Posts Tagged ‘Tom Sawyer’

Why do writers hate school?

February 9, 2018

I’ve been reading quite a bit about schools and education recently, and started to think about how writers treat the topic in literature, too. Although I’ve been retired from the profession for over six years now, I still keep in touch with some former colleagues, and my impression is that things have got worse, in terms of pressure, stress and workload since I left; there is less trust in teachers, and the notion of teaching as a profession, where teachers have been trained and acquired specific skills, rendering their work and opinions worthy of a certain respect, has diminished considerably.

Partly I feel as a society we are unclear what we want from schools: I’d suggest literacy, numeracy and oral communication skills to a level where people can understand the possibilities open to them, and have the opportunity to develop themselves further, when and how they wish, as a minimum… many people settle for school as a free child-minding service. I think it’s important that opportunity for education is available life-long: I’ve picked up two new languages and yoga, to name a couple of things, since leaving school.

Young children need the opportunity to play, mix with peers, and learn to be sociable. Older children need to have the opportunity to use their imagination, and to be creative; they need to be give freedom, and trusted as far as it’s possible. Such approaches foster open-mindedness and tolerance, and our entire society suffers – has suffered over recent decades – when we lose sight of these important values.

So I found myself wondering why school and education seemed to have by and large received such an appalling press in the books I recalled! Did all these writers have such awful memories of their schooldays? Charlotte Bronte‘s account of Lowood School in Jane Eyre is horrendous, and partly autobiographical, I understand. Mark Twain paints a ridiculous picture of small-town US schooling in Tom Sawyer, and the teachers in Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird don’t come off very much better.

Looking more closely, we have Dickens‘ satire of English education in Hard Times, with Mr Gradgrind as a cannon waiting to fire facts into the little girls and boys; no room for feelings, emotions, creativity there. A horse is a graminiverous quadruped, we are informed; Sissy can’t have pretty wallpaper in her bedroom with animals on it because in reality miniature animals don’t walk up and down walls… And although by the end, we see where such attitudes and practices get you, I often have the growing impression we’re headed back in that direction today…

Then there’s the truly evil account of Stephen Dedalus’ schooling in A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, James Joyce‘s thinly-disguised autobiography. There’s the vicious physical punishment with the ‘pandy-bat’ for something that was no fault of the boy’s, and there’s the horrendous hell-fire sermon which sends the adolescent into something verging on insanity, or at least a nervous breakdown.

I racked my memory for positive accounts of school and only came up with Josef Skvorecky‘s The Engineer of Human Souls, which hardly counts anyway, as we are with Canadian high school students studying literature for goodness’ sake, and anything and everything is grist to the mill in the author’s classes, although some of what we encounter there also testifies to the stultifying nature of education in earlier years…

At the moment I put it all down to the opposition between the creativity that is so embedded in the soul of a real writer and the rigidity of so much of schooling in the past. And yet, isn’t school where writers learn at least the rudiments of their craft?  I can see that a necessary drilling in the basics is necessary for survival in a relatively complex society can be – but doesn’t have to be – rather soul-destroying and dull. And this is one of the reasons why I really feel it’s time there was a proper, dispassionate consideration of what we want education to provide for our future citizens. I’m not holding my breath…

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On curiosity

February 6, 2016

Are you a curious person? Are you always asking questions? Do you like to learn something new every day? Some of my former students may well recall my offering them a new fact for the day, or announcing when I had learned something new from one of them.

Curiosity must be an essential attribute of human nature, otherwise we would never have got where we are today. There is general curiosity, and then there is a more intellectual sort of curiosity, on which I’ll concentrate today. Literature is full of examples of curiosity, and not all of them beneficial: my first example is Marlowe‘s Faustus, who is so keen to learn everything he can, and have the answers to all the questions which have so far eluded human understanding, that he sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power: foolishly, he thinks he will do well from the bargain, whereas of course, he comes off worse. And when he gets to ask all those burning questions, the devils are elusive, putting him off and distracting him, because knowledge is good, of course, and leads one to God… which is where Faustus may not go.

On a rather lighter level, Lewis Carroll‘s Alice is always asking questions (as children do), particularly about words. And for me, Mark Twain‘s Tom Sawyer has always been a symbol of curiosity, accumulating a rag-bag of random, accurate and inaccurate knowledge which he shares willingly with others and makes up when necessary…his eagerness to stick his nose into things leads him into all sorts of innocent and not-so-innocent scrapes.

And then, in Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, where everyone is oh so happy! where are the questions? where is the intellectual curiosity? Completely gone, as John the Savage learns to his dismay, horror and disgust, for he is surrounded by happy beings who are surely not humans in the way we recognise them. Questions challenge stasis and lead to disorder.

The ultimates in terms of the human quest for knowledge, for me, have been the real event of the first moon landing back in my younger days, and the fictional Star Trek, with humans boldly going where no-one has gone before – to find out.

And I often wonder what is happening, and may happen to intellectual curiosity in the days of the internet, and instant access to knowledge. Already there is evidence, some anecdotal and some more researched, that many younger people see little point in learning or memorising facts when they are instantly accessible on a device that is always to hand, and, perhaps of greater concern, that curiosity itself may be waning when, again, any information that may ever be needed can be instantly sought and retrieved. Maybe this isn’t terribly significant in the greater scheme of things and in the longer term, but we cannot know whether this is so now, and tomorrow may be too late.

As a teacher, I always found it easier both to motivate and to respond to students in whom I detected curiosity, the need to ask questions, to know and to understand, to question me and to challenge me: they were driven by an urge which I recognised and valued. And yes, I tried to inculcate this into more reluctant students, and did not always succeed. I found it rather saddening when students came to apply to university and played safe, choosing subjects that they thought would guarantee secure and lucrative employment afterwards, rather than choose – in a good number of cases – subjects they loved and were genuinely interested in. Then there were those students who, though extremely able in their fields of study, failed to impress interviewers at top universities because they didn’t have that questioning spark, that intellectual curiosity that was being looked for, and I could see how our education system, with its increasing focus on marks and grades and league tables, especially in the state sector, was depriving those students of the ability to enquire and to challenge…

I don’t ever see myself running out of curiosity, as it were; I’m already putting things mentally on hold until my next existence because there’s so much out there I find interesting and exciting. I’m fascinated by the idea that there was a time – several centuries ago now – when it was still possible for one person to know everything that there was to be known… and it cheers me that I can still be mentally blown away by an idea like that.

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