Worlds Apart

Most of my life, man and boy, has been spent shuffling around between libraries and classrooms, optimistically hunting down scraps and titbits to add to the rambling neural labyrinths somewhere inside my head. I’m not being vain or superior, the fact is, we all do it, to a greater or lesser extent. Not the shuffling part, let me be clear, but the finding out part. It’s relatively uncomplicated to amass facts, Dickensianly unconnected, and preen oneself at cocktail parties because one can pronounce the capital city of Burkina Faso correctly. It’s a little bit more difficult to actually think for oneself, which is, after all, the holy grail of the educator. If my students simply outgrow me, I’ve done my job and led them forth with enough mental apparatus to make a difference in the world.

My alma mater 1964-1969

I was taught English literature by a master of his craft. English public schools throw up such people from time to time and one is indeed fortunate if such a one crosses one’s path. He taught us, we gormless, pustular clods, to recognise type and similarity in a story. One term we were doing Lear. He asked us whether the story reminded us of anything. We sat in stupefied silence. He blew gently through his pipe and asked whether any of us had been read to as children. Hands went up, shiftily. He then asked, with sarcasm both weighty and painful whether any of us had, perhaps, come across a story about two bitchy sisters and their kind sibling who was bullied and humiliated just for being good, the story of Cinderella. Ah. When studying ‘The Clerk’s Tale’, Chaucer’s story was easily transposed into ‘A Winter’s Tale’ where tormented wives suffered unreasonable treatment at their husbands’ hands.
I was, of course, privileged beyond peradventure. Which is, I suppose, why I find myself outraged to the point of foaming homicide when a collection of rag-tag, brutal peasants in a town in northern Nigeria take it upon themselves not just to deny young girls the chance to think for themselves but have the unconscionable savagery to attempt to blame their perverted, vomitous behaviour on a tattered piece of fiction masquerading as religious literature and the halfwitted ramblings of its ignorant interpreters. These girls have become spoils of war and may even now be locked down in some disgustingly filthy hovel where their captors feel themselves entitled to use them for whatever obscene and grotesque purpose their shrivelled intellects can devise.
I do not normally find myself wishing ill upon any of my fellow-travellers on this planet. But, the head of this pernicious organisation, twitching manically and mumbling into the camera, is of a very different stripe as he threatens to sell the captive girls at the market. The video clip should be watched, disturbing as it undoubtedly is, so that the whole world sees what happens to people who have been overtaken by a dangerous religious mania. It should most especially be watched by those who seem to imagine themselves guiltless since they are only paying for the continued existence of this appalling, diabolical sect.

I am short on charity for the leader of Boko Haram, despite clear evidence of his mental unravelling. He stands for every twisted inversion of everything I have spent my life promoting and were he to be captured, and were I in charge of his sentencing, I would ensure that he lived long and had ample opportunity to listen to the howling voices in his head. Without interruption from his fellows. For an awfully long time.

Floating By Rote

Pay attention, everyone!

A lifetime ago, I used to try to teach people things, getting them to a place where they could compete with the best, get in to good universities, follow careers and generally prepare them to be productive members of society. It wasn’t a bad way to spend one’s working life, I suppose, and over the years, I’ve seen the whole educational kaleidoscope played out in a multitude of ways. It seems obvious that someone who gets a class to make cardboard models of a Roman fort is made of different stuff intellectually to a colleague teaching how to approximate square roots, say, by the Newton-Raphson method which isn’t particularly difficult but requires a different level of concentration and engagement. (Be honest. How many of you clicked the link?)  But, what is taught is of much less consequence than how it is taught. Different methods demonstrate that teaching is, of course, mixed ability, rather like the classes that sit in front of them. Engaging a class is a craft, requiring the expenditure of a good deal of emotional energy. Good teachers are passionate about this. They hope people ask deep questions, develop ideas and use what they have learned. Holding a class in the palm of one’s hand is worth more than apes, ivory or peacocks, as are the magic words ‘I never understood that before…’. But, it’s not always like that. Sometimes, the dynamics don’t work. Some students simply want to disrupt, because they can and it amuses them to do so. I once taught in a school in Kuwait where behaviour was so bad that teachers ran, sobbing, from the room or refused to cross the threshold. One boy – his father owned the school – took three of his friends roof-climbing instead of attending his English class and was helpless with laughter when the principal tried to threaten, then coax him down as they bombarded him with nuts. 

‘Education, education, education’ (Tony Blair

Meantime, the rest of the class, fully aware of where the absentees were, rioted quietly as the teacher waved his arms about.

Two bad back-to-back classes can leave even experienced practitioners feeling drained and eviscerated. What, I wonder, makes a good teacher? I used to mentor new entrants to the profession, jump through endless hoops to justify any comments I made and the conclusions I came to. The bottom line, however, was really very simple. Assuming a candidate was appropriately well-versed in his particular corpus of knowledge, after about twenty minutes watching them in action I could tell whether someone was going to make it or not. Mostly it was body language, quick-wittedness and an indefinably Thespian feel to events in the classroom which made up my mind. And, mostly, I was right.

I still take an interest in education generally and British education in particular, much as one might gaze on a field of corn growing, in which one has little personal investment, but, it’s nice to see the results of others’ labour. For years, while in the UK, I engaged myself with national curricula, inspections, grade boundaries, differentiation in the classroom (ha!) monitoring and all the other ill-fitting flummery with which the profession has had to clothe itself in the last few decades. There’s a sense in which everyone has some vested interest in how kids get educated but it’s a political and territorial minefield. Successive governments seem to love letting slip the dogs of war to demolish and reconstruct with wearyingly predictable regularity at the expense of yet another cohort of hapless youngsters who have no say in the matter. It is as if the education portfolio in the House is the political equivalent of the SAS. Bright young politicians with a grievously inflated sense of their own competence and worth seem to be allowed to pull out the pin and go over the top which furthers their political careers as the swashbucklers and risk takers of the green benches in the House. People are still licking their wounds from the 1970’s when one particular Education Minister – the ‘milk-snatcher’- went on to higher and nobler things like becoming Prime Minister but not before doing more damage than Bonaparte via the dank labyrinth of a National Curriculum. The present incumbent’s approach looks worryingly similar. For those who don’t know, he’s a fellow called Michael Gove. In case you can’t be bothered to look up his educational pedigree, in brief, he’s Scottish, privately educated, became president of the Oxford Union, and secretary of his local Young Conservatives.

Here’s the little clever-trousers snapped for posterity when still a ghastly oik at the back of the room, peppering his teachers with questions to which he already knew the answers.  When he applied for a job at Conservative Research Department he was turned down because he was ‘insufficiently political’, also ‘insufficiently conservative’. He then got a job as a journalist, which he seemed reasonably good at. So, what have we got so far? Slick operator, both verbally and on paper, with a chip on his shoulder. After less than seven years in Parliament, he snags a Cabinet job about which he knows nothing and it’s time to get his own back, which he seems to be doing with remarkable ruthlessness. Clicking on the cartoon makes it larger.

‘Independence Day’ starring Michael Gove

He is going to make kids memorise stuff again, which isn’t of itself a bad thing, unless it happens to be the chronology of the British Monarchy instead of the War Poets. The first will make you a republican, the second a pacifist. Go figure. All this floating by rote will have to be done with larger classes because some previous incompetent hadn’t figured out that more kids of a particular age will need more space in which to house them to memorise stuff, so groundsmen’s sheds all over the country will now become music rooms. He’s been told that he has to big up the teaching profession and tell everyone how wonderful it is when it’s transparently obvious that he thinks they’re a crowd of indolent, time-serving lollygaggers. No wonder the NUT tabled a motion of no confidence in him at their 2013 Conference and, to quote the gentleman out of context, returning his own words to him, when he “weeps hot tears for a life spent serving an ideology of wickedness will he ever be worth listening to”. The ideology of wickedness, is, of course, his own flamboyantly inflatable ego.

People have been flapping around, squeaking excitedly about the shiniest new educational toy ever since someone thought it a good scheme to make kids go to school. Truth is, after all these years, the politicians still don’t know how to do education. They don’t know because they have the attention span of a grapefruit when it comes to making decisions which are meant to have lasting consequences. They never did, as it happens, but like to try to convince everyone that last season’s ideas should be trashed just because they’re not new, as if educational method could be handled in the same way as buying a car. For some, whichever methode du jour is employed, attending a traditional school is and always will be a waste of time, for others, it’s a perfect place to think, create and learn.

Rosalind Franklin b July 25th 1920

Today is Rosie Franklin’s birthday – there’s even a Google logo of her.  She was a brilliant scholar, my professor’s professor at Birkbeck, a pioneer in DNA crystallography and was robbed of the Nobel by Watson and Crick. Doubtless for her, the latter was true.