Category Archives: Liberal Arts

School 21, A ‘Conversation’ With Peter Hyman.

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Late last year I had a long conversation with Peter Hyman in which we looked at areas of agreement in our education philosophies and areas where we disagree. This conversation took place within the walls of Windsor Castle, a most un-revolutionary backdrop, steeped in history, a place beautifully unencumbered by 21st Century thinking, unless you count the aeroplanes preparing to land at Heathrow that must disturb a good night’s sleep for various Royals, their servants and staff. Peter and I agree on many things but we also have some significant disagreements too.

In today’s Observer Peter has an article, It Is Time for a Real Revolution in Britain’s Schools, in which he sets out many of our agreements but also hints at those significant disagreements too. The article begins at an event which I attended in the House of Lords, a pupil gave a beautifully crafted speech, the need for eloquence is something about which Peter and I wholeheartedly agree. Peter was formally a speech writer for Tony Blair and shares with me a passion for the Art of Rhetoric, though, perhaps due to Blairite revisionism, he calls it ‘Oracy’. I contributed to the English Speaking Union and School 21’s book called ‘Speaking Frankly’ (Available for free: online edition, here) In the book I make my case, in a piece called ‘the Age of Rhetoric’, for argument, debate, logic and eloquence but also for the teaching of judiciously selected texts and a well thought through curriculum. It is on these points that Peter and I have real disagreements.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with Peter when he says:

An academic education (the head) starts with the basics of literacy and numeracy, then builds out to a deep love of words and facility with the English language. It then develops a depth of knowledge of key concepts and ways of thinking in areas such as science, maths, history and creative arts. This knowledge should be empowering knowledge – knowledge that draws on “the best that has been thought and said” from the past, as the cultural critic Matthew Arnold advocated, but importantly is shaped and applied to the needs of the present and future.

I’m not sure that he means the same thing as me when he writes this. To me this means emphasising subject based teaching, teaching knowledge explicitly so that children remember it and, importantly, it also involves the need for reflection, absorption and silence. Peter prefers a project-based approach to finding the ‘best that has been thought and said’, the problem I have with this is that it doesn’t tend to find the best. Let children free too early on the task of academic knowledge acquisition and they are more likely to find stuff that isn’t that good and also quickly pass over stuff which is difficult to understand. This stuff needs to be taught in a systematic way, it needs to unfold in a carefully constructed narrative, so that children learn in real depth. For this to occur, it needs to be chosen by teachers, presented in a specific order, and referred back to often. It should not be left up to the child to construct, not if you want them to truly learn.

I also worry about Peter’s idea of a ‘noisy’ classroom. If he means a classroom in which children talk and are questioned as well as questioning, where the ‘noise’ is purposeful, then great. If this is just a rhetorical flourish to get a reaction, that this is not the default position, and that if he saw children working silently and diligently on their own in a classroom he wouldn’t worry about it, then fine,  because sometimes we really do need to work alone and quietly, if we want to reach insight and understanding.

As a drama teacher, I love group work, yet I can also see its many problems and weaknesses. It is not a great way to learn stuff. Certainly not for every child in a group. It also suffers as an approach because a teacher can’t keep track of the ‘learning’ that is going on in a group and often quite fundamental concepts are distorted through a ‘Chinese whisper’ approach in which a nugget of knowledge is reshaped into a prize piece of nonsense.

However, we do agree that there should be debate, dialogue and conversation, these things have an important role to play. I worry that Peter has a slightly Utopian idea that his approach will make the world a better place, I’m not sure that we ought to try to make children more ethical and liberal, but we should certainly offer up the great issues of our time as well as the past so that they might be more informed but free to make their own decisions and, yes, mistakes as well as successes.

The great liberal arts tradition is, of course, an education that provides children with the means to learn valuable knowledge, to value discussion and thought, and appreciate the need for beauty and eloquence in their communications with the outside world.

It is great that we have a system in which a school like ‘Michaela’ and a school like Peter’s ‘School 21’ can coexist. I wonder if there is room for a school that seeks to put both approaches together and whether that would satisfy Peter’s desire for innovation?

Don’t Educate the Working Class

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Not all working-class children want to be middle or upper class.

says Garth Stahl, the author of Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration… emphasising that education is about changing people and not everyone wants to change. We are defined by where we are in the rat race and that is where we feel most secure. This fear that education might change people, who they are at their very core, is something that eats away at some people’s fears about schooling. ‘Shakespeare is not for our kids,’ might be the cry of some secure in the knowledge that teaching Macbeth to the oiks might see them rise up to Upper Middle Class rectitude and result in them indulging in dark arts at the golf club or even, God forbid, in the Labour Party.

Stahl might have a point, imagine an education that sets out to change Upper Class people into Working Class toilers… What would the timetable consist of? The school lunch menu would be relatively simple: KFC. The lessons could comprise the subjects of gambling, tabloid reading, beer swilling, football (playing as well as the pride and prejudice), Brexit fear of foreigners and all sorts of other such stereotypical nonsense. How would the Upper Class like that?! Do we really think that the working class are a morass of people who indulge in such behaviours that define who they are and if they are subjected to opera, fine dining and JMW Turner their entire world view is shattered and they are left bereft?

This is the problem with the model of education that purely celebrates identity. Firstly we rely on the idea that there is a broad ‘type’ of people defined by their job, or lack of it, their gender, fluid or not, their race, culture and creed. This is useful for Marxist sociologists, snobs , advertisers and algorithm designers – and, indeed, it becomes ever so sophisticated as we are all seen as ABC1s D2s and CD borderlines… but do we really fear teaching and learning things that are of human value beyond our algorithmic echo chambers? If we want education to worship at the altar of our own identities then we will never learn to look beyond.

Rather than change people education refines our understanding of who we are as human beings, it adds to our knowledge not through social engineering; neither meritocratic or anti- aspirational, a good education should expand the self. If education is about the rat race then rats are the only ones who will benefit. If education is a personalised, Narcissistic look at trying to make ourselves feel better about who we are or have chosen to be then it will never be about who we truly are. We don’t have to change who we are, but in order to find out, we might have to take a broader view than the one we think justifies our personal proclivities. An education in ‘high culture’ is for all, not just a supposed elite. Shakespeare is for everyone, whether they like it or not.

Get Kids Cultured

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To be cultured means to nail one’s colours to the mast, and those who fear what’s arbitrary in that (and run to theory for protection) fear culture itself.

Howard Jacobson

The importance of tradition, the great tradition, is not that it is the only possibility but it is the best one that we have. For Jacobson, his tutor at Cambridge, FR Leavis, opened up a world of education to him:

Leavis told a particular story about English literature. It’s not the only one. But we owe it to him to show that, so far, nobody has told a better one, or told it with a braver conviction of why it matters to tell it at all.

Being right isn’t what matters to Jacobson but it is the ‘nailing one’s colours to the mast’ that does. This is ‘being cultured’. The vision for education is important, to be involved in that conversation, to add to it, to argue, to say ‘yes… but…’ but not to dismiss and the involvement in the dialogue is lifelong.

It is telling that in a piece called:

Building 21st-century skills: preparing pupils for the future, that a life ‘after education’ is envisaged:

In an ever-evolving world, how can we ensure that future generations have the skills that will truly prepare them for life after education?

In the past I have called this type of progressive education ‘neo-progressivism’. Instead of being revolutionary it is tied to the interests of global capitalism. Instead of education being an ever-evolving involvement with a lifetime of reading and exploring the rich tapestry of culture, the neo-progresssive sees education as a finite vehicle for the good of global capitalism. In her sponsored piece in the Guardian Jessica Clifton, the marketing manager for Lego Education nails her colours to the mast:

…there is a certain expectation to simply fill students with facts and figures. However, this can actually hinder learning, limiting students’ potential to explore concepts and discover solutions for themselves. What we need to do is, quite literally, put learning into students’ hands.

Which, for Jessica is Lego. And I love lego, but it is not ‘Culture’. It is a great toy, and toys can be used for great art; through their knowledge of Goya, the Chapman Brothers, were driven to create works of ‘vertiginous obscenity’ by melting down toy soldiers, maiming, twisting and painting them. The art created is dystopian and disturbing. This is not the vision Lego Education has when it wants to put learning in students’ hands. The article sees education as far more sterile, it quotes Andy Snape, assistant head of sixth form at Newcastle-under-Lyme College, as saying:

“As a teacher, I want to give students the greatest opportunities to achieve and I have found hands-on, creative lessons to be the most effective. Why? Because this learning style not only enthuses and engages pupils, but gives them the chance to understand the purpose of what they’re learning… we use LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3 to teach engineering, mathematics and computing, as well as using it for an extracurricular robotics club. Using the central programmable “Intelligent Brick”, students can design and build robotic solutions to different scenarios and problems. This could be anything from a sorting system that organises items into distinct categories based on colour, or a prototype space rover that avoids obstacles and performs basic tasks remotely.”

Education as a means to an end, not a life within culture but one that sees education as having a predetermined purpose, to serve the needs of business. It is the misunderstanding of creativity that irks me most. Let us nail our colours to the mast, creativity is not a ‘learning style’, it can be downright dangerous and dirty, but as a great  education cliche it has become the clinical servant of capital. Lego education, Persil et al, who peddle this version of creativity are anti-education, anti-culture, and paradoxically anti-creativity. Creativity is a life force, central to humanity and not the servant of a utilitarian drive to get people into STEM subjects to prepare them for the jobs that have yet to be invented.

This is the tension between tradition and progress; on the side of tradition we have great art, literature and the humanities and a continual dialogue, a great cultural education. On the side of progress we have Lego, STEM subjects (not the subjects themselves but their adoption as ‘a thing’) and an education that finishes when the world of work has taken over your life, this education is anti-cultural. It is the philistine fear of a truly cultural education that drives much of the verbiage of the neo-progressive movement. For them it is all brands, futurology, and education for utility: ‘Mcdonaldisation’; it is the sort of education that will halt progress in its tracks, for it forgets the importance of facts and figures and the knowledge and richness of the past. For all their trumpeting of creativity the neo-progressives can’t create a better story than the one education has been telling for centuries.

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The Importance of Debate in Schools

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Creating a culture of speech in your classroom means having everyone doing it, not simply those that are willing – do not let students ‘hide’.

Andrew Fitch,  from the book: Trivium in Practice

In a piece for the TES, Jonathan Simons, head of Education for Policy Exchange, wrote about the importance of debating:

To debate, participants must analyse complex issues of ethics, law, politics, science… it teaches rhetoric, and the ability to stand up and speak in front of an audience. It demands confidence in one’s position. It requires teamwork between speakers. It instils general knowledge. It is transformative.

Simons also points out that debating has been a central feature of our best universities for centuries. As Petrus Ramus put it in his Dialectica of Invention:

What is Dialectica ? A. DIALECTICA IS THE (sic) art of disputing well…

It is the art of dialectic, that puts questioning, reasoning, critical thinking and logic at the heart of the trivium. These are all essential attributes of a great education and to be able to do them well can help ensure that young people perform well academically and, indeed, socially.

It is not enough for schools just to teach knowledge, knowledge is the base of great thinking, but without the practice of using knowledge to challenge and rise to the occasion when challenged, an academic education falters. Argument is key to thinking well.

Andrew Fitch, the director of spoken literacy at Highbury Grove School helped coach the England schools  debating team that won this year’s world debating championships held in Stuttgart. Highbury Grove school, under the leadership of Tom Sherrington, is undergoing the process of putting trivium principles at the heart of the educational offer to their pupils.

In the book, Trivium in Practice Andrew Fitch has contributed an excellent short guide for teachers called: “Spoken Literacy and Rhetoric in the Classroom…” In his introduction he writes:

…using the three part trivium structure, I have utilised debate, in a variety of forms, to ask students to intellectually engage with relevant material through being forced to attack and defend various aspects of the knowledge that they have been given… Through argument generation and speech creation, students dialectically engage with the material, developing a familiarity with it beyond the simple stating of facts.

Debating competitions and debating societies should be a feature of all good schools. However most young people will not engage with it until debate features as a part of the everyday curriculum. By having to think clearly and defend or attack an idea, a work, or a philosophy, children will be challenged and, in turn, will understand more about the content of the curriculum and what it means to them and the society of which they are a part. I would go so far as to say by grappling with the playfulness of ideas in this way they will, in turn, become more engaged with the issues they are debating and that can only be a good thing.

 

When Push Comes to Shove: Kant’s Dove

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The dove, in free flight cutting through the air the resistance of which it feels, could get the idea that it could do even better in airless space.  Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason

Pity our free spirits, constrained by the school and kicking against the pricks. Teenagers, angst ridden, knowing full well if the school wasn’t there they would be free! Free to be themselves! They could be a contender! Free to make a difference to the world!

A great school tries to get kids to, metaphorically, fly. To the pupils this can sometimes seem like the opposite and it just isn’t fair, in fact it’s a drag; literally.

Weight, lift, thrust and drag are all needed to fly.

Opposite forces can combine to help achieve what can’t be achieved by doing away with those forces that might seem to hinder.

Ensuring the right balance is achieved is an art. Too much drag, too much push and too much pull…

No-one can breath in an airless space.

 

Schools and Freedom of Speech

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Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions

David Hume

Try as we might to be rational beings, devoid of emotions, especially in times of crisis it is in times of crisis when we can’t help but notice we are nothing of the sort. When we experience visceral reactions to events we often give words to our feelings and we shout out into the void. Such has been the temerity of recent events to upset our proverbial apple carts that we can’t help running around, picking up those metaphorical apples, only to see them roll further from us and the few we have clutched to our bosom look lonely in comparison, so we shout. Our beliefs, traditions, certainties guide us in the best of times, these beliefs are not the result of reasoned argument, rather they are the result of custom. Those of a rational bent might say that this is a bad thing but I would argue it is a positive. Positive because it retains as central to the human condition a healthy dose of doubt although we might forever ignore this fact feeling. Rather than use reason to defend our feelings, use it, when we can, as the slave to our deep seated uncertainties. Feelings and reason, side by side, with feelings the ‘master’ and reason the ‘slave’; we feel wronged, but have we been, we feel on top of the world, but should we?

When beliefs are challenged, when certainties are taken from us we become fearful, tearful, angry, depressed… and it is at moments like this when instead of being most sure that we are the only righteous ones in the world and everyone else is mad, bad and dangerous to know, we should be at our most doubtful. As I look around for ‘I told you so…’ justifications for my thoughts, evidence that I was right and you were wrong, so that my conscience may be salved, I should do so with underlying doubt. When circumstances change we have to examine our outlook in response.

Those of a liberal disposition who have spent the last few years in the ascendancy, changing the world economically and socially to be more individualistic, global, connected, tolerant, competitive, creative are having to come face to face with the idea of nationhood, nationalism, community, intolerance, the desire to disconnect, the downside of competition: areas where optimism might fear to tread, and it’s a shock. Some people who last week were castigating other people for a lack of optimism are the pessimists now.

Should they be? Why not? It would be dishonest to their feelings to be anything but. Yet, if custom is to be our guide, there are positives – firstly principles: this is a time to reexamine and make positive changes – witness our two political parties reacting to their gut instincts – time for change that restates what their parties might be for and the pursuit of power in a democracy. That this is occurring now should be no surprise and is an essential part of making things better. A general election ought to follow. A liberal party and, maybe, other parties of the centre need to strengthen if our two main parties veer to left and right, why? Custom: we need the centre.

Look at the large global companies, countries, organisations that have moved beyond the human scale and look to how some of these big brands have delighted in being ‘disruptors’ for the communities they have long since lost touch with, desiring instead to be part of an almost bizarre homogenous, idealistic, utopian, cosmopolitanism in which all people can live in a non-multi-cultural space in which diversity is to be celebrated by all wearing pastel colours, drinking Starbucks, connecting via Apple, driving a Volkswagen, wearing Nike, and supporting Manchester United; diverse under the same or similar branded umbrella. This vision of liberalism became far from liberal, intolerant of diversity it sought to impose a happy-clappy utopia onto the world. Now liberalism is in danger of losing its grip entirely maybe it is time to reject this pseudo-liberalism and replace it with the real thing.

Schools can be part of a solution, by returning to first principles and rather than trying to ‘disrupt’ themselves they should concentrate on what they do best and provide stability in troubled times. Schools should be building links with community, nation and nations, and instead of a tick box pursuit of liberal idealism where nobody is right wing, racist, sexist, or homophobic, where all things intersect and victimhood takes centre stage, where intolerance of intolerance is in danger of closing down debate and where ‘western’ means all things bad, we need our feelings to guide us and have them brought out into the open.

And then what? Blood on the walls? Reason must counteract – argument and debate – patient, well argued, well thought through and, yes, emotional too. For too long we have tried to deny some voices and then recoil in horror when they shout and we resort to the most extreme measures to shut them up, and so we should… As Aditya Chakrabortty  points out racist belligerence, boorishness and downright dangerous viciousness can be encouraged when “cabinet ministers, party leaders and prime-ministerial wannabes sprinkle arguments with racist poison. When intolerance is not only tolerated, but indulged and encouraged.” This needs to be stamped upon as it has been in the past, let custom be our guide – draw on the cry from The Battle of Cable Street: ‘They shall not pass’ and resist with every sinew. But might it be better to also challenge these thoughts at their root rather than just relying on suppressing them when it is almost too late?

When I was at school I had a friend who was proud of his National Front views, he would air them regularly, even to his friends who were black. Instead of no-platforming him, we played, talked, debated with him, told him he was an idiot, got angry, argued and continued over time so to do. We didn’t think it through, this was no co-ordinated plan, we had no idea there was such a thing as ‘no-platforming’, we were just kids, trying to make sense of a complex world. It worked… well, by worked, I mean he changed from being a fascist to becoming a sweet, loving, anarchist hippy/punk type; whatever floats your boat maaaaaan.

In schools, voices should not be shut up – for this is where debate is of most urgent importance, because these children are makers of the future and it is within them that solutions need to be found. This is not easy but it is an essential part of strengthening a consensual democracy. Space needs to be found for arguments to be exposed and not shut away so that feelings turn into simmering resentment and airing of reactionary thoughts retreat back into the safe space of home or group. Our institutions need to encompass real difference, not become ‘safe spaces’ for those who all agree. We need unsafe spaces – not dangerous spaces but spaces where confrontation and debate can take place and instead of intimidating people on trams, at bus stops, and through Naziesque propaganda, the challenge to these, what I consider, abhorrent ideas needs to happen not from a position of shocked defence but one of engaged attack.

All should understand that a muscular liberalism can assert ‘moral truths’ about conduct, that violence and bullying is wrong and that this might include grey areas but if in a school election there is a fascist candidate let them stand and face the arguments and maybe, even, vitriol from their peers. Let them feel it. Liberal democracy needs voices, it is consensual not through physical violence, nor from the violence of excluding people from that debate, but from the  agreed position that freedom of speech is one of its central tenets. Abhorrent views need to be challenged in the open and not just dismissed as ‘wrong’ and closed down.

It is customary to say that free speech is sacrosanct, do the customs of your school have that enshrined? Teach kids to argue and debate about stuff and get them busy strengthening their community so that they can reach out to each other, to the future and to the world with ‘an open hand’ rather than, later, with a closed fist.

 

 

 

Conformist Schools for Creativity

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 “…there just aren’t enough fizzy people around.”

Tham Khai Meng
co-chairman and worldwide chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather

In a ‘Supported by the Best Awards’ piece in the Guardian Tham Kei Meng writes that “Young children fizz with ideas. But the moment they go to school, they begin to lose the freedom to explore, take risks and experiment.”

Now I don’t necessarily wish to burst Tham’s bubble but what is he talking about? Is this a suggestion that every household in the world is full of children experimenting, taking loads of risks in a state of absolute freedom? Are there no helicopter parents hovering around to stop a child from falling off a swing? Are there no parents telling a child when to go to bed? Are there no carers ensuring that little children keep within parameters and, maybe, garden, nursery or park walls?

Is the school the place where children begin to lose freedom or is it part of the natural state of childhood? Man is born in chains and the process of parenting and schooling can help the child become ‘free’. Tham writes:

We need to do two things to address this. First, we have to debunk the notion popularised by Hollywood that the creative artist is cut from a different cloth than normal folk – that creativity is something mysterious, elusive and cannot be taught.

We are not talking about high art, but empowering people to use their imagination. Not everyone can be Mozart, but everyone can sing. I believe everyone is born creative, but it is educated out of us at school, where we are taught literacy and numeracy. Sure, there are classes called writing and art, but what’s really being taught is conformity.

Debunking the Romantic notion of the artist in ‘his’ garret is one thing, knowing this is not a Hollywood invention is another but, oddly, in three sentences Tham writes that he wants to rid us of the idea that the creative artist is cut from a different cloth, that he is not talking about high art and then writes that not everyone can be Mozart, but everyone can sing. What does he mean by all this? High art is for the genius? The rest of us can join the chorus? Is singing a song creative? Is speaking creative? Is a conversation creative? Where does Tham draw the line? Clearly he thinks Mozart is cut from a different cloth and, I suppose, high art is different to creating adverts, but are creative people who have not had it educated out of them at school, school refusers? Are they all rebels with a creative cause? Sure there was learning to write and do a bit of art but what’s really being taught is conformity, what does he mean?

I hate the terms literacy and numeracy, but why not learn to read and to write, and to count and calculate, these things don’t ‘kill creativity’. When Tham worries about conformity does he mean conformity in using the alphabet? Conformity in the use of watercolour, charcoal, pastels and clay? Conformity to a tradition? Don’t we learn to do art by copying the way of the ‘geniuses’ of the past – read some Rowling then write a Harry Potteresque story of your own… learn the form, challenge the form, create your new(ish) or derivative form?

When we try to knock the creativity out of people, what happens? Try confining them in, say, a prisoner of war camp – put them in real chains. What happened when people tried pushing conformity onto the prisoners in ‘Colditz’ Castle? The first British officer to escape from the High Security Prison was educated at Eton and Oxford, he escaped through the trap door in the theatre during a production of a play, then dressed as a German soldier, Airey Neave, escaped to Gibraltar with his comrade in Arms the Dutch officer Anthony Luteyn.

Later Neave got a job with MI9 as an Intelligence Officer – here he was in charge of another old Etonian Michael Bentine who went on to create the mad world of Potty Time and work with the Goons. Fellow Goon Spike Milligan attended a Convent School in Poona and St Paul’s High School in Rangoon, these schools didn’t knock the creativity out of him. Peter Sellers attended the Catholic St Aloysius College before he fell in the water… Harry ‘Seagoon’ Secombe, attended Dynevor school in Swansea and, yes, he did sing in the choir of St Thomas Church. These schools taught conformity maybe, but one needs a sense of conformity to appreciate the ridiculousness of it. Anyone who has listened to the Goons appreciates that the art grew from a sense of knowing a lot about conformity.

Bluebottle: ‘Ere, why ain’t you got no clothes on?
Eccles: I’ve just been making a phone call.
Bluebottle: You don’t have to undress for that!
Eccles: Ha, ha! We learn something new every day!

Conformity, dressing for dinner, putting on a ‘telephone-voice’, trying to do ‘the right thing’, in a world without rules, ‘proper behaviours’, we have nothing to laugh at… the problem for Tham is that actually we fizz with ideas at the very point of constraint, when people try to put us in chains we are at our most ‘fizzy’. Try being in a staff room when a new initiative is announced, the dark humour, the ‘taking the piss’, the ideas on how to undermine the new order.

Tham writes that the school:

…system worked well for blue-collar workers – people who clocked in at factories and stood on production lines making things such as automobile engines. But in a world driven by search engines, the system is a busted flush. We must teach creativity at school as a matter of urgency.

No doubt the system also worked for advertising creatives, who are these people in advertising who learned how to sell product? Are they all mad men? Are they cut from a different cloth? Did they go to special creative breeding schools, or the same schools as those blue-collar workers? And these factory workers – why teach them to read? Why risk that they might be able to read the 1945 Labour Manifesto (written by Toby Young’s dad) and what it said about education?

And, above all, let us remember that the great purpose of education is to give us individual citizens capable of thinking for themselves. (Labour Manifesto 1945)

This is the point: school doesn’t educate the creativity out of people, instead it educates to give them the wherewithal to be free, to be creative and think for themselves. Without constraints we are left to wander, without the imprisonment of a place we can’t think how to escape, without the sonnet form we can’t write poetry that lasts for centuries, without the alphabet… hey here’s twenty-six letters – write a blog! Without the idea of constraints how would advertising work? Without a client, a product, the need to be concise and connect different media both ‘old’ and ‘new’ they don’t have an ad campaign…

NB: Teaching creativity in school is not about ‘free activity’, as this piece, from the wonderful Joyce Grenfell shows very well.

 

The Importance of Teaching ‘High Culture’

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“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” Gangsta’s Paradise: Coolio

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Psalms 23:4 King James’ Version

The other day I was working with some teachers coming to the end of their training, the conversations were rich and rewarding and I have a good deal of faith that they will become great teachers. I was opening up debate by offering some provocations, including saying that it is important to not only teach ‘great’ work but also to help children develop a sense of what ‘great’ might be. Whilst emphasising the subjective nature to these judgements, I was arguing that children need to develop an ability to take part in the conversation and not feel excluded. One ITT suggested that this could occur from popular culture quoting the ‘Coolio’ lyric above. I pointed out that if someone did not know the biblical quote they might not recognise the reference. A biblical reference transcends class and race, and a child who has access to some words from, lets say, the King James Version of the Bible has a rich vein of material they can draw on throughout their life, whether they believe in the Christian God or not.

If I am educated in the works of High Culture my cup runneth over and I dwell in a world in which I can articulate thoughts I wouldn’t even have had if I didn’t know anything about it. I can enter into conversations with people I would have no business even being in the same room as them. I can change my life. I remember as a teenager being snubbed in an Oxford college because I was a mere ‘townie’, not for me the privileged discourse of the ‘gownie’; instead of obsessing about myself… my narrow obsessions… I could’ve thrown that mirror to the floor, and let my image, distorted, scream back at me: “Just learn about what you know, limit your life, and forever hide the inner you…”

If you only know popular culture and the most accessible aspects of it, then what do you know of the world? I’d warrant you’d know a lot but there would be a whole lot more you wouldn’t know. This is where school comes in, there is no point in teaching children what they already know, at school it is the inaccessible that should fascinate us, the downright difficult, the stuff we wouldn’t ordinarily come across or would find difficult to access. The stuff behind heavy oak doors, or in secret gardens. Yes, children might be scared of the things that schooling might put them through but this education can touch and enrich their ‘inner you’. High Culture is looking for recruits, children salute! If this education is only for the rich, or only for the geeks then what do we become? Weirdly bereft of a whole tranche of human knowing, we scatter ourselves around the basement, debased, not wholly aware of what or why we might be. We’re weird.

Weird people from the basement need to climb to the roof; You know the people on the bus and the people on the street people like you and the people like me! Weird people! Geeks! Whoever! People like you and me. A little mix of high culture with our lived lives enriches us, it expands us, it opens up possibilities. By denying high culture on the grounds of class, or any other, demeans the person denying that knowledge to others, because they ‘know’ of it but decide not to tell. In whose interests is it to not teach children the supreme works of humanity?

Then I hear the refrain: “But who is to say they are the supreme works?” And with that quip ‘high’ culture is dismissed; easily ignored and hated as elitist it becomes ever more elitist by denying it to our children. In the basement they can dream of climbing to the roof, but they know it’s not for the likes of them and the effort might be too much on their own. If only a great teacher would sing: “But it don’t matter who you are, you can be who you wanna be,” with an education that sees no reason not to teach great works a child can be comforted in the knowledge that can restoreth their soul.

Schools Should Not Teach the End of History

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Schooling changes lives. That is the claim. Without having attended school our lives would be different, how different we do not know but, clearly education makes a difference. A liberal arts education is an education for freedom. This seems laudable but what does it mean? Freeing a person through knowledge, insight, and initiating them into the conversation of time, is different from freeing them into being at the beck and call of the tyranny of the majority or the strong. It is an internal freedom, an ideal, a freedom for thought, and to realise oneself through choices as well as being able to free others who come into contact with you. The paradox is that this freedom also gives you the freedom not to do this. You are free to be indoctrinated and also to indoctrinate others. This is where a liberal approach can falter.

By demanding that the future be ‘fairer’ or ‘kinder’ or ‘free from oppression’ one immediately faces the problem that in order to be fairer, kinder and free from oppression one has to deal with those who are deemed to be not fair, not kind, and a bit of an oppressor. Once these types have been ‘identified’ they are then unfairly, unkindly, oppressed. As this continues those who are being unfair, unkind, and oppress in the name of a better world, create a terror which is far from kind and fair.

In a school that believes one shapes the future in pre-ordained ways freedom falters. If a school has decided how a utopia is formed, let us say it is full of ‘fair’ people, they define what fairness is and decide that these ‘traits’ should be forced upon those in their care, whether these children and their parents agree or not with their definition. In the name of progressing towards a ‘new dawn’ children are changed. Sometimes this can be quite extreme. Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains implies freedom but demands ‘unity’ and those that refuse to unite will remain chained.

Tradition offers a different approach, this approach imposes the habits of the past rather than a definition of a new age. Rather than change children for the future, this approach changes them to fit ‘in’ to current conventions. Sometimes this can be quite extreme. This can imply one way to be, just as much as the progressive vision. Both play with history, in one ‘it just is’, and in the other, ‘it must be…’

The liberal arts approach recognises the importance of initiating children into ‘the way things are done around here’ as well as a way of reaching out into the world. It is conversant with different voices and teaches children to recognise these competing voices. Where it is very different is that as it is education for independence it passes the world, in all its complex and competing ways, on. It does not impose on children a blueprint of a utopia that they must create, rather it gives children an idea of what was and what is so that they might form the future in the way that they see fit. Free.

Maybe this is where the obsession with ‘self’ comes from. The fetishisation of the self, the selfish, the selfie, the ‘it’s my opinion so it counts’… this would be the inevitable consequence of teaching that any content is king or anything produced by a child is queen. This could not be further from the truth. A liberal arts education is conversant with truth, with beauty, with quality, with excellence. It is conversant with what it is to be human, in all its divergent interpretations. It begins with the constraints of the past, it investigates and critiques in the present and passes the responsibility on to the next generation to continue the conversation but not in a way that finishes the said conversation in a vision of a utopian state but in a way that is responsible for continuing to pass the conversation forward to their children, their children’s children and so on…

A liberal arts education does not believe that history has ended or that history will end in a progressive vision of a fair and kind world, rather it believes that history will continue to be made and it hopes that the better the quality of a child’s education the freer they will be to make that world, then the better that world might be. Or worse, ay, there’s the rub.