Archive for June, 2020

On world-beating…

June 24, 2020

Warning: politics ahead

We’ve had a lot of talk here lately of all the ‘world-beating’ things we’re allegedly doing as a nation, and although pretty much all of the talk is palpable nonsense (I eschew stronger language in my blog) it has set me thinking about why, as a nation, we are so blindly stuck in our glorious past. I do not claim to write as a historian…

We were once the mightiest empire of its time on the face of the globe, a power, it seems, largely based on our naval might, temporary technological superiority due to the country being the cradle of the industrial revolution, and our subjugation of nations into colonies which we could then pillage at will. There were other naval-based empires run from small-sized countries at the time – Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands once colonised and exploited sizeable areas of the globe, too. They gave up their empires and their pretensions, too, once the wheels of history moved on. We haven’t…

If we want to talk about empires today, then the picture is rather different. Three are based in large nation-states with enormous military might: the USA, Russia and China. There is a fourth pretender solely on the economic front: the EU. These modern-day empires have size and consequently economies of scale, plus a vast hinterland to consume production on their side; they do not possess colonies as did empires in the past, for this is economically inefficient; they certainly exploit client-states. And they do not enjoy the enormous technological advantages that the empires of the past had over the rest of the world, which is now far more inter-connected. And then there is Japan, an outlier, another small island-nation, and economic powerhouse of production – how unlike our own island…

So somewhere in all this is the inability of Britain’s people or its rulers fully to grasp how much the world has irreversibly moved on. We are a small island, a small nation, that is soon to be all on its own. We cannot easily emulate the successes of the two other ‘going-it-alone’ nations in Europe, Switzerland and Norway, because our population is so much larger than theirs. And yet, so many imagine that we can recapture those glory days of the past. Our military power is totally dependent on NATO, and so, indirectly, the USA. Our manufacturing base has been allowed to disappear, because not important. We can offer world-beating (perhaps) financial services, which are parasitical on other things and do not enrich the nation as a whole, but even that is uncertain.

I reach an understanding of where we are now, and I do not see why we cannot collectively accept it and act on it in a way that would benefit out 60 million people. We have glorious moments and shameful ones in our past; other nations have been rather better at acknowledging both strands of their histories. We didn’t defeat the Germans single-handedly in two world wars; we didn’t bring the benefits of civilisation and our way of life to millions in our colonies.

If we are to look forward, then we need to accept the limitations of being a Ruritanian monarchy with a system of government two centuries out of date and a system of class privileges far older than that. We need to realise that our future has been shaped by the USA, with whom – perhaps unfortunately – we share a similar language, and whose madhouse ideas therefore appear here rather too quickly for careful reflection and consideration. We need to give up our nuclear status, our world-power dreams and accept that we are a small and quite easily-ignored island off the coast of Europe, whose best prospects are likely to develop through close co-operation rather than rivalry with our neighbours. We need to give up on the idea of being ‘world-beating’ at anything, because it’s not very likely: co-operation is a much more likely guarantee of future success.

I’m not holding my breath…

Jane Austen: Pride & Prejudice

June 24, 2020

4154mFOeD9L._AC_UY218_     Lockdown entertainment has been a little thin on the ground as far as we are concerned, and so we seized the opportunity to re-enjoy the famous BBC-TV production of Pride and Prejudice which was repeated over six weeks recently. It remains a superb adaptation of the novel which has stood the test of time, a tribute to the skills of Andrew Davies’ screenplay, and yet, it is just that – an adaptation – and it sent me back to re-read the novel itself, which I hadn’t done for quite a number of years, with a view both to evaluating Davies’ skill and detecting what he inevitably had to strip away to get Austen’s novel down to six fifty-minute episodes.

He retains as much of her dialogue as possible; this shows. And what we inevitably lose is Austen’s narrative style, in particular the difference between actual speech and Austen’s particular variety of reported speech, which at once feels like we’re inside the speaker’s mind or consciousness, but upon closer reflection makes us notice that Austen is actually commenting and shaping our response to the character and events. There are places where you have to recreate the dialogue yourself, to imagine actual words, from the slanted account Austen is actually giving of a conversation… this is very subtle and very clever, and easy to miss completely if you read too quickly, without reflecting.

Jane Austen was a good deal funnier than I remembered, and there was so much more depth and detail in the key conversations between Elizabeth and Jane, and between Elizabeth and her friend Charlotte Lucas. It became evident that the crucial development of Elizabeth, her coming slowly and maturely to greater self-knowledge and self-understanding cannot possibly be articulated on screen, and yet is perhaps the most important strand of the story. It is presented through her thoughts, whereas the similar growth in self-awareness of Darcy is revealed in dialogue, conversation between the two of them.

Then there is the difference between a novel, written to be read, consumed, enjoyed at one’s own pace, and a television adaptation, to be shown as a continuous episode (yes, I know you can pause and come back and rewind and all that stuff, but it isn’t the same!). There is a greater intensity of emotion and feeling which comes from reading the story, no matter how skilful an adaptation is for the small screen. You can pause and reflect, flip back to an earlier conversation, have a discussion with someone else about the situation…

I found myself looking out for and noticing small things as I read. There is the ‘will she get her man or not?’ which is paralleled in both Jane’s and Elizabeth’s stories, a trope which is brought to perfection in the later novel Persuasion. There is the cynical question, is it Darcy or Pemberley that Elizabeth falls in love with? This time, I felt convinced that it was Darcy at Pemberley, on his own home territory that she falls in love with. The place makes the man: Darcy is a fish out of water in other settings, along with other faults which Elizabeth clearly enumerates. Had she wanted to, surely Jane Austen could have had a character we liked less than Elizabeth fall in love with a place rather than a person, but it’s not what happens here… at least that’s my opinion this time around.

Proposals are done privately in Austen’s novels: we don’t hear Bingley put the question, nor Darcy. The happy outcome is reported, obviously, but this will not do for television, so dialogue (and a kiss) has to be scripted, and this is where screen adaptations inevitably (but briefly) fall down for me.

A final note: I was much more aware, this time around, of Mrs Gardiner as the matchmaker though her conversations with Darcy when Elizabeth is not around – subtly done. And ironical, in that it’s Mrs Bennet’s sister who helps to bring about what she herself singularly fails to do, her daughter’s happiness. There’s always something new in a Jane Austen novel, even at the n-th reading!

Umberto Eco’s Baudolino: a tale for our times

June 18, 2020

81HNUy7Y7iL._AC_UY218_     I’ve read this – Eco’s second mediaeval masterpiece – several times, but for the first time in English, as when the novel was first published, the French translation came out a year before the English one. But I’ve wanted to read it in English for a long time, as Eco himself praised his translator William Weaver so highly. And it was very good, and also had me reflecting on my reading of French and my decreasing fluency with age in that language, for initially I found the English version of the novel much lighter, more flowing and easier to read…

What you have to wonder and marvel at is Eco’s total mastery of the mediaeval world, the confidence and knowledge which allows him to weave in every aspect of its ways of being and thinking into his novel… history, geography, theology, you name it, he can present it all from the mediaeval perspective.

From the outset, it’s a story about languages and understanding them, as Baudolino the hero has the ability quickly to learn and communicate in any dialect; given the travels and adventures he is to become involved in, this is a necessary. Along with this goes his ability to make things up, and for them then to become real and believed by many: this mediaeval trope has clearly reappeared in our less rational times…

As Constantinople burns and is looted once again, in the early thirteenth century, Baudolino rescues an official of that city and regales him with his life story, although we are constantly invited to be sceptical of this story-teller, who moves so seamlessly from fact to invention, from things that are to things that ought to be – and the thing is that, if something ought to be, then it surely is, somewhere, if only we knew where to find it. What you imagine as a possibility can become real just by fiat, by thinking of it; the borderline or demarcation is so much vaguer. This opens up a marvellous world of fantasy into which Eco weaves the mysterious death of the Emperor Frederick, and the quest for the (mythical?) Prester John, somewhere in the orient.

Having heard a rumour of this mysterious, very powerful Christian potentate somewhere in the East, Baudolino and friends make him real through writing letters from him to the Emperor, and convince themselves to go in search of him and present him with the holy Grail, a relic which they have ‘found’ – relics are manufactured to order in these times, six heads of John the Baptist in particular.

They encounter all sorts of weirdnesses – natural marvels and wondrous creatures – that were believed to exist in mediaeval times, such as those that adorn the frieze of the famous Hereford Mappa Mundi. The strange humanoid races that the travellers encounter as they approach the realm of Prester John are used to embody a huge range of Christian heresies, and open up an entire world of theological disputations such as were common in mediaeval times.

Again, Eco’s mediaevalism supports the nature of his story, which is not so much a novel with a plot and sharply defined characters (apart from the elusive eponymous hero) as a linear narrative in the style of the simpler and cruder mediaeval tale. As in mediaeval times, he does not shy away from copying others: thus there are links suggested between the Dalai Lama and the elusive Prester John, and at least one of the mysterious languages met in the orient is lifted from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

It’s not for everyone and not an easy read, but if you’ve enjoyed The Name of the Rose, I highly recommend this as a marvellous yarn, full of surprises, knowledge and entertainment, and another example of Umberto Eco at his very best. And the exploration of truth, lies and make-believe is somehow alarmingly resonant today.

On racism, and fear of ‘the other’…

June 13, 2020

I have been aware of the anger in the US, and more widely, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, though I will admit that I have not been following all the events in close detail. However, as a white male, I have been made to think again about various issues. I’m old enough to remember the US riots of 1968, which are the nearest comparison I can come up with at the moment.

I could say, ‘I’m not a racist.’ But I’m not really a fit person to be a judge of that. I can say that in my teaching career I always sought to challenge what I perceived to be racist comments by any student or colleague, but I can’t say I challenged them all, because again, how can I judge clearly what constitutes a racist comment or statement?

When I start to think about racism, I find myself contemplating it as originating in the fear of what, or who is different in some way from ourselves, because we cannot understand or share their experience. When I travel, I feel more comfortable in lands where I am able to communicate with the people, even in a rudimentary way, and understand and be understood; I feel less secure if I cannot operate in the language. There are cultures that I experience as being so different from the one in which I grew up and have lived in, that, try as I might, I cannot really get beyond what feels like a very superficial knowledge and appreciation. China. India. Japan. For example. And at this point I have always felt that there are two possible reactions: I can fear and reject what I do not understand, or I can be curious and seek to know more. This latter is harder, and one does not always succeed. And I wonder what makes one person fear and then reject, and another curious, and seek to find out more…

I think that I provided places and times for the exploration and discussion of the subject of race at various points in my teaching. Racism in the context of the Nazi extermination of the Jews came up particularly through a novel called Friedrich, by Hans Peter Richter, which I always read with my year 8 classes. The story was more of a diary, year by year, of two boys growing up as neighbours and friends in a Germany which was gradually taken over by the Nazis, and how their stories and lives diverged. Particularly shocking to students was the final section, a historical chronology of all the steps taken by the Nazis against the Jewish population of the country. There was much discussion and much learning; the story was on a human scale, and ended with the boys at roughly the age the students themselves were.

But that text is a sideline, in terms of the issue I’m reflecting on here, which is racism towards people of colour, specifically in the US. Here, three books stand out for me: Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

81oPMLy71QL._AC_UY218_     To Kill A Mockingbird was a GCSE text much loved by teachers and students alike until Michael Gove in his wisdom decided that texts written by non-Brits didn’t count as suitable ‘English’ Literature. A more dim-witted, idiotic decision I cannot recall. I know that the novel is nowadays somewhat looked down upon for a rather patronising portrayal of a black man as victim. I feel that is a simplistic judgement, and one from an adult perspective, and reject it completely when considering the novel as a powerful text through which teenagers – the developing adults of the future – can be brought to explore and consider closely and carefully how racism is both ingrained and institutionalised, and how basically unfair and unjust it is: they are truly shocked by how the story develops, and its tragic outcome. And they also see young white children pushed to confront their own internalised racism. No, it’s not perfect but it is powerful and effective, and I don’t know of a better opening for such a thorny topic to be brought into the classroom.

511vJG6H5DL._AC_UY218_     Mark Twain’s two novels are rather different. Tom Sawyer is a story of nineteenth century boys’ fantasy fulfilment more than anything else: running away from home, skiving, pulling a fast one on teachers, seeing a murder and finding hidden treasure. But the ‘servant’ boy Jim is introduced: he doesn’t have that hard a life in a children’s storybook, but in the 1840s Missouri where the story is set, he’s obviously a slave, owned and exploited by white people. It’s in the next novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that Jim comes into his own, for he becomes a runaway slave. That is a very serious matter, as is the fact that he’s aided and abetted by Huck, the town outcast who becomes his friend, and yet who, in the context of the times, wrestles with his conscience because he realises he’s committing a crime in helping Jim escape, thus ‘stealing’ another (white) man’s property. He also takes time to come to terms with the obvious fact that Jim is a human being on the same level as himself, rather than the inferior being and chattel that society considers him to be. Because Huck is a decent fellow, uncorrupted by ‘civilisation’, and in some ways a vision of the ideal American frontiersman, he does the ‘right thing’ and helps Jim escape from the slave states to freedom.

It’s a heartening tale, and one it’s today fashionable to dislike, condemn and even ban from schools and libraries, particularly in the US. It’s a book of its time – something we should not forget – and that means, among other things, that the infamous n-word is freely and liberally used. How on earth to deal with that in the classroom? In my experience, by full and frank discussion of that word, of offensive language and labels more generally, and what such language can do to people and ultimately lead to. Huck and Jim’s adventures together and their mental and moral struggles speak for themselves, and again open up a world of discussion, debate and awareness-raising, topics not to be shied away from in the classroom. In many ways, it is nowadays a very awkward and challenging read, as well as a very good story. My line always was, ‘if you can discuss it as sensibly and as maturely as you are able, then we will discuss it.’ And almost always, students rose to that challenge, and I respected them for that. I know I would say it, wouldn’t I, but in my experience literature provides many different openings for bringing the next generation of citizens to reflect on the world that they live in, as well as to appreciate the power of great literature.

On being tested (not for COVID!)

June 2, 2020

Something brought to my mind the horrifying realisation that it’s half a century this month since I did my O-Levels, which were the end-of school examinations at age 16 in England way back then. This has had me reflecting on the experience of being tested, which seems to happen a great deal more frequently than in my younger days…

I took the 11+ shortly before my tenth birthday (for some unknown reason, Lincolnshire County Council allowed you a go at age 10 if your school wanted you to, as well as the usual attempt at 11. I knew that it was an important test, on which my future education possibilities depended, and wanted to pass; the headmaster of our primary school coached a small group of us and I was successful. I have no recollection of the experience being stressful, and found the test itself quite straightforward and rather strange in places – I recall a (presumably mathematical) question about an election in which each of the candidates received exactly the same number of votes (2 each).

I was at a small Catholic boarding school when O-Levels came around. For some of the subjects I was aware we were following some kind of course; there were set books to study in English, RE and Latin, for instance, and specific topics to cover in History and Geography. None of the work felt particularly onerous, and I had some idea of the kind of questions I might meet. There was a French oral with an external examiner which required me to read a passage aloud and then converse with him about whatever came up…

I contrast my experience with that of students nowadays, including many of those whom I taught in a career of nearly thirty years: I felt very little pressure or stress, either from myself or my teachers. I have been fortunate in that I evolved a system for organising revision which stood me in good stead through all the stages of my education: no revising after 9pm, and no last-minute panic in the morning, so avoid conversations with peers about the upcoming exam. Triage of material: this stuff I know and understand pretty well, this stuff here needs a more careful look over, this other stuff I really do need to work on…

What was different then? Why did I feel more stressed about whether I’d get through three hours of exam without needing a pee, than about the questions on the paper? You were being assessed on what you knew and understood, and the examination wasn’t competitive, in the sense that there would only be a certain percentage of each grade awarded. There was also a trust in the markers and marking, which increasingly disappeared during my teaching career with the increase in the number of papers and exams, and the ever more complicated descriptors and mark schemes. These, along with markers being increasingly badly paid, led to people almost but not quite being dragged in off the street to do the work. I don’t think university places depended so much on grades at age 16, whereas everything seems to be taken into account nowadays. On the other hand, for many universities, O-Level Latin was a must for matriculation…

I felt supported by my parents, and my teachers, whose jobs and future prospects did not depend on how well we managed to do in our exams: they did their job, we did our work and it all came out in the wash.

A-Levels were a similar performance, and university applications and interviews – yes, they were important and pretty much de rigueur – a very gentlemanly business. The professor of French and I chatted and discussed whatever, until at a certain moment he said, “Bien, continuons en français!” (which we did) – I hadn’t expected that, but it was fine.

University exams were more stressful, because I developed hay-fever, which plagues me to this day, even as I write, and because they were in enormous exam halls with vast numbers of invigilators, some of whom thought it was OK to chat in the corners of the exam rooms… I loved my MA exam, because it was my first and only experience of a takeaway exam: we trooped in to collect the paper from the office at a set time and were instructed to return our scripts a fortnight later. And the viva for my MPhil thesis was a very civilised affair over a good lunch at the home of an academic, with two examiners, a hard man and a soft man. A serious grilling, though.

My most stressful experience of being tested came in a practical field: learning to drive. I passed only at the third attempt, finding the whole ordeal much more gruelling than most of my peers. I’m sure this was right, given that letting someone loose on the road in ton of metal that can move at up to 100mph or so is a very serious business. I’m still grateful to the friend and neighbour who insisted on my driving to the Lake District and back in her tiny Fiat 500 the day before my successful test, building up my confidence enormously and convincing me that I could be a driver.

I’ve read about countries where there are no examinations; I’ve read about countries where things are much more competitive and stressful. As a teacher, I experienced and administered 100% continuously-assessed coursework, which produced comparable results to examinations, but without the pressure and stress on students. So what is it all in aid of? How many ways can you weigh a pig? To a large extent, I think we’re victims of the fact that there have always been examinations, and as a society we have failed to think seriously enough about their purpose or necessity. Also, because data collection and analysis is now so easy and a money-making business in itself, the end justifies the means, and we are persuaded to believe that it’s fairer, more scientific, more accurate and a whole lot of other subjective things.

I have had to support students through the stress of their own expectations and their parents’ expectations of themselves. Some suffered greatly, and unnecessarily; sometimes they gave up. Some people can function effectively under pressure in examinations, some cannot; this does not mean they are incapable.

I’m no expert, but I have experience, personal and professional. I can not see any point in exams at age 16, since we expect students to remain in education until 18. Perhaps there is a need for some kind of certification of competences at a certain level in a few areas such as language, maths and IT at the end of schooling. Unless we plan to limit the numbers moving on to higher education, then what’s needed is an assessment of whether someone is capable of accessing and potentially succeeding at the next stage: this doesn’t have to be by examination…

Finally, I remind myself that examinations are now a vast industry: writing and rewriting syllabi, writing and publishing textbooks, producing exam papers and marking them, analysing all the data, providing training courses… the money recycling goes on ad infinitum. And who is it all serving?

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