Embracing Civilisation

The word civilisation is becoming less frequent, with a move towards the more neutral ‘culture’. ‘Culture’ is morally neutral. We can discuss ‘popular culture’ or ‘hippie culture’ or ‘goth culture’ or ‘radical vegetable rights culture’ regardless of whether we consider these phenomena to have any aesthetic or moral value.

In contrast, when we use terms such as Western Civilisation, or Chinese Civilisation, or Ancient Greek Civilisation, we are implying that there is something of value in these cultures, something which civilises those who benefit from inheriting what previous generations have built. We also capitalise these terms because they are proper nouns phrases, which as the old grammar books tell you, means that they name an individual object. They are not amorphous; they are specific.

This specificity and dependence upon tradition is anathema to many in the modern world, who are desperate to pretend that every culture is of equal value. The pretence of equality is actually an example of the latest phase of Western Civilisation, in which it moves into self-destruct mode, having pulled up its own roots and declared that only the latest ideas can possibly be valid, because everyone who lived in the past was a nasty narrow minded bigot, and we know so much better nowadays.

So the embarrassment about using terms such as ‘Western Civilisation’ is in fact a peculiarly Western trait, which leads to a particularly aggressive form of cultural imperialism: presentism. Presentism is when the present invades the past, and heroes from the past are turned into puppets mouthing modern slogans and confirming modern values. Robin Hood is transformed into a neo-pagan tree hugger. Disney’s Aladdin turns the genie into a wise guy cracking contemporary jokes. It turns out that all of that weird, mysterious stuff from the past isn’t alien after all. It’s just another theme park, neatly commodified and packaged for mindless consumption and rapid disposal.

We must fight against this tendency to detach ourselves from the past, whether by ignoring it or trivialising it, because every age has its blind spots, and we will never become aware of them unless we travel to that other country, the past, where people do things differently. Great literature from past eras is one of the best ways of making the journey. But we must not twist and distort it to fit into contemporary agendas. To be civilised, our pupils must have a genuine experience of the great civilisation which is their birthright.

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A Visit to Michaela

As soon as I was walking down the corridors, I was impressed. A calm, purposeful and studious atmosphere is present throughout the school. Notices around the corridors proclaim that ‘silence is golden’, and I have never experienced a more ordered and civilised school environment. I witnessed one changeover between lessons: pupils walked steadily and purposefully to their next class.

In the classrooms, I saw pupils working hard in exercise books, on impressive artwork, or enthusiastically demonstrating their French abilities. They were using the subjunctive, something which I never learned to do in five years of studying French up to GCSE. Perhaps my teachers thought it was too hard for me. It certainly wasn’t too hard for the Michaela year sevens.

Lunch was the greatest illustration of the civilised culture of the school. Typically school canteens are fairly raucous and rowdy places, but not at Michaela. There is a seating plan, and pupils fetch the food and serve it up to their table. It is a wonderful opportunity for learning good manners and consideration, qualities which were abundantly in evidence on the table where I sat. Even better, Joe Kirby spoke to everyone and suggested topics for conversation, and lunch finished with ‘appreciations’ where pupils and staff could publicly thank others.

My grateful thanks to Katharine Birbalsingh and all the staff at Michaela, particularly Joe Kirby, who spared time during his busy day to show me some of the resources used in the English department. It was an unforgettable experience that gives me much food for thought.

The Importance of Digression

Teaching the whole class is the only effective and just approach, because it allows you to give the maximum attention to the maximum number of pupils. Individualised instruction leads to the neglect of most pupils, most of the time.

Simple arithmetic and logic justify whole class teaching as the most effective way of instructing large numbers of pupils. But it has other benefits too. When the teacher is engaged in discussion with the whole class, it gives him the opportunity to digress.

In conversation, digression happens continually, and we hardly notice it until we ask ourselves, ‘how did we end up talking about this?’ In class, it cannot be allowed to happen in an uncontrolled way. But I do regularly let it happen when a pupil asks an interesting question that is tangentially related to the topic we are covering.

A pupil asks an interesting question, and I choose to leap upon it, seizing the opportunity to broaden knowledge and give just a little glimpse of all the wonderful things there are to learn.

It’s at moments like these that pupils get a taste of how enthusiastic a teacher is about knowledge, not just in his own subject, but across the range of human endeavour, to the point where he has to discipline himself to keep on topic, because there is so much more to learn! It’s the original and best method of cross curricular linking.

My pupils know there are certain ways of provoking me into a mini lecture on my favourite topics, and I know that they know. They think they are being terribly cunning when they ask a certain question and they see my eyes light up. Sometimes I allow myself the pleasure of digressing, and sometimes I don’t. But I’m glad that my pupils know that there are things which I care about and which I consider to have great significance for deeper understanding of the humanities generally. Also, the very fact that they deliberately ask such questions shows that they themselves are beginning to see how knowledge is interrelated.

I remember the moments when my teachers digressed as some of the brightest spots on my own time at school. And it was always when they were standing at the front, engaging with the whole class. Nevertheless, as they discoursed about their favourite topic, it felt like they were talking directly to me.

The Uses of General Knowledge Quizzes

As the summer holidays approach, the demand for ‘fun’ lessons increases. What pupils usually mean by this is ‘lazy’ lessons in which they don’t have to do any thinking or work on anything challenging.

One tactic for manoeuvring around these demands is general knowledge quizzes. After all, people really do participate in such things as a leisure activity. And it’s amazing the difference between the reaction when one announces a quiz, compared to a test. But quizzes, conducted orally, are far from being a waste of time. They can be a great way of assessing and building general knowledge, which is so essential and so often neglected in the curriculum.

General knowledge quizzes also provide a great opportunity for gathering data about how much your pupils know, or don’t know, about topics which you might have considered to be quite straightforward. You might have thought they would pick this stuff up somewhere. But where, if their days are filled with ‘fun’ lessons and their evenings with video games or social media trivialities?

With a general knowledge quiz, you can quickly discover how much your pupils know, for example, about their own country, after x years of studying geography. Do they know which is the most southerly county? The most mountainous one? Can they name three common native trees or three things which grow in the hedgerows?

Give it a try, and you will be enlightened about how many gaps exist in the most basic knowledge of young people once you leave behind the narrow confines of the curriculum. Then start thinking about how you’re going to start filling them in. It’s never too late to start consciously aiming to build the broad general knowledge which is so essential to being part of the cultural conversation.

You could consider, for example, the books you study and the books on your recommended reading list. Do boy wizards and futuristic dystopias help teenagers build up their general knowledge of the world they live in, and its history? Or do they just transport them to fantasy worlds?

Or you could think about how much factual information is taught elsewhere in the humanities. Do they really need to study global warming or coastal erosion again, or might it be more beneficial for them to learn something about the country in which they live, such as the names, locations and principle features of the counties, for example?

You, as a teacher, just know this kind of stuff. But where did you learn it? Not at school, I’m willing to bet, but through growing up in a relatively literate and educated family where people read broadsheet newspapers and actually talked to each other. Are you going to help those who do not have your advantages, or are you going to abandon them to lifelong exclusion, not through stupidity, but simply through ignorance?