Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Jacob Behrens and my education

Behrens, Jacob: 19th century Bradford wool man. I'm finding myself, after my recent couple of days in Bradford, interested in the city’s 19th century history, to which Behrens was important. (He was apparently involved in reforming Bradford Grammar School and putting it on a modern footing.) An intelligent, vigorous, warm and humane man, it appears. I vaguely knew that the Behrenses were one of the German families who moved to Bradford and contributing to building up the wool trade and city.

I’ve just bought his biography second-hand and have read the first part, about his early life (born 1806), up until I think his late 20s, in Hamburg, and emerge from this with a few miscellaneous observations.

Germany at the time was a mess of small states run for the most part by an outrageously rich, privileged and reactionary class of nobles. I hadn’t realised, a point the book makes clear, what a huge improvement Napoleon’s administration had made in that, what -- decade? --of occupation: abolishing arbitrary customs levies, banning discrimination against Jews (the Behrens family were Jewish, hence in trade, practically the only occupation that had been permitted for Jews), providing schools, building bridges. (I knew something of this in relation to the French occupation of Yugoslavia, from Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, and have since looked for a book on Napoleon’s administrative innovations in France and beyond, but haven’t found one.) And then the callousness and stupidity of the restored princely and aristocratic regimes after Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna (did I ever do that in history?) -- under the ‘Austrian Peace’, so-called because it was mainly Metternich’s doing, and he was an Austrian -- I didn’t know that either. Not only the rulers but the old ways and privileges and bans were restored -- to the extent of pulling down the French-built bridge in Hamburg so the ferrymen could resume their customary trade and the people could resume their hazardous and expensive half-hour crossings in open boats in wind, rain and snow. (Big society?)

I also realise I know nothing about Germany. All those names: Pomerania, Saxony, Hanover, Silesia, Prussia... I've very little idea where they are. Nor could I draw a map of Germany which always seems to me to be a featureless mass without anything to get your bearings with. Well, just some rivers, I suppose, and the Black Mountains. So I need a geography book and atlas as well as a history. Come to think of it, we only did one year of geography in grammar school, and I think that was the British Isles -- which I'm glad to have done but it wasn’t enough.

Now a pedagogic observation. I sort of knew before opening the book that the Behrenses had been in textiles in Germany, and, having in mind I suppose that Jacob Behrens had a mill in Bradford - still there in my youth, perhaps it still is -- or I thought it was a mill (it may have been a warehouse) I simply assumed that the family manufactured yarn or cloth in Hamburg. Then I read without paying particular attention something about the firm importing its cloth from England, and only afterwards registered the significance of that statement: so they weren’t manufacturers, they were merchants, buying and selling.

Now: imagine -- I'm a teacher and my class has been ordered to read the chapter. When they’ve finished I might normally be inclined to ask them, ‘Where did they get their cloth from?’ ‘England, sir’ -- no problem. After the reading I’d actually had, in which on reflection I’d noted a particular significance in what I was being told, I might ask them rather, ‘What business were the Behrens in in Hamburg?’ -- in order for them to realise that, whatever they might have unquestioningly assumed, like me, it wasn’t manufacture. But what I should be trying to do is bring about in my students the sort of learning that I experienced -- and the difference is that no one asked me the question that made that happen. My learning, in fact, was precisely realising that there was a question to be asked.

A huge part of my effort in teaching humanities in school , including English, was to get the kids to have questions.

I was reminded of this the other day when Simon Clements, recalling his time as an HMI (inspecting schools, not just English), said that if he had one fundamental question for teachers in relation to their teaching, it was ‘Whose questions?’ Exactly right.


Didac Ettinghausen said...

Hi Pete,
I just read your blog on Jacob Behrens, a lead I'm trying to follow. As a hobby I research and write about some of the pioneer mountaineers and/or photographers in the Pyrenees, near which I live. They are mostly English or French (some American or Spanish). I'm trying to find out whether Sir Jacob Behrens ever went on holidays in the Pyrenees, as it is known that a certain "Behrens" did so in 1856, when he would have been 50 years old. Since you are reading or have by now read his biography, I wonder whether there is any mention of the Pyrenees, Bagnères-de-Luchon, Pau or any other nearby places, that could help me on my search, at least to confirm that he may have climbed a few mountains in the area. I would be extremely grateful if you could let me know if you found any mention of the Pyrenees in his biography at all.
Thanks very much! Didac Ettinghausen.

Pete Medway said...

Didac, thanks for your interest but I'm afraid I'm no help. I've only looked at the one biography, and that's now in the hands of one of my BGS teachers in Bradford, who I won't see again for a while. I don't remember any such reference to trips to the Pyrenees. Somewhere there must be an archive of his papers but I don't know where -- my interest in Behrens is fairly marginal to my main research in educational history.

I like the sound of your project.