Monday, 11 October 2010

The crucial discovery

Reflecting on the post-war history of English teaching (my current research project) I've come up with this brief formulation of perhaps the most important thing that happened:

The content of English had been stuff and a skill: texts and grammar, writing well. Suddenly the discovery was made in the 1950s that the stuff didn’t all have to be imported and introduced from outside the pupils’ world; it could be what they already had, what they could bring in from their worlds. A minority of teachers learned how to work with this (the pupils' ‘experience’) through a newly intensified and protracted way of talking together (‘discussion’) so as to elicit spoken utterances from the pupils that had, at moments, the poetic intensity of the English and Scottish Ballads; and that this generativity in speech could in turn be redirected into the production of poetic written texts.

Two further points:

(1) The discovery was made not in one leap but gradually and in two or three stages. The elicitation of talk in a newly determined spirit and in a new direction--towards the pupils' experience--was developed first as a means of making the ‘stuff’--literature: class readers, literary extracts, poems--more accessible, and then (or perhaps at the same time in some classrooms) of provoking more thoughtful and more deeply felt writing. But it was ‘realised’ (imagined?) finally by some teachers that the pupil experience that was capable of being dealt with in this new way was itself ‘stuff’, a second stuff alongside literature that was potentially of equal value and importance.
Thus a new, more inventive way of pursuing the traditional elements of English--the literature side of the ‘stuff’ and the ‘skill’ of writing well--led to a transformation of the structure of English in two ways: a new stuff was added (in fact displacing the time that had been spent on grammar) and also a new ‘skill’ alongside writing well: talking well, orality, spoken production.

(2) What excited teachers was in part their sense of glimpsing the survival of something thought long lost, the voice of the people, the folk, in that least promising quarter, the ‘degraded’ urban working class--‘mass-media-corrupted’, ‘remote from their roots in the land’. Here in the run-down classrooms of shabby city schools it was as if there was an echo of the world as it had been before ‘disenchantment’ (the effect of print, Reformation and science), even though rationally, as De Certeau says (1984: 131), ‘We no longer believe, as Grundtvig (or Michelet) did, that, behind the doors of our cities, in the nearby distance of the countryside, there are vast poetic and “pagan” pastures where one can still hear songs, myths, and the spreading murmur of the folkelighed (a Danish word that cannot be translated: it means “what belongs to the people”). The poetry was still there, lying dormant in ‘ordinary people’ and waiting to be brought into the open, into speech and then writing, by primary school teachers and English teachers. It was what Charles Parker realised on listening carefully to the field recordings that he made in the 1960s and displayed to the public (not without some manipulation to remove ‘corruptions’) in his Radio Ballads of the 1960s.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Do animals think like us?

Les animaux pensent-ils comme nous? is tomorrow’s topic at the Café Philo in Bondy (I presume that’s a town) for children, 3:30 to 5:00. (Then at 7:00 for adults there’s ‘Is there no happiness but in the moment?’.)

I like the idea of kids nipping down the philosophy caff after school.

Meanwhile in Le Havre there are ‘Philopop’ sessions, the first on ‘Education and Childhood’: ‘What are the reasons why education is necessary? what should its aim be?’’

These from the notices at the end of Philosophie magazine, which I still take (see label philosophy) down the side though rarely read much of -- there’s more than I could manage monthly even if it were in English -- 98 pages this month -- and even though there are lots of witty coloured pictures. Contents include: ‘What is life?’ ‘How could Aristotle justify slavery?’ and the monthly question this issue (‘Vos Questions’) is from ‘Nicolas, 6 ans’ who asks: ‘Clocks tell us the time but they don’t give a damn about the time. (...mais le temps elles s’en fichent). Is there a time for clocks? (or, Do clocks have a time?)’

Apparently there was an hors-série issue (?special issue) on ‘Tintin in the land of the philosophers’, about which some readers have written in with learned points arising from their great ‘intérêt tintinologique’. Perhaps I'll get it.

Debates on Obama are in this issue and topics that in this country would hardly count as philosophical, but also an article and pull-out on Voltaire, stuff on dreams and on night, interviews with philosophers, an article on Locke, book reviews (a Houellebecq novel, book by Cambridge anthropologist Jack Goody attacking European ethnocentrism and a reissue of Sartre’s Sketch of a theory of the emotions).

One gets the sense that philosophy in France is broad and capacious and that the spirit it expresses is widely distributed in French society. Striking how many of the authors are teachers not in universities but in schools.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A Hand-Reared Boy

Another lovely Corgi cover. This is the first of a trilogy of which I read the second first (click on the label Aldiss [down the side] for my posting about it and to see another fine cover). That one I hadn’t heard of but this I had -- in fact I had the impression it was once notorious so I was expecting it to be just hilariously filthy, since I believed that was its reputation.

It was hilarious, and ‘filthy’ isn’t a concept we use any more but if we did it would be -- but not just. I thought it was an excellent novel -- or perhaps in reality an autobiography. The taboo (in 1970) topic of masturbation was prominent, as was regular sex, and some of the book is indeed very funny, not least his absurd, sad, social-climbing mother, but the book is serious and sensitive. A middle-class boy, son of a bank manager in some dull Midlands city, goes to school and then to public school, and of course is preoccupied with sex -- first with the maid but most notably with the school’s new matron, Sister Traven. But the sex and the love are seen in the context of the boy’s whole character and psychology -- and his doubts about whether his parents love him. Alone at the end, it’s his dad he wants to be there.

The book ends straight after he’s left school and is working in London in the first months of the war. It’s good as a bildungsroman (formation novel) but no less as an account of an era, the atmosphere of 1939 caught memorably, as well as that of suburban semi life in the mid-thirties. It’s probably absurd to say that I found it so genuine that it read as autobiography -- but that’s what, at least in the boy’s inner states, I took it to be.

Concurrently I was reading an actual autobiography that covered the same period and was also set in the suburbs, and I found myself constantly mixing the two stories up.

In Paul Vaughan’s Something in Linoleum his family moves from inner London, along with 1.5m others in the 20s and 30s, to Outer London, in their case to the new suburb of New Malden (near Kingston and a walk away from me in Surbiton). A new school was opened to cope, Raynes Park County School, a grammar school whose head, John Garrett, was co-editor with his friend (and once lover?) W.H. Auden of The Poet’s Tongue, an anthology for schools that I remember from Bradford Grammar School. Vaughan went there in the first intake. Garrett, a homosexual with a camp Oxford voice and a contempt for suburban values, used his literary connections (Auden, Day Lewis, MacNeice, A.L. Rowse -- who wrote a poem about him) to put the school on the map. Prizes on Speech Day were given out not by your usual local dignitary but Lord David Cecil and TS Eliot. The school play was reviewed in the Daily Telegraph, the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. Intellectually, it seems he was rather mediocre and no writer, and in the classroom was ineffectual. In this respect he’s unlike the person he constantly reminded me of (though I never met him), Arthur Harvey, an early head of English at Walworth School.

The art master was Claude Rogers, a future member of the Euston Road School and well represented now in the Tate Collection. I particularly like the painting on the cover, The Painting Lesson, and wonder where one can see his portrait of John Garrett.