Monday, 13 February 2012

Learned we may be with another man's learning…

Teaching did not go well today. On the agenda was a short children's novel, Geoffrey Trease's Bows Against The Barons, a leftwing Robin Hood adventure.

Of the twenty or so in the seminar, three had read it. I went through the admin - including announcing that I'd arranged a theatre trip if they wanted to take the offer up, gave a quick potted history of the socialism and literature debates going on in the 1930s, and then realised that a) they wouldn't have anything to say about the novel and b) I didn't want to fill the silence with an extra lecture. So I cancelled the class.

I may well have sounded much huffier than I really am. I actually really like this class and look forward to it every week, which isn't always the case even though I love teaching. I'll still look forward to teaching them next week and hope there isn't a froideur in the room.

I also worry that I may have been a touch unreasonable: lots of the students have jobs and children to look after, and I may have asked them to read too much, though none have said so and I hope I'm approachable enough for them to mention it.

What does Montaigne have to say on the subject? In 'On Idleness', he has words which reprove both my students and me, for my blog wittering (you'll have to forgive the inaccurate biology - he was writing over 500 years ago):
…just as women left alone may sometimes be seen to produce shapeless lumps of flesh but need to be kept busy by a semen other than her own in order to produce good natural offspring: so too with our minds. If we do not keep them busy with some particular subject which can serve as a bridle to reign them in, they charge ungovernably about, ranging to and fro over the wastelands of our thoughts… When the soul is without a definite aim she gets lost; for, as they say if you are everywhere, you are nowhere.
That works for me as a definition of good teaching. I don't teach my students what to think and I don't make them more or less intelligent. I do show them new ways of thinking and hopefully provide them with texts which are worth thinking about - not necessarily in terms of judging quality, but ideas and subjects which illuminate their lives and widen their intellectual horizons. Sometimes they might be 'boring' texts: certainly the extract I gave them from Poly-Olbion last week couldn't be described as thrilling, but it does illustrate one perspective on Renaissance Britain.

Montaigne also has some sharp words for us teachers. In 'On Schoolmasters' Learning', he quotes some Latin doggerel from Rabelais' Gargantua which translates as the 'biggest clerks ain't the most wisest' and goes on lament that 'a soul enriched by so much knowledge' often fails to 'be more alert and alive' (how I wish he'd been on my PGCE course and not the new-age charlatans endlessly referenced instead). He goes on to speculate that:
…our minds are swamped by too much study and by too much matter, just as plants are swamped by too much water… our minds, held fast and encumbered by so many diverse preoccupations, may well lose the means of struggling free, remaining bowed and bent under the load
although he actually believes that the best minds expand the more they learn. I guess I'm not in that first rank: the more I learn, the more I worry how much more there is to learn before I have a basic grasp of anything, which produces a terrible paralysis. But Montaigne's right to attack the scholar who loses sight of the ultimate purpose: to expand the circle of scholars. By failing to consider my students' needs and capabilities empathetically and by giving up, I turned away from my usual progressive collaborative pedagogy back to a hierarchical, oppositional stance which serves nobody. Empathy has always been key to me: I ask myself what stage of life, what situation my students are in, and how literature might improve/destablise/challenge/broaden their cultural states. Having a bit of a strop doesn't really help. Montaigne feels keenly the usual division between the learned and the good in a way that Michael Gove and co. don't:
…the cares and fees of our parents aim only at furnishing our heads with knowledge: nobody talks about judgement or virtue. When someone passes by, try exclaiming 'Oh, what a learned man!'. Then, when another does, 'Oh, what a good man! Our people will not fail to turn their gaze respectfully towards the first. There ought to be a third man crying 'Oh, what blockheads!'.
We work merely to fill the memory, leaving the understanding and the sense of right and wrong empty… our schoolmasters go foraging for learning in their books and merely lodge it on the tips of their lips, only to spew it out and scatter it on the wind.  
Montaigne despises those teachers who treat learning as a secret which elevates the scholar above the concerns of the world and of those who use their skills for personal profit: he approves of those who like Heraclitus, preferred playing with children over ruling alongside the citizens who reproached him: I think Montaigne would have worked at a post-92 university like mine rather than an ivory tower.
But what is worse, their pupils and their little charges are not nourished and fed by what they learn: the learning is passed form hand to hand with only one end in view: to show it off, to put into our accounts to entertain others with it, as though it were merely counters, useful for totting up and producing statements… 'Apud alios loqui didicerunt, non ipsi sedum' (They have learned how to talk to others, not with themselves'). 
I certainly think that my students aren't entirely to blame for not doing their reading. Our education system from a very early age is dedicated to the generation of certificates rather than the acquisition of wisdom, and this is only getting worse under the current regime. League tables, SATS, classifications: is it any wonder that students under so much pressure try to get away with the minimum? Especially in my kind of institution where the classes are not filled with rich teenagers with no shortage of time or books. Wisdom, compared with the terror of unemployment and debt, is a luxury. I try my best - presenting them with texts they'll never see in a glossy BBC adaptation or on the shelves of Waterstone's, to provide alternative views of the things they think are simple and solid. But collaboration needs more than one enthusiast.
Whenever I ask a certain acquaintance of mine to tell me what he knows about anything, he wants to show me a book: he would not venture to tell me that he has scabs on his arse without studying his lexicon to find out the meanings of 'scabs' and 'arse'. 
Montaigne here is heading towards a very modern view of meaning: that it isn't in the books, it's in what the reader does with the books. That's why I don't just lecture and send out reading lists. My classes aren't indoctrination sessions: my students create meaning, if they speak. Without them, there is no meaning.

I could quote Montaigne all night, but I'll leave you with this analogy of his, which explains rather neatly why my students need to contribute as much as I do:
All we do is look after the opinions and learning of others: we ought to make them our own. We closely resemble a man who, needing a fire, goes next door to get a light, finds a great big blaze there and stay to warm himself, forgetting to take a brand back home. What use is it to us to have a belly full of meat if we do not digest it, if we do not transmute it into ourselves, if it does not make us grow in size and strength?… We allow ourselves to lean so heavily on other men's arms that we destroy our own force… Learned we may be with another man's learning: we can only be wise with wisdom of our own.* 
I'm quite a nervous and shy person (most voles are). Given the chance, I'd rather give a pre-prepared lecture to 300 people and leave. Instead, I make myself rearrange the classroom so that a small number of people have to look each other in the eye and rely on each other to make meaning. It's terrifying - which is how you know it's important. Let's not throw it away.

*And yes, I'm aware of the irony in thinking through an event by quoting someone else's wisdom.

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