Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Two Allegories About Education.

Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” and William Golding’s novel, “Lord of the Flies” frequently figure in ‘most significant’ and ‘top’ 10 or 100 surveys of modern ‘classic’ literature in English. As such. they are appropriate and popular texts for study in secondary and tertiary education. The former is based on historical court transcripts of the Salem witch trials; the latter is a work of imaginative fiction in the same genre of allegory, presenting, in the words of film director, Peter Brook, no less than ‘the potted history of man’.

Both works derive much of their dramatic impact from the depiction of children exercising powers generally reserved for adults in a society. In both cases the results are catastrophic and murderous.

The allegorical import of both works however creates the profoundest dimension of horror with the awful realisation that these children merely mimic and take their cue from those taller children we call adults who have temporarily lost their way. In the play, Abigail Williams only wields power because it is granted to her by Deputy Governor Danforth. She embodies what ancient Greeks would recognise as the inevitable and remorseless sentence of the Furies visited upon those whom the gods would destroy having first made mad. Head chorister, Jack Merridew, is similarly let off the leash to cause havoc once wholesome mature guidance and example are withdrawn. Both are Frankensteinian creatures brought into existence by societies that have lost true perspective. In both cases the real  children the characters represent are grown, but immature adults whose warped values necessarily infect those who look to them for education.
'The Remorse of Orestes'. Bouguereau 1863.

Writings cast as allegory are more accurately only potentially allegorical until their lessons are learned. The saddest irony is to be found in an unenlightened reading or teaching of such books. That would be a derisive, pointless activity.  

The universality of these works renders them a constant threat to the status quo (or desired) because each provides a neutral template for illuminating reflection and the clear-sighted diagnosis of social ills. It is an unfortunate reality of life that this is not always welcomed or comprehended as necessary. Great works of literature raise questions (are questions) and it is no surprise that sometimes they are burned. More often their potency is emasculated by the stifling embrace of ‘Classic’ status. Shakespeare, Dickens and Orwell have their stings sheathed by such fulsome approbation.

Those who will not or cannot see the educational relevance of MY BLOG references to ‘Lord of the Flies’ or Sue Cowley’s recent post 'THE CRUCIBLE' may ‘know’ both texts well but effectively jettison their raison d’etre. Neither of us is providing literary allusion for dramatic or decorative effect: we are finding inspiration for the most vivid expression of certain perceptions about teaching and learning for which conventional educational discourse is proving inadequate.

Their heightened awareness of its variant uses often naturally leads our best writers to treat language thematically. Orwell’s Newspeak and Burgess’ Nadsat are extreme examples of imaginative visions that required full blown invented languages to enact the invasive, thought-changing power of imposed ways of communicating. Brian Friel’s play “Translations” examines the impact of Royal Engineers on an Irish community as they lodge in a village researching the apparently innocuous task of drawing up the first Ordnance Survey. As the age-old. (largely oral) labels for local geography are formalised into either absurd ‘Irish’  or bland, unashamedly English  place names it becomes apparent we are witnessing nothing less than that most insidious invasion of all - denial of identity.

Old Francis Nurse and John Proctor would weep at Friel’s play set in 1833. It would seem to them that no one had learned the lesson of 1692.

The language of Miller’s play is unique and should not be mistaken for the mere recreation of authentic-sounding late 17th Century Massachusetts English. The religio-legal language of affidavits and court inquisition that permeates Danforth’s every sentence is a moveable prison, limiting freedom of expression to a single imposed language. The Deputy Governor is precisely right when he explains to a naive Francis Nurse:

“But you must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there  be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time - we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.”

Nurse’s naivety and ignominious muting are highlighted in order that an audience may experience the full impact of a central expression of Danforth’s madness that drips with irony for there is no sun in a total eclipse.

In the succeeding Act 4, John Proctor reluctantly signs a confession to witchcraft but refuses point blank to give it to Danforth to display on the church door, saying, ‘You are the high court, your word is good enough! Tell them I confessed myself’.

The representative of established power genuinely does not understand the existential anguish that climaxes in Proctor’s destruction of the signed confession and retrieval of  ‘ some shred of goodness’. Miller’s audience is more enlightened IF it understands John Proctor’s cry: Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!’

Sue Cowley’s post ends with the Reverend Hale’s expression of personal rebellion against a compulsory regime he can no longer in good conscience espouse. Both denounce proceedings - Hale of a court, Cowley of a curriculum.

These regimes are alike in that they impose the singular on the plural - one approved uniform prescriptive notion with its own lingua franca that nudges to one side the native, simpler vernacular. A cursory analysis of the contrasting languages of Danforth/Hathorne with Corey/Proctor illustrates the phenomenon. Both are ‘English’ but the former promoted with such blinkered zeal that the latter is disenfranchised.

A sampling of education blogs and tweets displays this linguistic scenario. People speaking the same mother tongue, involved in a common sphere of activity, completely unsurprisingly are performing a passable impression of the Anglo-Irish pale and the territory beyond. At  times they are mutually unintelligible.I find reason for optimism in this apparent negative.

The fracturing of discourse is an early consequence of the unnatural dominance of a single imposed notion. In the current phase of curriculum change its proponents naturally invoke the authority and language of educational research for justification, explanation and application. The expression of opposition through that language (ie: traditional forms of debate and argument) proceeds at a disadvantage and is limited (by being already appropriated) to, at best, a Reverend Hale-like line of argument ( I mean before his denunciation).

This VIEW from an educational researcher seems to me to exhaust what recourse is available with which to articulate opposition to Mr. Gove’s reforms by way of academic argument. The writer’s central theme is expressed in the concluding paragraph’s wise advice that the always provisional,  ever-evolving ‘findings’ of academic research are not designed to be cherry-picked, let alone imposed as if they were mined eternal truths. This courteous, scholarly statement will go unheeded: we cannot expect research to do our (teachers’) professional work for us’.

This researcher does not delineate (but I bet realises) the logical consequences of imposing a core curriculum on the nation’s children. The imposition trains a generation of common core teachers, of common core employers, of common core parents, of common core future adults...and renders broad educational research effectively redundant. Why maintain current funding of university education departments when discarded notions are effectively of mere academic interest in the new dispensation? No wonder those very institutions have been criticised; no wonder Mr. Gove believes teachers would be better trained in schools. No wonder the very literary classics that carry the potent juice of self-determination are hugged to the body politic of the new national curriculum to be experienced only in rigorously controlled conditions.

Because the Head Gardener (I reference Shakespeare’s ‘Richard the Second ‘here) has selected, sanctioned and financed the full flowering of, as it were, one species of plant in the Garden of Education all others are crowded out or eradicated as weeds. The long-term impact on flora, fauna and land fertility are easier to appreciate than the legacy of such a poorly judged policy.

There are those who will maintain strategically or genuinely they just do not see what the fuss is about. This is why a healthy society values its writers - they see what the rest of us miss, hide or ignore.

What IS this retired English teacher gassing on about? Leftist nonsense! Conspiracy theorist! Liberal wool merchant! What’s it to do with him anyway? This isn’t an argument! Bloody presumptuous if you ask me!

If such responses to my post are factional or flippant in motivation, I have no time for you. If  honest, my thanks! I see where you are. Not a problem for me. If far better writers than I  have failed to alert you to real and present dangers, I can hardly expect success. Shakespeare might be worth a look.

30 years teaching English, almost always to A level made Shakespeare a constant presence in my interaction with students. It is my fervent prayer that the teaching of common core Shakespeare will involve exploration of the full allegorical reach of that playwright’s consideration of kingship which is not restricted to the nature of monarchy.
Henry Bolingbroke becomes Henry 4.

Something irrevocable, almost mystical, occurs when a person is crowned.. Shakespeare’s kings are not the real ones of history: they are dramatic personifications of ideas, notions. At the heart of Henry V or Richard the Second is a fascination with what happens when an idea is invested with all the powers of state - when, allegorically speaking, for example, a common core national curriculum theory about education is officially endorsed and implemented as policy.

‘Courtiers’ may mutter for or against the new king but his status has all the trappings and certainly of a fait accompli. Similarly, the state’s adoption of a theory changes its status to a political and social reality. Theoretical argument becomes academic.

So what do you do? In Shakespeare we see (sometimes as in The Winters Tale only after many years) the process of wholesome rebirth after a period of social winter in another country, on an island, in the Forest of Arden or a wood outside Athens. Nature redivivus.  The resumption of natural rights and liberties. Such was the case, eventually, in Massachusetts.

What can we do when the very language of conventional discussion falls on deaf ears? Some. like me, construct a dumb-show (like this), hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature and hope it will catch the conscience of the king.

Others I see already falling back on vernacular, abandoning the official lingua franca. Good for them! You cannot express frustration, indignation, foreboding or sadness in better language. It may make for uncomfortable reading. I say bring it on. The Danforths and Jack Merridews of 2013 will drown your voice as surely as Francis Nurse and Piggy are scorned to silence.  But ‘The Crucible’ shows in the weights piled upon Giles Corey and the execution of John Proctor that the retention of personal honour is possible, profoundly difficult and, in the long term, the most natural and democratic of victories.

Most people are not well versed in debate nor given to intellectual discourse. Nor have people always the time or energy to muster sophisticated argument. I must tell you, on my island this is no obstacle to participation. The reader will know people as I do who are readier to validate the instinct of their pet animals than human instinct or intuition. Many students, teachers, parents and educationists will be experiencing confusion and almost inexpressible personal conflicts. This is simple decency - a concern for the harmonies of everyday life.
David Bradley as Billy in 'Kes' 1969 Kestrel Films Ltd.

Billy’s astounding eloquence in Barry Hines’ novel, ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’, (don’t pass over the title too quickly), illustrates what teachers know well - that facility of expression is non-linear; that interest, enthusiasm, complete engagement, owned knowledge can overcome an intimidating setting and stream the pure waters of vernacular expression through which Nature provides us all with an unforced artistry.

I tend to see things simply these days - if something feels amiss it probably is. And in listening to the voices commenting on curriculum reform I am most attentive to those addressing the virtual assembly from a position of disadvantage most usually the case with practising teachers who feel so strongly that somehow they find the time and energy to blog after long days of complete absorption in rooms full of children. Intuitively they sense something seriously amiss. I am guessing why in identifying the compulsory nature of proposed detailed core knowledge and its attendant assessment regime.

Sue Cowley is certainly concerned that the transmission of a circumscribed body of knowledge deemed more important than the general pool will become an end in itself, valued only for its provision of neat, but educationally suspect ‘evidence’ for assessment AND that not even this core knowledge will be learned within meaningful, relevant contexts.

She is precisely right.

Jack Merridew & Ralph. Lord of the Flies 1963. Two Arts Ltd.

What I write next is devilishly difficult to word because I have to find the simplest unmissable formulation. Ralph has this problem in preparing to speak to the Assembly after the Beacon Fire was neglected for a pig hunt and a ship passed unaware of their plight:

“The thing is: we need an assembly.”

No one said anything but the faces turned to Ralph were intent. He flourished the conch. He had learnt as a practical business that fundamental statements like this had to be said at least twice, before everyone understood them. One had to sit, attracting all eyes to the conch, and drop words like heavy round stones among the little groups that crouched or squatted. He was searching his mind for simple words so that even the littluns would understand what the assembly was about. Later perhaps practised debaters—Jack, Maurice, Piggy—would use their whole art to twist the meeting: but now at the beginning the subject of the debate must be laid out clearly.
“We need an assembly. Not for fun. Not for laughing and falling off the log”—the group of littluns on the twister giggled and looked at each other—“not for making jokes, or for”—he lifted the conch in an effort to find the compelling word—“for cleverness. Not for these things. But to put things straight.”  (from Chapter Five - Beast On Water).

If I have made any new friends thus far by this post I may lose some of you now - but I have to say this.

I’ve spent long hours with teachers anxious to prepare as thoroughly as possible before teaching something to someone. At times so voluminous is the accreted paraphernalia of lesson plans, aims, objectives, strategies, good practice, interventions, targets, standards, pre-assessments, assessment points and post-assessment evaluations  that I have had to bite my tongue not to inquire: “And when do you propose to actually begin teaching a student?”

I could never have brought myself to utter what I have no compunction in saying now - “I have to conclude from your unremitting focus on the theory of teaching and learning that you find it more interesting than spending time with children.”  When such a teacher enters a classroom faith has been vested unrealistically in a paper fantasy ill -equipped to flex to the succession of living moments constituting a lesson. Far from being preparation for effective educating, such luggage dragged into class vitiates by monopolising the teacher’s attention.

You can only focus on one thing at once.If you try to drive a car while reading the handbook you’ll come a cropper.

What this barely caricatured teacher does not know is what Sue Cowley certainly does. Children of all ages AND adults of all ages warm to natural vernacular interaction. Establish that and the business in hand may proceed. If it’s not done genuinely we know it and conclude we are being patronised or ignored or simply overlooked by a teacher concerned only to honour plans and theories that should have been left outside the classroom door.I might add that most children are admirably patient and courteous in receipt of such treatment.

The saddest irony in this scenario lies in the unvalued presence of the two richest resources for meaningful educational experiences - pupils and a teacher. The first expects to be observed, considered, listened to, anticipated, understood (especially when he or she is most confused) and acknowledged (rightly here) as the centre of attention.

On the teacher’s part (we know this from improvising cover lessons at a moment’s notice) a light overnight bag containing sufficient relevant hard content for the session within a flexible framework suffices. This is actually the catalyst for learning experiences, nowhere near an end in itself. Meaningful learning is remembered because it is natural and is activated by fluid, intensive, informed, very skilful real-time assessment by the teacher of what is really happening in individual students’ minds. Based on this continuous assessment the teacher’s greater knowledge and experience has to be trusted by all present (especially the teacher) so that it may be freed to flow unforced as colours suffuse the screen (and Dorothy) in MGM’s land of Oz. Every lesson we should expect and embrace the opportunities presented by the unexpected. That’s what real people are - unique as uncollected, unpinned, unclassified, wild butterflies.

I was unconscious of that simile whilst typing just now. Absorbed teaching is thus and I miss it. If you find yourself asking a class - ‘What did I just say? I haven’t a clue. Did it make ANY sense?’ that’s just one of the shared joys - because it made so much sense even you, the speaker, was momentarily spell-bound by classroom magic.

John Proctor is hardly aware of the words that come unbidden to express his final redemptive moment. ‘Goodness’ and words melt surreally into each other: ‘Not enough (goodness) to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs’.

Blog reader! What did i just say? I haven’t a clue. Did it make ANY sense?

I shall close this post with the last words of Miller’s play. Elizabeth Proctor is speaking of her husband. Please read it twice, first with John Proctor in mind; then think of any child of your choice and pray things can be put straight  before it’s too late.

‘He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!’
Dorothy & Friends in 'The Wizard of Oz' 1939 MGM.

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