Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Education needs to be long

In order to flourish, some people need to continue in education beyond 18, but the education that group needs is often neither of the alternatives on offer in England: vocational, for trades or professions, and academic, for induction into university disciplines.

A case in point. In Canada I was able to take over and run for ten years an undergraduate course in which I had considerable freedom. It wasn’t a required element for qualifying in my department’s discipline of linguistics and it was taken by students from a variety of programmes, from second year to fourth. The course was called ‘Writing: Theory and Practice’. You could summarise it as Writing: What it is, how it’s done, what it does, how it’s learned.

Though elementary school teachers on day release from local schools had been the original intended clientele, they had (thankfully for me) stopped being released and no longer attended in any numbers; instead, regular undergraduates flocked in -- a far more appealing group to work with. Gearing the course primarily to the teaching of children in classrooms no longer seemed appropriate so while retaining the material on research into the writing process, together with theories of writing, I tried to make it relevant to students studying university disciplines and, above all, to enable students to understand and extend their own writing, and realise how writing can be a means of making ideas come and getting thoughts into order. That is, to experience the heuristic function of writing.

I devised occasions and tasks that would get the students writing in a variety of genres. Some students claimed at the end that this had resulted in their papers/essays in their other courses improving, while some discovered a talent for short stories. Most significant, I think, was my encouragement of the regular production of unspecialised informal writing on the content of the readings and lectures. Such productions are often called logs or journals but what I was after was something more intellectual and more intelligent than the familiar work that comes under those labels, having had a bellyful of the usual wordy and self-indulgently expressive gush in too many summer courses. I was after ideas and thought.

Some found this sort of writing liberating and claimed it was their first experience of doing writing into which their thoughts could flow. It seemed to accompany an intellectual awakening, a broadening of vision beyond disciplinary boundaries and a taking hold of education as something one was doing for oneself -- though I realise it’s easy to claim too much and there was no proper evaluation.

This relatively unregulated writing, while it had its moments of sparky perceptiveness and rhetorical brio, was not what anyone would call ‘good writing’. It was, however, good mental activity and educationally valid in that students began to learn to connect their writing to their minds. The experience started to make writing an intellectual resource -- with effects, too, I thought, on how the students read the prescribed texts.

As tends to happen with me, I found that I continued to have contact with students who’d proved particularly interesting or on a roll, the ones (by no means all) for which this sort of course was just right at this point in their education. It was right because of those features that made it not a conventional university course, though I’d claim it was just as intellectually demanding. What it didn’t do is teach people how to write the approved political science or English Literature or psychology essay.

One student for whom the course apparently worked went on to take one or two graduate courses, having time on his hands over the summer. One was taken by a professor (North American usage: = any sort of university teacher) for whom I had great liking and respect, as did his students who had a good time with him and learned a lot. Having flourished throughout the course with my colleague, this student did his final assignment which was predictably lively and personal -- along the lines I’d been hospitable to -- but got back, along with an appreciation of the thinking, an adverse comment on the writing: observance of conventions, referencing, marshalling of evidence and arguments. All absolutely valid points to pick up in a graduate course -- but baffling to the student who legitimately asked, though not to the teacher and perhaps not explicitly to himself: ‘Who but a specialist in a discipline, which I'm not trying to be, would care about such stuff? what matters is the ideas and the thinking I do around them. I'm not submitting an article to an academic journal.’

The prof did his job superbly, to teach a Masters level course in Applied Language Studies. The young man, though, was into getting a broad education, and developing as someone who could use writing to further his thinking and learning. As someone for whom the world of ideas with its vistas and excitements was just opening up, he was back with the sort of mismatch that had characterised his experience in all his academic courses: they simply weren’t what was needed by a mind developing as his was after emerging from a narrow high school curriculum and needed, above all, free play in the domain of ideas and knowledge. The suggestion that he conform to academic writing standards was simply irrelevant to someone who was a way off from even contemplating a higher degree of the sort the course was located in -- though he found the ideas and texts in the course stimulating and mind-enhancing.

There thus needs to be a way for young men and women who leave high school -- and indeed, in England, who leave year 9 or 10 (at 13 or 14) -- to do something that is not a disciplinary induction and socialisation but yet is rich in ideas and knowledge. Does such an education anywhere exist?

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