Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Feeling, knowing and writing

In Saturday’s Guardian Zadie Smith wrote brilliantly about George Eliot’s Middlemarch
http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/classics/story/0,,2281931,00.html .
Here are some quotes and some comments. (I hope I'm not violating anyone's copyright -- this is educational, after all. Well, self-educational at any rate.)

Experience, for Eliot, was a powerful way of knowing. She had no doubt that she had learned as much from loving her partner George Lewes, for example, as she had from translating Spinoza. When Dorothea truly becomes great (only really in the last third of the novel, when she comes to the aid of Lydgate and Rosamund), it is because she has at last recognised the value of emotional experience:

"All the active thought with which she had before been representing to herself the trials of Lydgate's lot [. . .] all this vivid sympathetic experience returned to her now as a power: it asserted itself as acquired knowledge asserts itself and will not let us see as we saw in the day of our ignorance."
In order to be attentive to Fred [Vincy], Eliot had to take the long way round. It was a philosopher, Spinoza, who first convinced her of the importance of experience. It was theory that brought her to practice. These days, "writer of ideas" has become a term of abuse: we think "Ideas" are the opposite of something we call "Life". It wasn't that way with Eliot. In fact, her ability to animate ideas is so acute she is able to fool the great Henry James into believing Fred Vincy a commonplace young man who was wandered into Middlemarch with no purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Doesn't she seem to solve the head/heart schism of our literature? Neither as sentimental as our popular novelists, nor as dryly cerebral as our experimentalists. Under the influence of Spinoza, via an understanding of Fred, she thought with her heart and felt with her head. It's a fictional procedure perfectly described by one of her creations, Will Ladislaw:

"To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely ordered variety on the chords of emotion - a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only."

This seems as good support as any for the argument that literature, or let’s say imaginative writing in the school English classroom, can be a means of setting down a sort of knowledge that is as real as facts. To have ‘no shade of quality' escape one’s awareness is an achievement of cognition, an apprehension of what is actually out there. Feeling is a way of knowing; to which we can add that imaginative writing (fictional and autobiographical writing and poetry) can be a way of articulating that feeling/knowledge, an alternative way to the discursive statement conventionally associated with knowledge.

The poet’s—or the child’s or adolescent’s--quick discernment, instant emotional response (or slow persistent sense) is a knowledge that can’t immediately be stated; it may be able to be stated eventually, after time, or it may not. Such knowledge can still ‘come out’, however, and make itself communicable (and thus more consciously available to the knower herself) through being written into representations of real or imagined experience, i.e. through, for instance, fiction or autobiography or poetry; or film or drawn graphic story.

"All the active thought with which she had before been representing to herself the trials of Lydgate's lot [. . .] all this vivid sympathetic experience returned to her now as a power: it asserted itself as acquired knowledge asserts itself and will not let us see as we saw in the day of our ignorance."

Exactly—and this is relevant for assessment in education: the criterion for the presence of knowledge isn’t only whether we can state it (in answer to a question or in an essay); it’s also whether it functions as ‘a power’ that generates correct perceptions and prevents us seeing things wrongly. To be knowledgeable can be not to be at risk of seeing things wrongly, not to have delusions and misapprehensions; it needn’t just be to be able to say what is true.

One more thing about that quote: Smith says that George Eliot knew she had learned as much from experience as from philosophy. But note that it’s through ‘the active thought with which she had before been representing to herself the trials of Lydgate's lot’ that ‘all this vivid sympathetic experience returned to her now as a power’; reflection is involved, an effort to represent the experience, at least to oneself internally. In education and specifically in English, talking and writing can be a vehicle for such thought.

It’s that sort of philosophy that lay behind much important innovation in and refreshing of English teaching from the mid-1950s to the 70s. It underpinned in particular a large body of impressive children’s writing and enabled a great many students to be motivated. In the long run, it’s true, many of us who were involved in that movement have concluded that as a rationale for English it wasn’t enough. But that doesn’t mean that what’s replaced it represents progress—in some ways what we have now seems a return to ‘the day of our ignorance’ in which we stumbled about ineffectually before that burst of new thinking.

Part of what was missing is what Zadie Smith leaves out. To write Middlemarch, or to be Ladislaw’s poet, it isn’t enough to have the feeling that amounts to knowledge; you also have to be skilled in engaging with semiotic stuff—words and their multiple and slippery meanings, associations and colourings, syntax, sounds—and make an artefact with it. The arts of rhetoric come into it as well as Romantic theories of expression.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea

(Sorry -- I've lost the link for that image.) I was there last Tuesday, before a couple of sun-soaked days at Rodmell in the Sussex Ouse valley and South Downs – Eric Ravilious country, if you know that wonderful prewar British artist.

High Modernism greatly appeals to me. There’s a special variety associated with fresh air, health, the sea and swimming. The De La Warr Pavilion in this vein (Mendelsohn & Chermayeff, 1935) has just been restored from, apparently, near dereliction.

My own associations with this style of architecture are (1) the Lido in Lister Park, Bradford, and (2) an excellent play shown on Sunday night television in, perhaps, 1956: it was set in a Modernist Riviera hotel on the seafront in the late 1930s: wealthy British visitors mingled with MI5 agents and German spies – it was sinister and scary; but in addition there were a teenage boy and girl who met, etc., and one night were seen on the point of taking their clothes off to go swimming together… then the scene changed to the next day. This was the most erotic thing I had ever seen and was the hot topic in school in the morning. Ever since, High Modernist seaside architecture has had for me Nazi and erotic semiotic loadings.

I should add that the Pavilion contains an art gallery and auditorium, as well as cafe and restaurant. The gallery had an exhibition that we greatly enjoyed, of British post-war art -- painting, photography, sculpture. It's called Unpopular Culture and was curated by Grayson Perry, who talks interestingly on a video and has written far more intelligent captions than one typically sees in, say, Tate Modern -- presumably because he doesn't have recent Fine Art degree.

There are good photographs at LINK . (The site says, "You are free to view and download them for personal use but please do not link to them or publish them elswhere without seeking permission of the copyright holder." I'm not sure if a blog is personal use, but since the link can be found simply by Googling 'De La Warr Pavilion' I see no harm in giving it here.)

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Absence note

I know, I've been away from the blog for a while. Partly because of
granddaughter Lucy who has to be played with; also touring bathroom showrooms in search of a suite I can live with when the existing 1970 buckets and latrines are ripped out; but mainly because of the MacBook which, though I enjoy it, is unarguably high maintenance. After the new logic board (which was after the new hard drive a few months ago) I was advised to reinstall the software, first backing everything up. Then some of my own software didn’t work and had to be redownloaded, and I had to leave the machine at work for a day while they reinstalled all their licensed stuff (Office, EndNote, Adobe Pro, anti-virus). Meanwhile, hours of tweaking Word till it’s as I want it. I know it will be weeks before I've got fully back to normal.

Haven’t computers been around long enough to be a mature technology that, like cars, runs without our having to pay it any attention?

Meanwhile, if I had a servant, their job, apart from living for me, would be to keep the computer and its bits and connections running sweetly while I cooked and cleaned for them.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

What should general education be about? The case of philosophy

What do you think of these as questions for the final school exams at 18?

Can the question ‘Who am I?’ be answered clearly?
Can the value of a culture be judged objectively?
What do we gain by working?
Can desire be satisfied by reality?
Does truth depend on us?
Can liberty be defined as the power to say no?
Do we desire only things we consider good?
Are works of art like other realities?

They’re all from le bac philo.

OK. In Paris the other day I saw this on a newsstand

and bought it. I already knew that the French school-leaving exam was the baccalauréat or bac and had a vague idea that philosophy was a main subject in France, part of general education, and not, as here, a recent minority one.

How could philosophy work as a mass subject, equivalent, perhaps, to English here? Wouldn’t it be far too difficult? Too abstract and cerebral? Perhaps this would tell me.

Well, it did, to an extent, taken with various other things found on the internet. Le bac philo is the final exam in philosophy, taken at A level/A2 stage. (I worked out that hors-série was ‘outside the series’, or a special issue of the magazine.)

In the lycée (the last three years of secondary) students specialise in arts and science (L – for Littéraire, I think), in science (S), or in social and economic science (ES). But they all take philosophy, though not for the same number of hours. (For students specialising in hôtellerie et danse, ‘la philo n’est pas souvent un priorité’. That I can believe.)

Why am I interested?
English is more my thing. What’s the issue?

The issue is, do I approve? Is this an idea we should copy? Or—since this sort of thing hasn’t been our style—are we right to prefer our style?

I'll say a bit more about the course before offering my thoughts.

Since I'm most interested in the arts/humanities side I looked at what the ‘L’ students do – which is eight hours of philosophy a week! (This from a good little New York Times article: LINK) ( A-level students taking only three subjects don’t get that amount of time for any of them.)

The exam
In the exam at the end of the final year candidates have four hours to write either an essay (dissertation) or an explication de texte, a commentary on a provided passage (my magazine has less about this option). For the dissertation there’s a choice of three topics, of which I put a sample at the top of this.

Here’s a fuller list of dissertation subjects set in recent years: LINK

The topics
The topics are great. The magazine groups them into five themes; the websites of different lycées have different arrangement, but the content is essentially the same, prescribed as it is by the government: LINK

This school site has schemes of work, lesson plans – the lot: LINK

It’s not clear to me how much the students are expected to read, but here, from the same lycée, is the prescribed list of authors, about whom the student should presumably know something and from whom they will have considered extracts:

Platon, Aristote, Épicure, Lucrèce, Sénèque, Cicéron, Épictète, Marc Aurèle, Plotin, Augustin, Averroès, Thomas d’Aquin, Ockham. Machiavel, Montaigne, Hobbes, Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, Locke, Malebranche, Leibniz, Vico, Berkeley, Montesquieu, Hume, Rousseau, Diderot, Kant. Hegel, Schopenhauer, Tocqueville, Comte, Cournot, Stuart Mill, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Husserl, Bergson, Alain, Russel, Bachelard, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Popper, Sartre, Arendt, Merleau-Ponty.

(Those who know about these things will note a relative absence of recent Anglo-Saxon philosophers, and the inclusion of French writers who’d be unlikely to make it onto a UK curriculum.)

So what do I think?
My initial reaction was, and largely still is, what a great course: it’s about interesting ideas, it’s intellectually demanding and doesn’t underestimate what older adolescents are capable of; adolescence is the stage when, if all goes well, thinking is transformed by the capacity to handle abstraction – this gives that capability full rein. It demands an ability to write expository or argumentative prose; it takes seriously the idea that education is about reason. The topics are capable of being handled not just through the study of philosophical texts but through the sort of discussion that should be accessible to most students. In terms of humanities education, it involves the history of ideas from the Greeks to Sartre. The course seems capable of providing a broad cultural initiation, broader perhaps than anything our students get.

There can be no accusation here of the dumbing-down or anti-intellectualism that is so often attributed to English education. In France it’s unambiguously fine to be clever; and cleverness is what the philosophy bac is about.

In Britain we’re less sure what we feel about cleverness; and what it is we’re unsure about is well illustrated by what gets the high marks in the bac philo. (Samples from essays are included at the end of this entry.) Consider what’s involved in the essay or *dissertation.

Writing the Dissertation
Here’s (if your French is up to it) how you’re advised to use the four hours you get for your dissertation:

And here’s how you begin to tackle your chosen subject. You imagine you’re a little man [sic] and you literally get inside your subject: ‘With your little arms you join the terms that go together with a green rope, and you stretch a red rope between those that seem incompatible. With your little feet you give the different terms a kick to see how they react when they bump against their neighbours.’

Suppose your subject is, “Must we respect all cultures?” Then this is how you proceed:

(Note your little bonhomme at the bottom.) You tease out the contradictions and tensions until you get two alternative answers to the question: that’s your problématique. That gives you your first two main parts, which you then have to somehow resolve. Then, as you write the essay you’ll fill out the basic argument with arguments, facts, anecdotes, sayings of the philosophers etc.

What it amounts to then, so it seems to me, is performing operations on words and concepts. Given the discourse (the words and concepts from the question and from the course), you don’t need to go outside it, to experience, to common sense or indeed to your own actual reflections.

It’s as if arguments are purely structures (of words and definable ideas) that exist in their own special space and don’t have any necessary connection to your actual puzzling, agonising, living, experience and wondering.

This is to say, then, that the dissertation seems a purely rhetorical exercise, a business, in the old distinction, of dealing with words, not things (or reality). Doing well is a matter of being good with words and ideas. The advice above reminds me of nothing so much as the old rhetoric handbooks that taught you a vast array of clever ways to, well, chop logic, producing discourse by sheer manipulation of the language of the topic.

In this respect the bac philo seems a suitable preparation rather for lawyers and diplomats than the rest of us. What makes us particularly uneasy as English onlookers is perhaps that you could write a perfectly good argument and not believe a word of it. Hardly a democratic education for good citizens. Yet all citizens have to take the course.

The bac essay has this detached, disembodied character even though the topics of the course include ones that some students actually experience in their own lives as urgent and personal, ones about identity, freedom, work and relationships, for instance. For students who are struggling to find meaning in the universe, does not the bac essay seem offputtingly arid? Is this not an esoteric and artificial genre that has no existence outside the exam room? If they resemble anything at all, the model essays remind me of encyclopedia entries or textbook sections: is that what students are best learning to write? Or, if students are grappling with issues that are in part philosophical, and education is there to provide ways by which they can grapple to better effect, is this particular essay genre really the best medium we can find for them to work things out?

Not that I know what the right medium would be; though if it’s some sort of essay we have in mind, wouldn’t Hazlitt be a better model than, say, Russell (from the list of prescribed authors above)? I'm not sure what they should write, but what strikes me most forcibly is the huge gap between two sorts of student engagement: the student tackling a bac essay (pulling the terms apart, seeking contradictions etc), and the adolescent reading Camus’s L’Etranger (The Stranger or The Outsider); and I think how English teachers work to present literature not as an isolated self-contained world but as dealing, implicitly, with us and our lives.

I've recently seen Control (twice) about Ian Curtis and his late 70s Manchester group Joy Division. Curtis was a troubled, clever adolescent who read (see Jon Savage on him in yesterday’s Guardian: ‘Controlled Chaos’ – can’t find it on the website). In so far as the help he needed could have been had from education (if he’d stayed on), would the *bac philo have done the job? Well, there’s no knowing – he had intellectual tastes as well as powerful emotional thirsts – but I suspect he would have found most of it dryly academic and irrelevant.

That’s not quite true. He read Nietzsche and would probably have got a lot out of Sartre and some of the moderns, in terms of relevance to his own situation. But would the form of the bac essay given him the possibility of working through what these books and ideas meant to him? Or just of using them as the material from which to construct a judicious, elegant argument?

I'm genuinely not sure about this. Curtis might well have engaged in a serious and academically valid way with, say, Kant; and who knows how many kids in Britain might not be thirsting for an educational experience that’s so thrillingly cerebral and so little demanding of self-expression, sincerity and personal response.

I certainly have a lot more time for an education in rhetoric than I ever did as an English teacher, and I think there’s much to be said for including courses that are, precisely, detached and impersonal. (I'm very much in favour, too, of everyone who can benefit having an introduction to philosophy.) Education isn’t only, or perhaps primarily, for the sake of making personal sense of the world; it’s also about the knowledge and intellectual skills needed for functioning in the world, and ones that a person might choose to inhabit as a satisfying domain having little to do with the rest of one’s ‘real life’.

I'd like to know the bac philo works in reality, across the range of students. Can it really be a central element in a broad education for all 17-18-year-olds?

Examples of student dissertations
The magazine prints some model answers and some actual student essays, with comments. I think the approach both of the students and the markers reflects how I've characterised this exercise.

First, two pages (not sequential) from a model essay
Then an actual, less praised essay – again, not the whole thing:

Student videos about the bac philo

Google ‘bac philo’ and you’ll come up with any amount of stuff, including course guides and videos made by students. For instance, some at LINK, e.g. LINK

Other links
Some of this basic stuff about the French education system comes from a site on classics teaching: LINK

Link to

Friday, 9 May 2008

Special issue of The Victorian

Cathy Burke put me on to this. I tried to order this issue from the website of the Victorian Society but ended up infuriated and blasted off an email. Within five minutes I had a phone call from the President, Ian Dungavell, apologising for their ‘frightful’ website and saying he’d put a copy in the post himself, which indeed he did, with a nice note, and I ended up impressed. By the magazine, too – what a terrific cover, for a start.

Inside there’s this, of one of the classic T.J. Bailey London board schools, Kennington Road:

The school’s a classic in part because of its clear 7-part plan and elevation: working outwards, central hall on each floor (infants, girls, boys), staircase, cloakrooms and teachers’ rooms (notice how two fit in the height of the middle floor hall), and classrooms. Each element has a quite different roof treatment. The colour hasn’t come out too well in my copy of the photograph but you can see the distinctive London style: yellow stock brick with red brick to pick out corners, string courses and fancy bits.

There’s also an article about the Manchester Board Schools, which are somewhat different:

The top one is Crumpsal Road: red only (brick, with terracotta for the ornaments); two storeys, not three (did they have more land to spread out on?); five elements, not seven. The windows are very similar to London ones – large, white-painted, sash, some with rounded tops.

Personally I find all that red a bit oppressive, especially when it’s dirty as remember it used to be (like everything in northern cities when I was a kid).

Soon I want to go back to Bradford, where I grew up, to photograph the board schools which, like the houses, are of stone, in a style that is nothing like Queen Anne. Bradford was one of the most progressive school boards in the country, strongly socialist in direction, so the schools were of high quality. My last visit was before I was interested in school buildings, and my photography wasn’t a success in any case. All I got of my junior school, Horton Bank Top, were these -- I hope it's still there when I go back:

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

English for the dawn of sanity: bats

Here’s one of my opinionated ideas about the sort of thing English should be doing once we’ve got the government off our backs. This is the sort of thing I'd be trying now if I were teaching in a comprehensive school again.

Kids of all ages are receptive to philosophy. Science and RE quite obviously give rise to philosophical issues, but English should get in there too. (That certainly calls for a longer discussion; part of the idea is that we should expand our concept of literature to include a much wider range of texts, beyond fiction, poetry and drama -- and travel.)


Consider the case of bats. Give your students the following three paragraphs (and the extra ones below if you think they might be up to it). (Some students, if not all, should be exposed to this sort of prose, but in a context where you’re there to help them with it.)

I assume we all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. I have chosen bats instead of wasps or flounders because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. Bats, although more closely related to us than those other species, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly could be raised with other species). Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.

I have said that the essence of the belief that bats have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a bat. Now we know that most bats (the microchiroptera, to be precise) perceive the external world primarily by sonar, or echolocation, detecting the reflections, from objects within range, of their own rapid, subtly modulated, high-frequency shrieks. Their brains are designed to correlate the outgoing impulses with the subsequent echoes, and the information thus acquired enables bats to make precise discriminations of distance, size, shape, motion, and texture comparable to those we make by vision. But bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. This appears to create difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a bat. We must consider whether any method will permit us to extrapolate to the inner life of the bat from our own case, and if not, what alternative methods there may be for understanding the notion.

Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one's feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.

That’s Thomas Nagel, 1974, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ http://members.aol.com/NeoNoetics/Nagel_Bat.html


A more familiar form of the same problem is explaining what sight is to someone blind from birth. For all the dissection of human organs of sight or bat organs of sonar, no one can convey in words what it is like to see or ‘sone’ (we need a verb) to someone who has not experienced them.

Let the kids have a go. ‘You’re a bat with human speech: explain what the world is like. Remember that you can’t use words like ‘see’ in your explanation because you’ve no idea what seeing is like (except in expressions like ‘It must be something like what you call seeing’).’

Knowing that bats use sonar is like knowing that we use sound waves and vibrating tympanums or light waves; but our experience isn’t of waves: we hear and see things, the world, not vibrations and excitations.


To do a good job of explaining his or her experience, our talking bat is going to have to find equivalents for the range of our sense terms: we not only see but look at (that view is nice to look at); we hear and listen (to); think of the different senses of feel (feel a touch, feel the door to find the keyhole in the dark). But no array of terms will do it for us, because experience is incommunicable unless the listener already knows something close to it.

Nagel’s point is that there’s no ‘just’ about experience: you can’t say that seeing is just having light impact on our retina etc., in the way that you can, in some sense, say that heat in an iron bar is just the excitation of atoms, or mass is just energy. No Martian analysing our eyes would get any idea of seeing from them; no inspection of tissues would show what pain is like. No examination of brains shows what it is like to have a mind.

The general issue is about conscious experience: what is it, how do we know what has it and how can science deal with it? (Does a computer have it? Could it?)

Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. (Some extremists have been prepared to deny it even of mammals other than man.) No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us, on other planets in other solar systems throughout the universe. But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. There may be further implications about the form of the experience; there may even (though I doubt it) be implications about the behavior of the organism. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism. / We may call this the subjective character of experience.

For good measure, if the class is interested, throw these at them:

And if there's conscious life elsewhere in the universe, it is likely that some of it will not be describable even in the most general experiential terms available to us.

….in contemplating the bats we are in much the same position that intelligent bats or Martians would occupy if they tried to form a conception of what it was like to be us. The structure of their own minds might make it impossible for them to succeed, but we know they would be wrong to conclude that there is not anything precise that it is like to be us….

Does it make sense… to ask what my experiences are really like, as opposed to how they appear to me?

It’s good for students, too, to be exposed to those typical philosophical moves: ‘Does it make sense to ask or say X?’ and (elsewhere in the article) ‘It’s hard to attach any meaning to the idea that…’

Finally, no harm in imparting a bit of basic know-how about academic life. In fact, if you’re hoping that students will go to university from families that have never sent anyone there, the more of that you do the better. Like, What is a university? What’s it for? What is a department? What are degrees? What’s a professor?

To that end, tell them the provenance of the article: The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974): 435-50.

It’s a journal. What’s that? Show them one – it’s not exactly a magazine. Talk about the role of publication in academic life. What are the Roman numbers (can they read them? Should they not be able to? Teach them!) Explain volume and issue and page references. How can a single journal have 435 pages? It doesn’t – the volume does. Etc. Don’t make a meal of it, but miss no chance to let them in on these secrets of the ways of (parts of) the adult world. I know you’re an English teacher, but don’t be afraid to tell them stuff.

That’s what I now think. I’m afraid I didn’t always.


English for the day after tomorrow

There was once a time when the only constraints on what English teachers could teach were the exams at 16 – and some of those (CSE) left plenty of freedom; nor did departments impose schemes of work on individual teachers, even though teachers shared resources. But external and departmental prescription of the English curriculum has been around so long that teachers have mainly forgotten even how to want a freer regime, let alone to imagine what they might do with English if the cage doors were opened.

But shouldn't teachers be doing this imagining? (Who else would we rather have doing it?) It’s a matter of professional self-respect. The government doesn’t prescribe to doctors precisely what treatments should be applied to what conditions: that’s a matter for the medical profession. Nor does the government need to prescribe that medicine should aim at making people better: that’s built in to the ethic of the profession.

Do not English teachers have their professional ethic? Here it is, minimally stated: English teachers try to see to it that students emerge from their curricula at least better able to read, write and speak and with some literary experience. Within that shared assumption, leave it to us to get on with it.

We may not have, like medical doctors, a body of research-based factual knowledge to go on; but that’s because in our case it’s hard to imagine what the research would be like that would yield the equivalent sort of knowledge, or what that knowledge would be like. But instead we have expertise embedded in our professional culture; we develop it by experiment and reflection on pedagogy and continued engagement with literature, media, ideas and the liveliest parts of culture. The absence of scientific manuals of English teaching is no reason for not allowing us to operate as we judge best according to our professional canons of purposes and responsibility.

So how about our starting to imagine, with at least a bit of our attention, life after all the current government bollocks, in some detail? Then, to those who would say that we wouldn’t know what we would do without imposed regimes, we could say, Oh, yes, we would, and here’s a thousand different things we’ve already planned out – and wouldn’t they give a far better English experience that what the poor kids get now?

Monday, 5 May 2008

Notre-Dame: more

Click to enlarge
Gothic may have been a straining upwards towards heaven; but it was also awe, dread, domination. The force that a cathedral sought to concentrate in one place was powerful and sometimes dark. Notre-Dame would have been terrifying, outside and in, as much as uplifting; what light the stained glass admitted was dark red and blue, and veiled by a haze of incense smoke; church interiors were obscure and mysterious.

But it's perfectly true that Gothic was about light, even if that light could be dark and red.

Barry Bell was a good friend who died last year in an accident that seemed designed to illustrate the callous absurdity of the universe – not that he’d have seen it like that. In Ottawa I sometimes sat in on his fourth year architecture course. In one session Barry asked the group, ‘Are you guys familiar with the work of Dionysus the Pseudo-Areopagite?’ A sea of hands did not shoot up.

Dionysus was an early Christian writer. In medieval times he was confused with St Denis, the patron saint of the first Gothic church, built by Abbot Suger just outside Paris. For Dionysus, there was a continuous graded path between flesh and spirit, not a stark divide; the highest fleshly state that human sensibility could directly perceive was light, which is very nearly pure spirit. So in contemplating light we get closest to the apprehension of God.

Suger accepted Dionysus/Denis’s theory. Hence "the most radiant windows" (his words) of Gothic churches, affording human beings a near-experience of God's light.

But the Gothic cathedral was also about reflected light – building as solar collector:

It was also about the splendour of mathematical (geometrical) order, mathematical forms being ideal and conveying the true nature of the universe, as distinct from messy sublunary contingency and imperfection:

The sheer prolixity of this, on the other hand, seems to be about something different again:

The suggestion of organic growth is unavoidable. I don’t know what the little nodules are called that run the length of the ribs on the angles of the spires, but they too suggest growth to me, in the form of buds. At the same time the proliferation of freestanding upright structures suggests human, or perhaps angelic, figures. (They are normally seen from far below or at a great distance.)

Alternatively: the spires, which seem all to be 4- or 8-sided, have an aedicule on each face, under a pointed arch. An aedicule is a little house, and is said by architectural historians to stand for the whole house, the whole church, or indeed the Church. So (it doesn’t do to be too literal about this) the spires are symbolic buildings, houses of God.

Clearly I need expert help on this. But life’s too short to read everything, and I seem to be interested in more stuff, not less, as I get older.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Buildings with their guts on the outside

It took me a long time to realise this, but the Centre Pompidou is pure Archigram.

Archigram (http://archigram.net/index.html) were a group of 1960s architects who were trying to think outside the conventions, and in particular to embrace technology. Their schemes included a walking city and the plug-in house: when you needed more space, cranes would deliver add-in units to connect up to the service core.

In 1963-4 I shared a flat with three architecture students who used to bring home the free sheets that Archigram used to put out. For years I saved them (sometimes using them in school), and then, like so much else, decided they were of no further interest and threw them away. (Big mistake.)


(The following year, while I started my teaching job, my equally utopian friends, with a sense of mission caught from their hero Le Corbusier, went out to build streets in the sky -- tower blocks -- for local authorities.)

Archigram projects were characterised most obviously by exposed structure and services. That's exactly what's most striking about the Centre Pompidou by Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini (design 1971, opening 1977). These circulation tubes and external walkways could be straight from an Archigram scheme:

as could this exposed structural engineering:

But is this any different?

Those flying buttresses are shamelessly displayed structural supports; the east end of Notre-Dame is a 13th century Pompidou Centre.

But saying they're structural isn't saying they are not expressive. They certainly are that as well; we feel them as well as seeing their purpose. To us (21st C) they perhaps look like the membranes of a web-limbed extra-terrestrial; to an overawed medieval worshipper, what? organic forms, vegetal, straining upward and inward - to support, but also to grasp?

But the Pompidou, too, is expressive. The tubes and pipes and struts and bracings serve functions, but the decision to display them was rhetorical -- they aren't out there because they need to be; there are perfectly good ways of accommodating mechanical functions without making a show of them (and incidentally while protecting them from the corrosion the Pompidou's steelwork is showing).

These elements aren't just being technology; they're saying technology, making a style or language out of its elements. Pretty exciting too, to my mind.

Les Vélos de Paris

To Paris, while the MacBook was having a new logic board fitted (for readers who complain my arguments don't follow).

I can report that the Vélib' scheme (vélos libres, free bikes) is flourishing. Look at all the Stations Vélib' in one central area (detail from free bike map of Paris) (click to enlarge):

Go to a station and this is what you'll find:

If you nicked one you might have a job passing it off as your own. If you stand and watch, this is the sort of transaction you'll see (minus putting your card in the meter, which I failed to catch on camera):
I don't know what a visitor has to do to get a card but it can be done.