Alexander Cockburn learned the lessons of social status as a boy at a private school for which his father was chronically behind in paying the bills, and the fear and hatred of his encounters with the headmaster left enduring marks on his attitude toward authority.
Still "Heatherdown: A Later Imperialist Memoir," originally published in Grand Street and reprinted in The Best American Essays 1986, is not as unrelievedly grim as George Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys." And one does learn important things even in substandard schools, as this fine specimen shows:
During these prayer-choked years I acquired an extensive knowledge of Scripture, of the Book of Common Prayer and of Hymns Ancient and Modern. It is one of the reasons I favor compulsory prayer at schools. A childish soul not inoculated with compulsory prayer is a soul open to any religious infection. At the end of my compulsory religious observances I was a thoroughgoing atheist, with a sufficient knowledge of Scripture to combat the faithful.
In these four sentences we find many deft touches. Prayer-choked is very good, looking ahead to the drumbeat repetition of compulsory. Using soul instead of person or student winds up turning the religious sense of the word against religion, a neat reversal. And inoculated and infection combine in a compact metaphor that hits hard and moves on, as a good metaphor should.
The overall shape of the passage mirrors the reversal in the sense of soul. The first sentence builds up the thoroughness of the author's acquaintance with the forms and practices of the Church of England, leading to a sentence in which he boldly argues for compulsory religious practice in the schools, which he knows will be inflammatory to an American audience, both the pro and con sides. Then he pulls the rug out from under the assertion. Economically done.
Beyond the author's individual experience, this passage serves as a brisk pedagogical reminder that what is taught is not necessarily the same as what is learned.