Sunday, 13 June 2010

Surbiton enters literature

At last: Surbiton (my current home town) appears in a real book, Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, 1939, stanza i. He’s on a train from Hampshire (‘where close-clipped yew / Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals’) into London:

Surbiton, and a woman gets in, painted

With dyed hair but a ladder in her stocking and eyes

Patient beneath the calculated lashes,

Inured for ever to surprise;

And the train's rhythm becomes the ad nauseam repetition

Of every tired aubade and maudlin madrigal,

The faded airs of sexual attraction

Wandering like dead leaves along a warehouse wall:

'I loved my love with a platform ticket,

A jazz song,

A handbag, a pair of stockings of Paris Sand -

I loved her long.

I loved her between the lines and against the clock,

Not until death

But till life did us part I loved her with paper money

And with whisky on the breath.

I loved her with peacock's eyes and the wares of Carthage,

With glass and gloves and gold and a powder puff

With blasphemy, camaraderie, and bravado

And lots of other stuff.

I loved my love with the wings of angels

Dipped in henna, unearthly red,

With my office hours, with flowers and sirens,

With my budget, my latchkey, and my daily bread.'

And so to London and down the ever-moving Stairs

Where a warm wind blows the bodies of men together

And blows apart their complexes and cares.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Louis MacNeice and English at Walworth

We’ve learned that Arthur Harvey, who was a remarkable head of English at Walworth School from 1949 to 1955 and a published poet, was a good friend of the poet Louis MacNeice. Indeed, at least one former Walworth pupil remembers going with Harvey to MacNeice’s house.

I’ve been reading MacNeice’s Autumn Journal (1939) in which he writes (stanza iii) lines that I think would have exactly represented the educational convictions that brought men like Arthur Harvey to schools like Walworth:

...It is so hard to imagine

A world where the many would have their chance without

A fall in the standard of intellectual living

And nothing left that the highbrow cared about.

Which fears must be suppressed. There is no reason for thinking

That, if you give a chance to people to think or live,

The arts of thought or life will suffer and become rougher

And not return more than you could ever give.

Coriolanus and Hazlitt again

This follows my last but one posting. Uttara Natarajan has kindly let me see her paper, which is part of a chapter that will appear in July in a Continuum volume in their Great Shakespearean series.

It seems Hazlitt published the same argument only one week later and in that version it’s quite clear that it’s a specific attack, on the ‘Modern Poets’, namely Coleridge, Wordworth and Southey, and Wordsworth in particular for his shameful commemoration ode celebrating the reactionary ruling power and the slaughter at Waterloo. In this case poetry clearly is siding with tyranny, but while imagination is certainly drawn to the fearful, vast and awesome, so it can be to the good, and there is no reason why poetry should always make the oppressor the more impressive and sympathetic. In King Lear, indeed, the good is as potent as the evil.

That’s the argument and Uttara’s case seems convincing.

The point that’s of educational relevance, however, remains-- and it’s not Uttara’s purpose in her chapter to address it. If Imagination is so drawn to what impresses the emotions, and poetry is the faculty of imagination, then isn’t the other faculty, that of understanding, left at a serious disadvantage? And isn’t this a worry for education?

What is there to animate the activity of the head and understanding that is comparable to that poetry that sets the heart on fire?

Sunday, 6 June 2010

John Tasker, distinguished former Walworth teacher

An editor of the Australian National Biography hit on this blog when searching for someone who had taught at Walworth / Mina Road School. His name was John Howard Tasker and the draft entry, which the editor has kindly allowed me to draw on, mentions that in the 1950s he ‘taught secondary English at Walworth Secondary School, London’.

The reason John Tasker rates an entry in the prestigious National Biography is that he became a distinguished, and controversial, theatre and opera director. He was born in Australia in 1933, came to England in about 1951 and returned home about nine years later. From his studies at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art he gained a teaching qualification. He died in 1988.

The draft entry says no more about his teaching in Walworth but a staff list that’s survived says:

'19.11.58 [start date] Mr J Tasker (English from Australia) S [supply teacher] To Australia 19.12.58'

But he was evidently in the school before that, doubtless also as a supply teacher, because in the weekly staff bulletins we find:

Number 9 weeks commencing 4th & 11th November 1955


Mr Tasker and 12 boys from 4C/H to the Daily Herald

Number 11 week commencing 25th November 1955


  • Mr Tasker and some of 4H to the Book Exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall and subsequently to a local public library

Number 36 week ending 19th July 1957


Staff allocated to English stock-taking: Mr Rosen, Mr Grealy, Mr McLeod, Mr Tasker, Mr Wilmot

Does anyone remember this Mr Tasker, the sort of man he was and how he taught English?

Coriolanus and curriculum

Hazlitt, in his essay on Coriolanus, writes about imagination, the faculty that makes poetry, and understanding, that that informs analytical and deliberative prose, as follows:

The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. The understanding is a dividing and measuring faculty: it judges of things, not according to their immediate impression on the mind, but according to their relations to one another. The one is a monopolizing faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of present excitement by inequality and disproportion; the other is a distributive faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of ultimate good, by justice and proportion.

If this is right, it needs to appear in a theory for English. It implies that any hope in the curriculum of integrating the experience of literature with the study of history or sociology in schemes of single-subject ‘humanities’ is doomed to failure, if the integration is to be one of substance and not just of timetabling. If education is primarily about the Enlightenment concerns with understanding, knowledge and reason, then any intense exposure to literature, or at any rate poetry, would seem to work against education’s purpose.

But surely Hazlitt’s wrong?

Well, note how he goes on:

The one is an aristocratical, the other a republican faculty.

HIs reason for bringing up the distinction between imagination and understanding in an essay on Coriolanus is that Shakespeare’s poetry all goes to the ‘aristocratical’ Coriolanus and none to the people in its democratic, undifferentiated mass, and that that’s in the nature of poetry.

On Saturday there was the tenth annual Hazlitt Study Day in Oxford. Uttara Natarajan’s opening lecture addressed this issue by suggesting, on the basis of related writings by Hazlitt, that his point wasn’t general but was meant to relate only to the specific context of this play. But her talk was so interesting that I constantly set me off thinking, so I kept finding I’d missed key things she said.

If I can get the written version I'll come back to the issue again.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Thoughts on assessment

Even in Vygotsky’s time (1925-35) people knew (or he did, in the Soviet Union) that to get a useful reading of where a child was at in intellectual development you needed information not just of what they could do now but of what they’d soon be able to -- the Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD, for which one of my Canadian students, invited to publicise it with a bumper sticker, wrote ‘Zee Pee Dee Doo Dah, Zee Pee Dee Day’ (though Canadians usually say ‘zed’).

And how did you know about a child’s ZPD since it would be entered only in the future? a good indication was what he/she could manage now with just a bit of help.

Something of the spirit of Vygotsky’s insight needs to get into assessment in schools. In my own marking, where the strictness of the mark scheme didn’t prevent it, I tried to consider the student’s trajectory as well as his position in a moment in time. Two students with B- might be very different in terms of their promise and I wanted my marking to reflect that -- ideally by indicating both.

Judging promise is an inescapably subjective business. But I was paid as a professional, and what it means to be that is that you’re trusted to exercise judgement. I imagined myself placing a bet: who would you bet on to be the best writer in, say, three years’ time? The assessor’s situation, given he/she is properly qualified (educated and experienced), should be more like that of a wise boss hiring someone: all you can go on is what you know and can find out at present -- but on that basis you make your best guess.

So, who would you bet on for success in future? The person’s life chances are in your hands, but better that, I would judge, than in the robotic grasp of some mechanical scheme. The privilege of exercising judgement, though, brings with it the responsibility of constant effort to get better -- first by seeing how your bets work out, and second by betting alongside colleagues and discussing your reasons in what, in the CSE examination teachers' meetings in West Yorkshire c.1975, we used to call agreement trials.