Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

I once had a flying friend who had been a secondary school English teacher for thirty years. He looked and was very disillusioned. He told me that when he had first become a teacher he had been full of enthusiasm and idealism. But years spent in an inner-city London comprehensive school trying to educate hordes of  unruly and ungrateful adolescent gits, had, when coupled with having to deal with the ever-changing demands of Whitehall education bureaucrats,  finally worn him down. It wasn’t a very uplifting tale.  

It’s unfortunately true that the efforts and commitment of countless individual teachers do tend to go unacknowledged and are often under-appreciated.

In another short article I mentioned the fact that so many of us have a story to tell of a particular teacher we had – a story of care and inspiration, a story of a good teacher. This is mine. It is the story of how one of my English teachers, a Mr Rawlinson (for that was his name), inspired in me a love of English literature and language that abides with me to this day.

Before getting to Mr Rawlinson, I can’t resist mentioning one of my earlier English teachers in the Grammar school I attended. I don’t remember his real name because we called him ‘Drac’ – obviously short for Dracula. He must only have been in his fifties, though he looked much older. His stoop, his gangling gait, his wizened face and his ripped and paint spattered university gown spoke of a life of some hardship and experience. And experience he certainly had. Drac had been captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in 1942. He had suffered three years of imprisonment, cruelty and torture in the hands of those gentle and enlightened Japanese. This had affected his mind; he’d gone slightly mad. He entered the class silently and rather spookily, like a sort of pale-faced but dark ghost.

I remember more than once moving my chair a little in class and accidently scraping it along the floor. Drac would instantly look up, spot who had made the sound, me, and launch into an exchange along the following lines:

‘Do you know where boys like you will end up Lewis?’

‘No Sir’ I would reply.

‘You’ll end up in Stafford prison Lewis, that’s where you’ll end up boy!’

It did no good at all to try to argue the toss, to argue that all you’d done was move your chair. No, Drac was off on his rant. I don’t know whether he really believed what he was saying or not; he was after all a bit unhinged.

Eventually Drac would decide that it was time to teach us a bit of English literature – usually Shakespeare. How to get out of that? The trick was for one of us to raise his hand (it was a boys’ grammar school).

‘Yes boy what is it?’ Drac would say.

‘Sir, did you see the cricket on Saturday?’

That was enough. Drac loved cricket and he was off. Stroke by stroke he’d give a detailed commentary on the latest test match. He loved it and so did we – because before he or we knew it the bell would go and the lesson was over. He was a sweet man. May God bless him wherever he is.

Our next English teacher was the Mr Rawlinson I want to talk about. He was a quite different character:  rotund, dressed immaculately in a three-piece suit yet still with the compulsory MA Oxon academic gown – though this time not ripped. Mr Rawlinson at first scared the living daylights out of us. For a few weeks we thought he was a mean bastard. He was strict and a real disciplinarian. The cricket trick didn’t work anymore. Even in the middle of the jocularity and laughter of his class, he only had to say ‘Quiet’ and even the most stroppy boys (and that included me) would sit up straight and pay attention. Yet once he had established his authority he was lovely and he played the fool with gusto and abandon. He would prance and ponce around at the front of the class, playing a comic Falstaff. He would read Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon with such tenderness and bitterness it even moved we cynical and ignorant adolescents, for whom the middle-ages and the First World War were equally remote and foreign countries. And then he made us read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. We didn’t know then, but I know now, that this is one of the greatest evocations of the suffering and exploitation of the English working class that has ever been written. Mr Rawlinson surely knew this. Then there was To Kill a Mockingbird, Cider with Rosie, Nineteen Eighty- Four and On the Road. What was he thinking! More Shakespeare of course: the Scottish Play, both parts of Henry the fourth and even Hamlet. He strutted and fretted and we laughed. He was a clown but we loved him.

It’s not just that I can, if I try, still drag up long quotes from these books today; it’s more that he showed us that ‘literature’ wasn’t a dry thing, it was living, it had relevance, it had something of importance to teach us. And, in a few great hands, it could make the English language soar.

This is what a great English teacher taught and inspired in me.

There were and are many teachers like Mr Rawlinson. Let us be eternally grateful that despite their under-appreciation such talented and wonderful people still do become teachers.

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This isn’t a rhetorical question. This short article isn’t even a polemic. I’m posing a genuine question – as the question mark implies. Honestly I really don’t know. I went through the English education system and, later on, studied at Universities in Britain, America and Germany. I even have a child and ‘step-child’ who have experienced (and one who is still experiencing) the delights of schools in the Czech Republic and France. This doesn’t make me an educational expert. Be that as it may. Yet just possibly some of you, wherever you are and whatever generation you belong to, might have asked yourselves the same question?

In Britain, and in many other countries around the world, it was surely a wonderful thing when education became open, and yes compulsory, for all. No longer was it just the preserve of the privileged elite. Children were no longer forced to go down the mines at the age of ten. No, they had to go to school. I for one am grateful to the generations of social and educational campaigners who fought for this right, often in the face of fierce entrenched opposition. Thank you.

Of course, even with the introduction of compulsory primary and then secondary education, schools were, and still remain, elitist. This much is clear. Most of us are aware of the fact that one of the primary purposes of schools has been to provide an obedient and pliant workforce for our capitalist society. But enough of that! There is also still the deeply held belief that school education is beneficial to us as individuals and is not just a production line to provide more factory, office or cannon fodder. I agree with this.

Yet let’s think a little about what we actually learn in schools. I apologize for the fact that much of what I will have to say is based on personal experience, my own and that of my family and friends, but just maybe it isn’t that unusual?

My old school

Start with language. Children don’t need schools to be able to understand and speak their ‘own’ language, or even to speak it grammatically. Children have picked up this skill quite naturally and almost effortlessly from their parents, family and peers for millennia – even before anything was written down. The fact is that you needn’t have the first clue about grammar to be able to express yourself fluently, and without fault, in your mother tongue. When my parents were at school they had to learn lots of English grammar. By the time I went to school in the 1960s and early 1970s I don’t recall any official grammar lessons at all, even though I went to a very academic Grammar School. Of course I might have nodded off and missed them. Despite this, I hope it is the case that nowadays I can speak and write correct English – like what you can.  It’s quite different with my daughter. She goes to a French school. There the emphasis is on what in Britain we used to call the three ‘R’s’ – reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic. Some people in Britain wish this were still the emphasis in British schools. Without doubt it’s a joy for me, when I’m helping with homework, to know all the wonderful French tenses and what they’re called and when you use them. It’s even interesting to know all about direct and indirect complements and the rules of accordance when using the auxiliary verb ‘être’ in the various past tenses. Good stuff you might think. It enables the children to learn how to write ‘proper’ French. But is it? My own daughter can read and write just as good (if not better) English as she can French, and she’s never had an English grammar lesson in her life.  But try to explain that to French teachers!

Teaching English in French Primary School

The same is true with foreign languages. I was taught French and German at school. I went to France on a school trip when I was sixteen. There I met a lovely young French girl. I wanted to tell her so much, and probe her deeper (if you see what I mean), but despite years of Racine, Maupassant and Flaubert, I couldn’t utter a sentence. Perhaps, given enough time, I could have written her a nice and grammatically correct letter, but a normal conversation was beyond me. I was tongue-tied. Knowledge of grammar and years of learning French in English didn’t help at all. That was a hopeless way to learn languages; yet forty years later the same so-called methods are still used in France. French school children can spend ten or more years learning English (usually with teachers barely competent in the language) and still by the age of sixteen or seventeen only have the confidence to say, with a certain embarrassed reticence, ‘Hello, how are you?’ And if you reply – they’re stumped.  Now to be sure the French are particularly bad when it comes to learning other languages, even (and this is hard to conceive) worse than the English.  In many other countries young children can and do learn foreign languages very well – and particularly the most important foreign (for them) language of English. It’s humbling.  Some methods of teaching languages at school work and some are hopeless.

The Periodic Table

In schools we also learn other things: mathematics, science, history, geography and even (occasionally) art and music. When I first went to Grammar school I loved history and geography, even the rather restricted and nationalistic type being taught at that time. But the school system still continued to try to sort out the wheat from the chaff. I had been lucky in getting to the Grammar school at all, but that was only the start of the whittling-out process. From the age of eleven we had tests every year and the results of these tests really mattered. At the end of my first year in the wonderful King Edward VI Grammar School (I’m not being facetious at all, it really was a good school) we had lots of tests. I passed them all except for Latin. This result mattered most. You could be great at maths or history but what really mattered was Latin. If you failed Latin you went into the lowest class in the next year – as I did. For the first time in my life I was in a class with the ‘failures’. Most of the children who had failed Latin had failed everything else as well. Well I guess I could have felt that it was good to start being top of the class, but I didn’t. If you were in this stream you were already destined for the local prison, as one slightly deranged English teacher used to tell us. I had to get out. There was only one way to do so and that was to elect to join the science stream. I was allowed to do this only because I was top of the class. But what did it mean? It meant that I had to drop my favourite subjects of history and geography and do maths, physics, chemistry and yet more maths. Not only for the rest of my time at school but also for decades afterwards. So much for schools encouraging the interest and talents of their pupils.

Now before this becomes too much of an auto-biographical story of my own schooling, let’s widen the discussion a little. Some of us loved learning about geometry, linear algebra, the periodic table and Newtonian physics, but was it any use? I’m not going to say no. If you are going to go onto study a scientific subject at university then if you can’t do some maths you’re not going to get very far. Yet even though I spent years at university solving some quite difficult equations I can only remember a bit of it now. I didn’t become an academic scientist or even a jobbing engineer.

Would plumbing classes have been more useful?

One of the reasons I’m asking this question at all is because of what we all know: very little of what we ever learn in school do we ever need, use or even remember once we’ve left. For most of us, all that geometry, all those differential equations, the biological experiments in petri dishes and even the poetry and history are instantly forgotten. So did it have any use or would we all have been better off learning how to wire up our house, cook a good meal or do a bit of plumbing – useful things?

Ultimately I do think that schools have real benefits for the individual and not just for the economy. I’ll highlight just three. Each of these is conventional, even conventional wisdom, but nonetheless true for that. First, for many children who want to avail themselves of the chance, schools can and do bring widened opportunities and aid upward social mobility. I know there are a lot of serious barriers to such social mobility and, at least in the UK, these barriers seem to be getting even harder to break through than they used to be. But without schools we’d all stay stuck where we were born –  we’d know ‘our place’ – just as we were forced to do for centuries. Second, schools do teach us to think and to analyse. Some would deny this and point out that schools don’t encourage or foster ‘creativity’; the proponents of Steiner education being a case in point. Yet thinking and analyzing isn’t just about creativity or even making things up, it’s also about having to work hard through the logic and arguments that others have tackled and tentatively solved before us. It’s not always fun (though it can be) but if we have any residual belief in knowledge and reason it is indispensable. Third, and quite often I would suggest, a particular school teacher or subject can spark a real passion for learning in us. This passion might even lie dormant for years and then flower. Passions can come from other places as well, but how many of us can point to a particular English or History teacher who lit a spark in us that we are still nurturing today?

I guess that the best I can do for the moment on what schools are really for. I’d love your opinions.