Learning from the Masters


New College, Oxford, which has the motto, ‘Manners maketh man’.

We’re rather good at applying one standard to the real world, and another to schools.

In Katharine Birbalsingh’s To Miss with Love, there is an episode when Snuffy is inspired by the sight of a young man who stops to pick up something she has dropped in the street. She is so impressed by his consideration, but then her husband points outs that such things are very normal outside the world of state schools.

Good manners are a very ordinary matter; it is their destruction which is extraordinary. And their destruction has been achieved by the establishment of a school culture based on self-expression at any cost.

When a world class ballet dancer is perfectly synchronised to the music as she glides across the stage, do we criticise her for merely following instructions? Do we think any less of her achievement because she has submitted to the authority of the composer of the ballet, or learned her steps by imitating master dancers older than herself? Of course not. We assume that to achieve such mastery, a long programme of self-disciplined submission to authority is needed.

To imitate and to submit are the normal ways of learning. And yet in school they are often scorned, when educationalists claim that what matters more is self-expression and independent learning. When we take away the models for pupils to follow, we shouldn’t be surprised at the low level of the work which results. One thinks of Robert Frost’s interior desolation in ‘Desert Places’, where he reaches the logical conclusion of rampant subjectivism: ‘No expression, nothing to express’.

Or as teachers, we might have been persuaded to think that establishing fixed rituals in the classroom somehow undermines our creativity as autonomous professionals. But we admire the discipline of a football team as they execute an attacking strategy to perfection. Did they achieve that without planning and repeated practice?

Good manners; graceful dancing; footballing glory: all of these are mastered by patient and repeated imitation of those who know better, who perform better than we do. When we synchronise our steps, we can leave behind the painful self-consciousness inaugurated by the melancholy, lonely Romantics, and embrace instead the joyful spirit of collaboration that produced the plays of Shakespeare.

(Image from Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Newcollege_gate_to_gardens.jpg)


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