Saturday, 8 January 2011

Ivory tower classrooms

Train of thought this morning, walking down the Thames to Kingston:

The cruise boats were all moored for their winter painting etc. One was the ‘Richmond Royale’ and I thought how, probably, few people who used ‘royale’ in titles -- mainly of consumer items like notepaper and American cars, in copperplate typefaces -- realised it was the feminine of French ‘royal’. It’s used instead of ‘royal’, and placed after rather than before the noun, because the style connotes expensive sophistication.

Then I thought, what a donnish line of thought. Haven’t I anything better to do than go round like some leisured 18th century dilettante collecting interesting and amusing linguistic usages? I imagined the sort of unworldly teacher who would discourse about such oddities to bored classes who would mutter that he should, as they say today, get out more.

But then I thought, hang on: don’t some kids actually like that sort of unworldliness? Isn’t one point of school that it’s completely separate from life and that all children are thereby guaranteed many years of weekday security, peace and freedom from the constraints, pressures and preoccupations of their lives outside? Aren’t too many schools and teachers today jumping too fast to the belief that children need school to be obviously relevant to not only their lives but their modes of interacting and communicating outside?

Isn’t it precisely, for some, the abstraction and detachment of science, maths, history and poetry that make them so rewarding?

Memo to self: look again through Jonathan Rose’s great book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, for the quotes I remember of 19th century weavers living an alternative life in the volumes of literature, economics and geometry they propped up on their looms. For them, self-education wasn’t primarily a matter of seeking political liberation, still less the present-day obsession with vocational advancement; it was for entering the world of the mind.

Then: might it be a, perhaps the, problem for education that children divide: one group appreciate abstraction (let’s call it that) and the other are bored and switched off by it and need to be coaxed by ‘relevance’ (this novel is more about your own lives than you think) into such engagement. Where’s the research on this? is it a false or a true dichotomy? where’s the research on those teachers who have successfully taught both types together in ‘mixed-ability’ classes? (It’s not of course a matter of ability.)

I also thought -- the Thames was lovely, wild and windy with swans and geese rising and all the moored barges -- and I need a good camera. My present one isn’t broken but the quality now depresses me when I see the work of people (Neil!) with better lenses and electronics. I've more or less stopped using it. So my dilemma: do I get a something bulkier for the sake of the lens, at the price of having to deliberately carry it round my neck or in a sizeable bag, or get a good compact on the grounds that I'm more likely to use it if I routinely have it in my coat pocket?

I might then get back to putting more photos on the blog.

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