Sunday, 23 November 2008

More excuses

No recent blogging: partly I’ve been out a lot, partly I've been doing a lot of writing otherwise, so don’t much feel like writing the blog as well.

I've been reading, scribbling and thinking around a paper that Jan Derry gave to our English Theory Group. She was arguing for certain conclusions that would follow for education from an ‘inferentialist’ epistemology and a correct understanding of Vygotsky’s roots in Hegel. One implication was that the imparting of knowledge in education is a matter of making the student familiar with the relevant ‘space of reasons’, a fuzzy and ill-defined but rich and complex zone of facts, concepts, ideas and associations.

I can’t briefly explain inferentialism, a promising recent line in philosophy associated with the names Sellars, Macdowell and Brandom. In the context of English, though, we non-philosophers were able to see, for instance, that if knowledge is as those philosophers say, you can’t effectively teach a single scene from Macbeth -- which, sadly, some schools try to -- by explaining what each line means. The only way is via a broad exposure to Shakespeare in lots of different guises and contexts. The kids have to begin to be at home in the Shakespeare ‘space’.

I've also been looking at a couple of books on Romanticism and the origins of English Studies in English universities and schools. According to Ian Reid (Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies, 2004) the whole enterprise was a Romantic endeavour, and continued to be heavily influenced at least into the late 1960s by Wordsworth’s poetry and his notions on education and development, national culture, religion, childhood, creativity and imagination. At the end he speculates briefly on how it might have been otherwise: if, for instance, English had taken its lead from the teaching of rhetoric in the Scottish universities (Adam Smith taught rhetoric), or from the teaching of practical English in the Dissenting Academies (sort of FE colleges for non-conformists heading into business) or had shaped itself as cultural studies without the current exclusive fixation on popular culture.

When you think of it, it’s not at all obvious why ‘imaginative literature’, and especially poetry, should be at the centre of one the central subjects in compulsory mass education.

What else? Well, with some colleagues I'm working on the history of English teaching in London schools in the post-war years 1945-65. This involves interviewing former teachersand students from, eventually, three schools. At the moment we’re concentrating on Walworth School, founded in Southwark as an experimental comprehensive school in 1946. (We’ve recently talked to someone who was a pupil in that first year.)

Finally, last night I went to a benefit bash in Bermondsey for a taxi-driver with cancer -- a vastly ambitious do, attended by, it seemed, 150-200, organised by extended family and friends. Quite a few ex-Walworth people were there, including some I'd once taught. Here’s a story that’s not unusual: R was in a ‘remedial’ (joint bottom stream) class; literacy levels were low; these kids -- as always when you create such groups (we later abolished them) -- weren’t expected to go anywhere much. R is now a manager in one of the big train companies with 400 people under him; his daughter has a Masters degree. He didn’t do much in school because he didn’t see any point -- which doesn’t mean he wasn’t getting anything out of it.

Our research is throwing up loads of stories like that. Because the school tried to give a decent education, whether or not the pupils were obviously benefiting at the time, when motivation kicked in (at work) some of what had been taught turned out to have taken. At least, so I like to think.

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