask as they (like my Facebook feed demonstrates) are constantly under assault from propaganda that touts just how goshdarn wonderful and fabulous compulsory education and literacy is. But as Maria Montessori (and many, many others) have demonstrated, children learn quite well without being compelled to.

As I described in my post The Ghost of Simonides, even completely uneducated (even in the Montessori sense) people can learn tremendous amounts of information and certainly acquire very sophisticated knowledge about practical matters, including mathematics. Over the years I’ve known many, many Gypsies, both literate and illiterate, and never once have I found one who suffered because of a lack of formal education. In other words, anything that they might want to learn about (such as sophisticated mobile phones), they learned on their own just fine without having any need of a pedagogical education.

As one of my heroes, John Taylor Gatto, described, about 300 years ago Europeans began arriving en masse in India (the “land of Hindoos” in archaic spelling) and discovered for the first time a system of compulsory education for all children. Just as with the ancient Greeks, in Europe and the rest of the world, nobody had ever considered it necessary to forcibly educate peasants, girls or anyone who wasn’t part of the nobility or priesthood. However, based on the ancient caste system, many of the kingdoms in India had long traditions of forced education for all of its people.

Certain British missionaries in India were quite delighted by this system of compulsory education because they saw that it was more useful as a method of social control rather than some kind of haven where ideas could be formulated and children taught to think. The caste system of education in India was deliberately designed in the pedagogical style, wherein high-caste teachers inculcated low-caste members and forced them to memorize lengthy “facts”, stories and poems. To think for yourself and develop your own opinions was the exclusive province of the high caste and not desirable or wanted for the lower castes (who were, as I’m sure you can guess, the majority of the population).

As Britain and then the rest of Europe began moving into the “Industrial Age”, where vast hordes of workers (including most definitely children) were imported into cities to work in factories, this “Hindoo” style of compulsory education became extremely useful as a tool of social control. It then taught millions of children how to become effective (future) workers, sometimes learning practical skills (a trade) and sometimes via useful attitudes like being obedient, dutiful and subservient to authorities.

One of the greatest proponents of compulsory education and most influential supporters of this scheme was the American John Dewey. In his “Pedagogic Creed” statement of 1897 he wrote:

Every teacher should realize he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of the proper social order and the securing of the right social growth. In this way the teacher is always the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of heaven.

And so the combined efforts of Americans, British and German “educational philosophers” led to the system that’s nearly world-wide today, that is to say, compulsory education of the pedagogical variety. I’ve never attended school in Romania but I’ve heard hundreds of stories and they all sound exactly like my experience in America – lots of boredom, lots of lengthy memorization of “facts” and figures that end up being completely useless later in life, and lots of intervention by teachers and authority figures to prevent children from “indulging in buffoonery”.

I can also tell you that I’ve traveled from one side of Romania to the other and encountered a lot of universal attitudes, including that “Romania is a poor country” and other tropes with which I have to constantly battle. I’ve watched plenty of Romanian television and listened to songs and it’s quite clear that these attitudes have to be the result of compulsory inculcation at school because there’s no other common source between villagers in Maramures and city dwellers in Bucharest where children could have learned such things.

In other words, here in Romania, just like in America, France or anywhere else, schools are most certainly inculcating ideas that have absolutely nothing to do with a “practical” education such as reading, writing, mathematics, etcetera.


Despite my absence from the final year of my high school education, I managed to graduate due to what Romanians call pile or “connections”. One of the school administrators was a personal friend and “pulled some strings” to manipulate the paperwork so that I technically had completed the requirements necessary for graduation.

Later on though I discovered something called the GED or “General Equivalency Diploma”. It’s a test that any adult in America (or Canada) can take which, if you pass, essentially certifies that you’ve learned the equivalent of what you would’ve learned in a regular high school and are therefore (technically) on equal footing with a high school graduate.

What fascinated me immensely is that an ordinary person of ordinary intellectual means could learn the material to pass this GED exam in a matter of a couple of months at most while my high school education (which again, was compulsory where I lived) lasted four years. If I had dropped out of school at age 13, studied for a couple of months on my own, then taken and passed the GED, I could’ve skipped four years of useless bullshit, up to and including learning incorrect facts from antiquated textbooks.

As other people, from Montessori to John Taylor Gatto (and hundreds of others) have also discovered, young children can easily learn the entirety of what’s taught in primary schools in a matter of months as well. In other words, the entire breadth of what’s taught in mandatory schooling, which lasts 12 years, can be learned in a fraction of the time.

I personally know a child who was illiterate until he was 8 years old but because he was being “home schooled” by his parents in a kind of Montessori-type setting, they were not concerned by this “delay”. And then one day when their son spontaneously wanted to learn to read, he taught himself to do so in two months. By the time he applied to attend a university, he was incredibly well-read and I can tell you that he succeeded extremely well at that level precisely because he was studying subjects that he himself chose based on his interest to learn about them.

The Amish

And so once you begin to look for these kinds of examples, you find them everywhere. A religious community in America known as the Amish have a far different reputation than do Gypsies in Romania. The Amish are considered to be hard-working, diligent, productive citizens despite the fact that they often do note vote, do not serve in the military or use electronic technology such as telephones, automobiles or the internet.

But the education practices of the Amish are almost identical to that of Romanian Gypsies, in which young children go to school to learn “the basics” but then stop formal education so that they can learn practical trades. The Amish are renowned for their woodworking skills and furniture making while the Gypsies are more famous for their metalworking and jewelry skills but both share in common a belief that pedagogical instruction is only useful for young children and that a “hands on” education is of more usefulness to older children.

The Amish culture, as I noted, is respected and therefore in states where large numbers of Amish people live, the laws on compulsory education have been modified specifically to accommodate Amish cultural beliefs on education. But because Gypsy culture is not respected, nobody in Romania (or Europe) would ever consider making such accommodations on compulsory education for Gypsy children.

And yet despite the fact that the Amish speak their own private language with each other, have their own peculiar cultural beliefs, enforce exclusionary marriage customs (you can only marry a fellow Amish person), shun and ban any member who deviates from their norm, are living a lifestyle vastly different than the majority of their neighbors and largely refuse to modernize, the Amish are respected while Gypsies are not.

I’ve actually lived on an Amish farm (I told you my life was one big adventure!) and I used to live near some Gypsies here in Romania so it’s pretty obvious why one culture is respected and the other is not. The Amish, for all of their peculiarities, have a culture which does not impinge on that of their neighbors (aside from slow-moving horses on the highways) while Gypsies steal, are loud, throw raucous parties and definitely intrude into their neighbors’ space.

Most of the cultural beliefs of the Amish are also compatible with that of their neighbors, such as hard work and diligence, while many of the fundamental aspects of Gypsy culture, such as “hard work is for machines, not people” (as one Gypsy told me in Italy), are at cross-purposes to the cultural beliefs of their neighbors. An upstanding Romanian (or French or Norwegian, etc) citizen would be ashamed to beg for a living while a Gypsy would see it as a respectable occupation, etc.

Forcible Assimilation

And so now we’ve arrived at the heart of the problem. Whether Gypsies of any age can self-educate themselves on any matter to their benefit is not in question. There are certain traditional crafts (such as making enormous metal cauldrons) that only Gypsies still know how to do, much like how the Amish are the sole repositories of knowledge on how to make horse-drawn carriages in the United States. Whether it’s trading in gold or understanding market fluctuations in the price of electronic consumer goods (like mobile phones), Gypsies easily and effortlessly self-educate themselves on these matters even if they are completely illiterate.

What is missing however, in the Gypsy culture as it now exists, is the forced inculcation of social values, the true purpose of a 10+ year compulsory pedagogical education, which is the norm for Romanians and Swedish and German children but the exception for Gypsy children. But the Gypsies, as a culture, have a dogmatic objection to compulsory education for precisely the same reason as the Amish – it is antithetical to their cultural goals.

In other words, being indoctrinated in a lengthy pedagogical school setting (aka “formal education”) actually prevents them from succeeding in other areas. The only issue that’s up to debate is whether what is considered to be a worthy success in Gypsy culture (such as being a productive beggar) is likewise to be considered a success by other societies.

In other words, if you think that Gypsy culture is worthy of respect then their refusal to subjugate their children to lengthy pedagogical instruction makes sense and should be defended. If on the other hand you think that Gypsy culture does not deserve respect then it makes complete sense that Gypsy children should be forcibly educated against their parents’ wishes and assimilated into the larger society.

And that’s really what the entire “Gypsy issue” boils down to – should these people be forced to assimilate into the larger society as a whole or should they be allowed to remain semi-autonomous?

What makes this all so hilarious (at least to me) is that the people who ostensibly respect Gypsy culture the most, its greatest defenders, whether out of true passion or from a need to be “politically correct”, are the ones who are the most determined to force pedagogical instruction on them and thus destroy their culture by assimilating their children into the larger society around them.

And the people who respect Gypsies the least, who loathe and detest most aspects of Gypsy culture, are precisely the people who don’t give a shit if Gypsy children are forced to go to school or not and are quite happy to let them be as illiterate or uneducated as they want to be.

My own personal belief is that I respect Gypsy culture, just as I respect the Amish on the farm where I lived but in no way whatsoever do I want to emulate or be a member of those cultures. I like my internet quite a lot and I’d much rather read books than stand on the street corner and beg for a living. I am, however, confident enough in my own beliefs that I can accommodate other people having different beliefs and I think there’s enough room in this crazy old world for all of us.

But then again, what does it matter what I think? I am woefully uneducated (LOL) and I am a dedicated foe of the Misery Pimps of this world, which means that my only natural allies on this subject are rabid racists.

Ah… what strange irony indeed :)

3 thoughts on “The Ballad of Pangur Bán

  1. This is the second time you do the “gypsies are exactly like this other group, and the other group is respected while the gypsies are not – ha ha, double standards!”. It’s not true, and at least this time you did acknowledge the key difference: unlike the Amish and the backpackers, gypsies are consistently criminals. This is the reason why most Romanians have a problem with them (as proved by the comments you keep getting on these articles) yet you choose to largely ignore it, which makes for a really boring discussion.

    Does “respecting a culture” means being ok with 100% of what it stands for? And if the answer is yes, does anyone “respect” any culture that they’re very familiar with? I sure don’t.

    Just for the record, my “being ok with” means “I don’t agree with you or wish to emulate you, but I don’t mind you doing it”. By this definition, I am ok with some aspects of gypsy culture (rejecting formal education, for instance) but I am not ok with others (stealing or violence). “Not being ok with it” means I’d try to stop this behavior even if it didn’t affect me directly. I don’t mind that gypsies steal because I fear for *my* belongings. I mind it because stealing is wrong, period. I’m not ashamed to say I disrespect such aspects of a culture, political correctness be damned.

    The same goes for aspects of Romanian or American culture. Does being against a handful of things that Americans do make me anti-American? Do I have to accept the whole package and not expect any change at all? In this case, Sam, I’m afraid you’re anti-Romanian until you learn to accept the greatness of Miorita :D (and so are most of us).

    On the topic of education, it is well known that ignorance is bliss :) In my opinion, compulsory education benefits the society more than the individual. It’s somewhat of a necessary evil, seeing how we’re social animals and are forced to live together in cities and whatnot. However, our educational system is so bad right now that it only barely does more good than harm. What it teaches most consistently is obedience, respect for authority (even when undeserved) and routine… which may make you a good citizen, but not a happy, balanced and accomplished individual. I personally enjoy being literate and culture in all its forms is really very much fun to me, but I know it’s not the same for everyone. Seeing how school does not teach most of the things that are *actually useful for an individual* (from thinking for yourself to knowing what to eat to be healthy) and exposes you to a lot of absurd situations, conflicts with the schoolmates and teachers, boredom… it does feel a little bit hypocritical to say that schooling is in the child’s best interest.

    Also, this is probably a minor point, but I disagree that the “Romania is a poor country” story is learned at school. Quite the opposite: the only disciplines that explicitly talk about Romania – History and Romanian Language – often fall in the opposite extreme and go on and on about Romania’s awesomeness. We have one of the most beautiful languages in the world (whatever that means) and we single-handedly protected Europe from the Ottomans, dontcha know? Fun fact: I actually bought into all this as a child, and I had to unlearn that we’re the belly button of the world as I grew up. Of course, foreign education systems are similarly biased, so it’s all good.

    Also, how on earth did you get that the poem talks about rejecting education? It reads to me as being about a man who enjoys intellectual pursuits and has a cat.


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