Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Education of Human Dimension.

Tardis - "Doctor Who" BBC.
“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” Sherlock Holmes - “A Case of Identity”.

A recent “Doctor Who” fiction proved, for me, unwittingly metaphoric. “Flatline” (deliciously clever this) imagined two-dimensional beings making first contact in normal, everyday Bristol. ‘Dimensionally leached’, Joe and Jane Public are ‘flattened’ beyond General Zog’s worst nightmares in Superman’s Phantom Zone. As a diminutive Tardis goes into ‘siege mode’ the shapeless ones aspire to dimensions beyond their nature. The whole thing is, of course, sorted as usual in 40-odd very enjoyable minutes.  

Like the Bristol depicted in ‘Flatline’, schools seem pretty ordinary, predictable places. In fact, I sometimes played on this very perception in class by asking for suggestions of the smallest indication students could imagine that would change our reassuringly familiar room into a fearful place. ‘An HB pencil levitates, Sir!’ ‘A tiny tear opens in the universe, just in front of Nigel’s nose!’ Dramatic pause...we all look at Nigel’s nose. If he’s witty, Nigel ‘zips’ the imaginary tear and we cheer SuperNige to the rafters. Saved. Dorothy’s home in Kansas.

What such little fantasy excursions do is to affirm the classroom as a second home with human dimensions. If children feel ‘at home’ at school, they are more inclined to venture and explore dimensions as yet unknown, both outside and within. The classroom is a foyer; it’s where we meet to go somewhere else in good company. And, yes, at peak power, it’s the threshold of a living Tardis - academy box from the outside; mind-blowing within.

I am speaking not of science-fiction or the fifth dimension of supernatural fiction. I speak in metaphor of realms of knowing, appreciation, values, culture, experience, discovery and imagination  which constitute the natural human dimension. As such, we are blessed as human beings and therefore the trick every teacher who ever lived has to pull off is to educate without ‘dimensional leaching’, without restricting or reducing horizons.

That this is no easy matter, (that we are all Claras with no magic Doctor Who) is a part of the human condition. Vigilance is essential. Rivers silt up if dredging is neglected. Shipping lanes narrow and close. Rock-solid marriages founder in weeks, drifting to sand. Whole nations sleepwalk from the sunlit uplands of tolerance into the dark ravines of extremism in a blink of Time.. Schools too may lose their way. Because the commonplace is composed of the extraordinary, we take it for granted at our peril.

Real life needs no CGI special effects nor alien invention: here, we are our own worst enemy.

The most bizarre happenings  - beyond anyone’s pale or prediction - can render a school surreal any ordinary day -

. I smile now (but I didn’t at the time) at:
  1. The morning break when I was on playground duty in 1976 when a parent came through the gates (at the behest of his son, a pupil) to show everyone his two young lions on leashes.
  2. The day I visited another school in my authority on CSE business and had the (locked) school library pointed out: “We don’t open it. The kids would wreck it.”
  3. My first visit as new HOD to a (timetabled) CSE English class where the girls (wearing Domestic Science aprons) were sandpapering the desks and the boys ( in Woodwork aprons) were nailing down desk lids. “It’s our Clean-Up-The-Classroom” period - we do it every Friday”, explained my colleague. Not after that they didn’t.

You couldn’t make it up. (If you’re wondering, nailing down the lids stopped the packed-lunch pupils dumping litter there.)

These were isolated, innocently eccentric breaches in the fabric of normality. That’s why we can afford to be amused. Somehow the unjustifiable seemed quite okay. Wrong time. Wrong place. Wrong dimension. Ludicrous.

OK for Ginger Rogers but don't try this at School.

It is less of a laughing matter when the systems devised by humans are misapplied, with all the power of official sanction, beyond their native dimensions.

Don’t we just love system? We’d be fools not to. Order, organization, predictable, replicable method, guide-line, timetable, map, rulebook...I’d not be sending these electronic blog-pulses without the complex algorithms that guarantee OK when I type OK.

We  have been half in love with the linear for centuries. Why not? It serves us well. We bemoan its absence keenly when that Swedish flat-pack wardrobe arrives without clear instructions. Armies (always a good guide to what works) swear by “the chain of command”. And we queue. Do we queue! Those Italian grapes we scan at the supermarket are the precise, known, tracked, expected triumph of layers and layers, chains and chains of linear processes as elegantly and perfectly executed as the delicate ultrafine touch of a robot arm shaping a car. You know where you are with a system and you know where you’re going. Procedures oil our daily transactions with the world and each other and we mostly submit to, comply with them voluntarily because they are of clear benefit. You don’t get far with a job application if you don’t follow the procedure.

We are thus inclined to self-limitation when it suits us. A trainee London cabbie will assiduously apply all attention to learning “the knowledge”, blocking out any notion of nipping into The Tate to enjoy the paintings. Trust is placed in the predetermined. And a driving course is just that - you anticipate that every action taken, every word of advice has restricted, focused relevance to becoming a driver.

In terms of my Tardis image, a system looks like a police box on the outside and proves to be exactly and only a police box on entry and exit. We need police boxes; they have their proper place but that’s not on every corner. A society so systematised may maintain a wholesome perspective only through familiarity with experiences in the human dimension beyond systems. This is the proper role of a general education.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci.

When I consider what justification may legitimate universal compulsion to a period of general education I conclude government and society must have in mind an unwritten contract framed as it were in loco infantis on behalf of the adult every child taught will become. That contract promises to educate in the whole human dimension without restricting or reducing horizons. 

A suitable teacher will be wise enough to know that a pupil has possibilities, insights, talents and dimensions as yet unknown not what these mysteries are or should be. There will be an appreciation (shared & inherited) that systematised knowledge has its place but lacks the dimensions to presume to nurture all we are and may be. 

Such a teacher, however clever and learned, will have the modest wisdom to resist every proprietary impulse in education, knowing that knowledge, experience, insight and imagination are common pasture. And that teacher shall possess a perspective on the uses, abuses, strengths and limitations of systems deployed on behalf of children.

Patronising  drip-feeding of a narrow curricular content will be anathema and such a teacher will be so observant of and attuned to children, so aware of the artificial boundaries of subject disciplines that individual, unique connections arising in the course of a lesson will be privately hoped for and explicitly valued.

In my own subject, English, metaphor is the Antipodes of the linear (as, I understand, is the neural network of the brain). While the linear is a timetabled rail journey on irrevocable tracks from A through B to C, metaphor flies cross-country leaping hedgerows from P to D. A class in metaphor that does not value and nurture a child’s own capacity for imagery is no education at all. This is what systematic training in metaphor looks like: a Tardis flattened to two dimensions.

In fact, this is largely what certain stretches of the prevailing landscape of education look like. And it’s what happens when you commit inordinate faith and energy to inappropriate vehicles. The elegant, orderly precision of business and commercial systems has proved an irresistibly tempting template for those who would account for and measure teaching and learning. Closed, finite training schedules masquerade as liberal curriculum. Schools lay undue emphasis on children looking and acting like scholars. Teachers diminished to instructors and administrators service a national wall display that’s paper thin and an insult to them and their children.

How easily can we slip from the real to the surreal!

Image by Igor Morski.

My perception is that is how teachers feel right now. Workload is surreal in Technicolour. Marking tries to address multiple audiences. Nothing is deemed to happen or have happened of value without evidence. Compliance squats at the dark end of this unlit cul-de-sac.

What a job teaching has become! What a treadmill learning! For how long may a man or woman operate on such disparate levels - educate in the true sense of the word AND service a chimera?

There is a generation (of new teachers, of parents, of politicians and streams of children) for whom the chimerical, the two-dimensional may come to seem (if we’re not careful) all there is or could be.   

Looks like there’s plenty of work for teachers to do.

Just keep your Tardis bigger on the inside and all will be well.

Note from Ray: I speak in images as the only language I know that guarantees free thinking and an honourable model for an education of human dimension.

“Listen, It is like that. Stars and stars.
And behind them more stars.
And then more stars still”.
                                     ( from “I Sphinx” by P K Page).

Image courtesy Idomusis Mokslas.

© Ray Wilcockson (2014) All rights Reserved

Saturday, October 25, 2014

"This day is call'd the Feast of Crispian" - Shakespeare's Band of Brothers.

"Henry V" 1989 (Renaissance Films, BBC & Curzon Film Distributors).

"'Tis good for men to love their present pains
  Upon example; so the spirit is eased:
  And when the mind is quicken'd, out of doubt,
  The organs, though defunct and dead before,
  Break up their drowsy grave and newly move,
  With casted slough and fresh legerity."  [King Henry V, Act 4, scene 1]

Present Pains.

In the small hours before dawn, weight of "present pains" have all but paralyzed an English army patently outnumbered. Shakespeare's great Agincourt act prefaces the battle with two scenes from the English camp aptly disjointed by a visit to the French, for whom defeat is so distant a prospect that they give, with "fresh legerity" and levity, all imaginative fuel to derision of an enemy hardly worth the effort.The Constable scents his quarry unerringly:

"Do but behold yon poor and starved band,
And your fair show shall suck away their souls,
Leaving them but the shales and husks of men."

An arrogant Grandpre quips that:

"Description cannot suit itself in words
To demonstrate the life of such a battle
In life so lifeless as it shows itself.

Henry's present pain is to find the words to "newly move" his men; Shakespeare's is to make this credible. Both are achieved and blaze through the present, quotidien tense of:

"Let me speak proudly: tell the constable
We are but warriors for the working-day."

From Casted Slough to Fresh Legerity.

[NB: Act 4 may be consulted HERE ]

The key speech (the focus of this post) is also the most famous and hence often quoted out of the very context that shapes it, masking its improvisational nature. It is triggered by overhearing an English voice (presently identified as Westmoreland's) bemoaning the lack of soldiers. That Henry's response is spontaneous is evinced in the exclamatory oaths that characterize the preamble to mention of saints' day, an appeal to honour that leads him to the risky proclamation:

"That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart , his passport shall be made,"

But we (and Henry) know a king's "affections are higher mounted" than those of ordinary men, Fresh in his memory must be the bluntly honest response of Michael Williams at mention of the honour of dying with your king: "That's more than we know."

At this juncture in his reply to Westmoreland, a wider audience exerts its presence and must be summarily addressed. What word does Henry have for the common man? What sustenance in an hour of greatest peril? And what language may be found and understood?

Like tributaries tumbling to a stream, recent experiences meet the exigent present to precipitate one all-embracing vision, easing the spirit, be he low or high, in a blank verse tutored by the prose of Harry Le Roy, ennobled as befits one who has just that night mused uneasily upon:

"What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace.
Whose hours the peasant best advantages."

Not the rhetoric of chivalry nor the prose of his disguise but an inspirational fusion that sets the present afire. You don't get blank verse any simpler or so potent an enactment of spiritual renewal when, where and with whom it really matters. Here is the real battle and it is won. The rest is in God's hands.

This is the natural, rhetorical music of the Aeolian harp - "Twin-born with greatness" finds its authentic voice. Without scene 1's philosophic soliloquy (couched in verse)  on the condition of kingship; without his (disguised) acknowledgement to Brother John Bates that : "I think the king is just a man."  we should the less appreciate Henry's speech as the manifested expression of a long night's uneasy vigil. He has observed courage of kinds in Pistol (even Bates) and Fluellen (in the latter, too, a reminder of self-respect). But how to harness it? How, more intransigent still, to accommodate the myriad concerns of "private men", like Bates, Williams and Court, who put widows, orphaned children and unpaid debts before the fate of kings?


  They say words spoken haunt the air invisible well after utterance. Cousin Westmoreland (and scene 3's other lords) occasion both Henry's initial theme of honour and serve in its development. We met them in scene 1, greeted variously as brothers. Bates was so named, and, for a while, under the name of Harry Le Roy the king bandied words on equal footing with a Pistol who thinks his monarch "A lad of life", seeding memories for him and Shakespeare's audience of Hal.From such traces of the prince of yore comes unbidden an expression of the warrior's valuation of fellowship that prompts the Crispian vision. It is the royal plural, but:

"We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us."

The Henry of history appreciated only too well the synchronicity of fighting the French on October 25th. When he was yet a prince, the town of Soisson in nearby Aisne had witnessed a massacre that had shocked Europe. He claimed after Agincourt to have avenged rhe honour of its saints, Crispin and Crispinian.

Neither I nor anyone I know celebrates St Crispin's Day. I suspect most of us solely associate the name with Henry V and even then know so little of its origin that few are aware two saints not one are involved. Legend has it the brothers were twins, Christians beheaded as martyrs (see Wiki entry Crispin and Crispinian ). "Henry V" Quarto 1 (1599) opts for 'Cryspin'  (see Q1 ), while modern editions tend to follow the First Folio (1623) with 'Cryspian" (see F1 ). While an extra vowel regularizes the verse, I do not think this the whole effect. The Folio prefers "Feast of Cryspian" to the Quarto's "day of Cryspin" emphasizing the ritualistic aspect. The Folio's name effectively fuses the saints into one, while, at the same time, drawing attention to the duality by adding a new line:
"And Cryspine Cryspian shall ne'er go by". Such is the icon offered of this band of two brothers.

Shakespeare's dramatic recourse to this story of martyrdom provides his Henry with the example he reaches for to convince his men to "love their present pains". They desperately need a narrative that unreservedly ousts  the doom-laden story they have told themselves. Duty to the king is not at issue; what is is the universal sense this is nowhere enough.

Vigil and Feast.

If I had to identify the dramatic beginning of St Crispin's Day, I should point to my post's title quotation. There is an alternative in that, for the French of scene 2: "the sun doth gild our armour". For me, the latter is the false dawn of a counterfeit day; the former the much more significant onset of reality. No one, French or English, has mentioned the saints before. Both have passed the same night in superficially similar ways - militarily speaking, vigil has been kept. But while the French have otherwise squandered the time in scornful amusement, English wakefulness has been purposeful. This Wiki entry on Vigil elegantly illustrates the range of relevant resonances and highlights Shakespeare's dramatic plan: Act 4, scenes 1 to 3 are, synchronistically, preparation for war and a devotional for souls.

All King Henry is doing when he states "This day is call'd the Feast of Crispian" is to acknowledge the grim truth of the night. We understand perfectly Shakespeare's emphasis on forlorn hope in the face of overwhelming odds. It is precisely this sobering fact that has brought the English (king, noble and commoner), but not the French, to a last ditch concern not for the condemned body but for the state of the soul. Each in his way has illustrated the king's words to Williams: "Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own." Henry's achievement is to herald the end of the vigil and commencement of the feast at the ripened moment, not by design, but because of what he is, has observed and meditated upon. He already speaks for all. By contrast, given the unshriven state of the French and the carnage that ensues, their final toll transcends mere numbers dead.

It is vital for a full appreciation of the dramatist's intent that we bear in mind the connotations of a religious feast. THIS refers to the opportunity afforded for ritual reenactment which imbues a community with meaning and cohesiveness. The italicized word is dramatic and relates this theatrical Feast of Crispian with the church and early medieval drama. Drama enacts. Shakespeare is no bishop. He does not presume to ape the liturgical. What he does set out to do is to "newly move" the audience with a potent vicarious experience that, as it were, refreshes the page of life and community through imaginative absorption in an old story brought to palpable life.

Shakespeare's Band of Brothers.

 What I have called The Crispian Vision transcends both Henry's appeal to honour and the disquieting miscellany of personal preoccupations that characterized scenes 1 and 2. From its first clarion use, the word rings crystal clear - not crisp as the morning air - it is the inspiration.  Aptly, the repetition, "Cryspine Cryspian" has a military measure striding implacably:

 "From this day to the ending of the world".

To the tune of Crispian, Henry rough-hews a succession of vignettes that draw the mind away and beyond the present. Templated by the annual united tribute afforded martyrdom's famous brothers, their king previews the feast of lasting remembrance mutually assured for all who live or die with him, not for one lord or self but as one band of brothers.

This is no time for palace imagery, let alone a doleful sitting down to tell sad stories of the death of kings. The French await; the Pistols of this world shuffle and scowl. So Shakespeare lends Henry his own celerity and lightness of touch (legerity). Alert to the occasion's limitations, the king sketches as a general might scratch battle plans in the earth. Each brief scenario, given authority (and prophecy) by formal verse nevertheless is plain-as-pike-staff in diction. Stood "a tiptoe" right now, primed for action, no man could not relate to the swelling pride imagined in whoever came safe home to hear the name of Crispen spoken there. All could readily visualize some future, quieter vigil evening when the morrow's named with pride at gatherings and, like a risen Christ, he who was there may show the wounds he had on Crispin's Day.

Though some will die, all will be household words: such is the bond that binds a self-selected brotherhood of peers. Only Shakespeare can so assuredly make music of a simple list of names. Except old men. Nobles, soldiers, audience alike are invited momentarily to sit by the fireside in hovel or manor farm and hear "the good man teach his son" the story. What need to tell it now when they who listen live it as he speaks?

Dramatically, Crispen was initially invoked as a familiar icon of the spiritual vigil undergone before this battle. Now the example is of enduring remembrance, guaranteed to those of any rank who'll shed his blood for the few. And they are happy - in a felicitous state because all are indistinguishably one. Such is the lightness of touch that we delight in catching the muted pun in "gentle...condition". Puns are by definition synchronous - how apt that the assurance of equally esteemed status for all should coincide with the sense of troubled spirits eased by authentic care in the face of death.

The king's vigil (to name scene 1) served to reconcile regal status with Henry, the man. An audience should sense the irony of a king disguised as a man, for what is a king but a man in disguise? While the monarch of that scene aptly soliloquizes concerns that are his alone, the man, represented by reference to "Hal" and "Harry" explores and craves companionship. The speech under discussion miniaturizes this duality as it moves from the (ironic) solitude of the royal plural of:
"We would not die in that man's company"
to the brotherly plural of "We few, we happy few".

Shakespeare creates a rhetoric that is credibly impromptu (seemingly arising ex tempore) in part through unsophisticated vocabulary, but mostly through repetition, the first recourse of oratory. But it's a doubly effective device in that repetition is multiplication. While one shape of the speech is diptych (noble isolation/common fraternity), another is insistently expansive, as the ripples stir a still pond with one pebble. "We few, we happy few" encapsulates the essence of this imperial theme and almost paradoxically increases "few" with its repetition.

A drama only lives in performance and then solely within the active imagination of spectators. I would suggest that for them a full appreciation of who may be counted in the ranks of "we happy few" is a cumulative gathering. Two brothers who die with each other. A king. His noblemen. Those who will stand with him. The children who hear the story from good men. The audience -who, after all, have been the only real auditors.

"Time agreeing; Confederate season". ("Hamlet" Act 3, scene 2).

In a very different situation ('The Mousetrap' murder) Lucianus observes how time itself conspires with human action. Soldiers and dramatists share a heightened sense of timing: both are consummately illustrated in the prelude to Agincourt which is devised in such a way as to prepare a vicarious experience of brotherhood as the actor-shadows play out in artistic rhythm with an absorbed spectator's emotions, understandings and inner drama.

Theatre allows that not only are such events, such men remembered: they are reanimated, live again in the real and present quickening of brotherly feeling as you, spectator or reader, respond alone.

I wrote this on the Eve and Feast of Saint Crispin.

I tell this story now to you, anew.

© Ray Wilcockson (2014) All rights Reserved


Thursday, October 16, 2014

IF - A Song for Teachers and Children.

Thor (image courtesy Comic Vine)
I have been reading about some very disquieting ideas and practices in education and if I had a hammer...

(with apologies to Pete Seeger and Lee Hays - who would I think have understood.)

1 The Clicker (children in some schools are trained to 'click' every correct answer given in class).

If I had a clicker
I'd click it in the morning
I'd click it in the evening
All over this land
I'd click out "danger!"
I'd click out a warning
I'd click for love between 
My brothers and my sisters
All over this land

2 The Vertical Hand (some teachers are trained in putting up a hand so their pupils do it faultlessly)

[Oh, I have a hand!
Watch me raise it in the morning
Watch me raise it in the evening
All over this land
It's the hand held vertical
It's the hand compliant
It's the hand just like
My brothers and my sisters
All over this land]

3 The Teacher's Oath (as recently mooted by Tristram Hunt MP)

If I took an oath
I'd swear it in the morning
I'd swear it in the evening
All over this land
I'd swear of the danger
I'd swear out a warning
I'd swear at the walls between 
My brothers and my sisters
All over this land

4 The Hammer We Are All Born With

Thank God, I've got a hammer!
I shall crush my little clicker
I shall swing it with my good hand
All over this land
It's the hammer of justice
It's the hammer of freedom
And I swear I'll hammer till there's love between
My brothers and my sisters
All over this land.