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.

No comments: