The Teacher’s Authority

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Martin Luther King Jr, who challenged authority on the basis of objective truth.

The Teacher’s Moral Authority

No community can function without the rule of law. In a classroom, it is the teacher who maintains order. He must enforce rules, or there will be chaos. The weak will suffer tyranny from the strong. There may even be physical threats to the safety of both pupils and teachers. Both teachers and pupils have been violently assaulted in British classrooms where there is a lack of proper order and discipline.

The teacher has a grave responsibility to ensure that the classroom is a safe and ordered place. In order to fulfil that grave responsibility, he must have authority. Pupils must obey the teacher’s instructions for the sake of maintaining an ordered community, which will be of benefit to everybody.

Are there any exceptions to this? Are there any times when pupils have a right to disobey a teacher’s instructions? Yes, but they would be exceptional. They would be occasions where it would actually be immoral to obey the teacher.

This is analogous to the rule of law in society. We are obliged to obey the law, unless there are grave reasons for not doing so. Martin Luther King Jr articulated these reasons in his letter from Birmingham Jail in 1964, in which he said:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

King could only make such statements because he was judging the law based on objective standards. He measured the laws of the USA against objective standards of justice, and found them wanting. Thus he deliberately broke the law in order to draw attention to its injustice. He had no wish to express an ‘personal opinion’ or exert his ‘individual voice’. He considered that both he and the law must submit to higher principles which were not matters of opinion, but of truth.

It would be a grave and extreme case indeed if a pupil found similar reasons for disobeying their teacher’s authority. And the pupil would not even be capable of acting this way unless he had sufficient knowledge to measure his situation against objective standards. He will be enabled to acquire this knowledge if his classroom is ordered and his teacher takes his responsibility for forming minds seriously.

The Teacher’s Intellectual Authority

Intellectual authority is related to moral authority, but distinct. In most cases, the teacher knows more than the pupil, and if the pupil is going to learn, he needs to recognise this, so that he can move towards the expertise which the teacher has.

There will be times, however, when the pupil genuinely knows more than the teacher. An older pupil may have a special interest in a topic and have done considerable extra reading and study, and have acquired greater knowledge than the teacher in that particular area. This is conceivable, but it is a special case. In these cases, the pupil may realise that the teacher has made a factual error. For example, he may have given an incorrect date for an historical event.

What should the pupil do in this circumstance? He may raise his hand and, after having obtained permission to speak, point out the error to the teacher. The teacher may be convinced that he is right nevertheless. In this case, the pupil should drop his objection until such a time as it can be pursued without publicly undermining the authority of his teacher.

Promoting Critical Thinking

To think critically about any topic, a large store of knowledge is required, so that relevant examples can be compared and reasoned judgements made. The main task of the school teacher is to transmit this knowledge to pupils, so that eventually, once they have attained sufficient expertise, they will be able to think critically. The more knowledge pupils have, the better they will be able to judge the accuracy of the information which they encounter, not only in school, but in the media and in politics.

Therefore, the goal of being able to ask reasonable questions and make rational judgements is best served by the recognition of the teacher’s moral and intellectual authority. Pupils will learn much more in a safe and ordered classroom where they can listen and learn from those who know more than they do. Not that they will be silent in such a classroom, but when they do speak, they will do so in a respectful and rational way, and their comments will be based on knowledge, not ignorance, and on the humble quest for truth, not the arrogant assertion of opinion.

It is liberating to realise that education is not about the glorification of subjective self-expression, but about the acquisition of objective knowledge. Once pupils have realised this, they are on the road to developing genuine critical thinking.

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What Is a Traditional Teacher?

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Illustration of the twelve teachers of wisdom in Dante’s Paradiso, by Giovanni di Paolo (1403-1482)

I was once asked to provide a definition of traditional teaching in one tweet, and I described it as ‘knowledge for the mind, and discipline for the will’. A traditional teacher sees their role as primarily the transmission of valuable knowledge and secondarily the formation of good habits. These two goals involve a struggle against the natural ignorance and arrogance of the human race. Education is a battle against nature, not an embracing of its providential designs. The philosophy that Hirsch has labelled ‘providential individualism’ must be rejected.

Forming Good Habits

Knowledge cannot be acquired without good habits. A pupil who does not concentrate, who does not work hard, who interrupts teachers and peers, will remain both ignorant and arrogant. In order for knowledge to be acquired, egotism must be overcome; the pupil must begin to realise how ignorant he is and that others know far more than he does; he must realise that in order to obtain the knowledge which his superiors have mastered, a long, hard struggle will be needed.

A rigorous programme of academic study develops all four of the great human virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. A pupil must make prudent decisions about how to spend his time best; he must do justice to his teacher by obeying instructions and showing gratitude for the gift of knowledge; he must be temperate, especially in his speech; he must show fortitude if he is to persevere in mastering academic subjects thoroughly.

These virtues are not acquired overnight, any more than a thorough knowledge of history is to be obtained by reading a few articles on Wikipedia. They are acquired by a persistent effort to overcome egotism, by repeated practice under the guidance of authoritative instruction. To stand much chance of acquiring them, we need a community in which these virtues are viewed as the norm, and in which there are public consequences for being imprudent, unjust, intemperate or cowardly.

Humanity is something which we must struggle to acquire under the guidance of an authoritative community, not something we are born with. This is much easier to understand when one is involved in the raising of children, especially when they are younger. It is abundantly clear to a parent of young children that they are struggling to acquire the habits of their tribe. They are imitating the speech and the actions of their elders. Without an authoritative example to follow and without the struggle to imitate that example, they would not reach maturity.

Transmitting Knowledge

Walking and talking are universal accomplishments for ordinary members of the human race. They are remarkable accomplishments; they are cognitive feats which are achieved through much struggle and repeated practice. They can be learned by most people without formal instruction, however, because the normal child is surrounded by examples and receives rapid feedback on mistakes, either because his words are not understood or because he falls flat on his face.

Even these most universal of human accomplishments cannot be described as natural. To be human is to learn from others, to depend upon others, to submit to the authoritative example of others within a community, in order to grow and mature.

This is even more true when we come to formal academic instruction, which opens new vistas to the mind which are outside immediate experience. Reading and writing are not universal accomplishments; they are more artificial than speaking and walking; that is to say, they are more uniquely human. Writing with an alphabet which represents the sounds of speech is quite a recent invention in the whole span of human history. It is a remarkably flexible and useful one, which opens up vast new possibilities for knowledge and understanding. But in order to acquire it, formal instruction is required. Children may prefer to run around and play with mud and sticks. They should certainly have time for doing such things. But they will never learn to read and write by doing them. To learn to read and write, they must submit to authority and work hard under the guidance of instructors.

The traditional teacher recognises the importance of formal instruction, but also recognises its limits. He makes a clear distinction between work and play. Work requires self-discipline and effort. There is a place for play, once work has been completed. But they must not be muddled with each other, or neither one will be properly appreciated.

The traditional teacher works intensively to transmit the knowledge which the child requires to be inducted into the adult community. He sees in the child a human being who is not yet fully formed, and accepts the responsibility of forming the mind of that child by introducing him to the great human accomplishments in literature, history, science and mathematics.

Conclusion

Life is so much simpler when one recognises that hard work is needed to accomplish anything of value. Hard work can then be embraced wholeheartedly, and this leads to a deeper happiness than mere diversion or entertainment can ever bring.

A traditional understanding of education means that both teacher and pupil know that they are doing something serious and important, on which the continuation of human civilisation depends. Everything they are doing has a purpose, and it is a purpose which goes beyond mere individual gratification, and raises every person to real human dignity, as a member of a community who makes a contribution to its present health and its future existence.

Google Isn’t to Blame

CompassA recent article in The Guardian pointed out how easily those searching on the internet could be led astray. The suggestions offered by Google when one began typing a question about Jews quickly led one to a large number of antisemitic websites which appeared to offer convincing evidence. Without a good grounding in objective knowledge, one could begin to believe the poisonous lies offered by these sources of ‘information’. Michael Fordham has recently written eloquently on the same theme, offering two examples of historical misinformation, and asking us whether we would be able to judge their reliability without relevant background knowledge.

It seems that Google is leading people astray. Because their search algorithms are based upon what people previously searched for, and because their results are based on what people previously clicked following that search, the information we find through Google is not sifted according to reliability, but according to popularity. Thus lies and misinformation can quickly assume an air of respectability, as long as sufficient numbers of people are willing to countenance them.

But Google is not to blame for this tendency to believe popular opinions, which has been leading people astray since time immemorial. We all tend to believe in things when we are surrounded by those who also do so. The internet simply provides a new arena in which lies can become popular and widely believed. It does not fundamentally change the challenge for all of us, which is the challenge of seeking truth rather than simply conforming to popular opinion.

We should not blame Google for leading people astray. We should look much deeper at the relativist philosophy which makes it possible for people to believe in the websites which they discover after a quick fifteen minute search. This is prevalent in our education system, where pupils are encouraged to express themselves without regard for objective truth or reality. If their teachers have been congratulating them on the forceful expression of ill-informed views throughout their youth, can we be surprised that so many people think they are able to become experts in a topic at the click of a button?

Along with relativism, there is the widespread idea that acquiring knowledge should be effortless and painless. Like the detergents which promise they will magically clean without the need for scrubbing and polishing, progressive ideas promise that knowledge will enter the mind without struggles or frustrations. And like the promises of these magical products, this can never actually be true. But if young people hear day after day that learning should be fun, why should they bother to make the effort to acquire in depth knowledge about a topic, when they could just google it?

We are preparing young people to be duped when we tell them that their ill-informed opinions are valid, or that learning should be fun. We are preparing them to believe in lies and misinformation. The only antidote to the age-old tendency to conform to popular opinion is to rediscover the traditional concept of education as what G K Chesterton called ‘truth in the state of transmission’.

The Community of Knowledge

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Contemporary miniature of the Battle of Agincourt, 1415.

We still read out loud to our older children every evening. They are perfectly capable of reading silently by themselves, but we don’t want to lose the experience of sharing stories together. Sometimes we read old favourites that we’ve read several times before; sometimes we read something new. Over time, we’re building up a shared body of knowledge. We all know who Pip is, and Magwitch, and Aslan, and Frodo Baggins. In family conversation, these characters are part of our shared frame of reference. It’s a miniature version of what E D Hirsch has been campaigning for vigorously at a national level: shared knowledge for a shared conversation.

One of the examples which Hirsch gives which stays most strongly with me is that of his own father, who was a businessman, but who saw nothing odd about referring to Shakespeare in business letters. He only needed to say that ‘there is a tide’ to express the idea that here was an opportunity which needed to be seized, a time to act which would pass by if it were not taken advantage of. He expected his business colleagues, who had received a traditional education as he had, to pick up the reference to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Brutus argues that now is the time to attack, using this naval metaphor:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Hirsch’s father evidently didn’t consider it elitist or obscure to quote Shakespeare in a business letter. The reference was commonly known because of the persistence of traditional education, which collapsed in the decades which were to follow.

From small beginnings, but with increasing momentum as the years go by, we need to rebuild the community of knowledge which Hirsch’s father took for granted, giving an ever greater number of people access to the richness of great literature. This richness is the heritage of every human being, because it is human knowledge, not the possession of an elite. Shakespeare, of course, wrote for the common people, and his plays were popular amongst all classes of society. Dickens, likewise, felt no shame in aiming for a mass audience. He did not consider the rich language of his novels to be something that only a cultural elite would be able to access. Many an ordinary family would sit around the fire in the nineteenth century, listening with excitement to the latest episode of the master storyteller’s latest novel, which he published through his own periodicals. The first of these was called Household Words. Not university words, not academic words, not obscure words: household words. The reference is to another great Shakespearean speech:

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.

It’s the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. This is a speech which my year eights memorise, and I often reflect on how fitting it is as we chant it together in class, because it is about a shared memory which will regularly be revisited as part of the cycle of liturgical feasts. It is about a past which the ordinary people of England will treasure together. It is about tradition and inheritance.

There are two things which need to be understood before the community of knowledge can be rebuilt.

Firstly, teachers need to understand that everyone can have access to the richness of literature, when direct, effective methods are used, which involve memorisation through oral drill and repeated practice. Why should anyone be excluded? There are no practical reasons, only ideological ones, for the restriction of great literature to a privileged few.

Secondly, the greatness and importance of the literary tradition must be understood. What is in the past, what has been known and spoken and written by generations of English men and women, what has entered into our very language through countless references in countless texts, that must be the common foundation which is laid in our schools. On that basis, we can rebuild a community of shared knowledge which will civilise and enrich our national cultural conversation to an immeasurable extent.

The Price of Knowledge

One of the greatest beauties of knowledge is that it can be shared without division. I can know something and I can pass that knowledge on to someone else, without any reduction in what I possess. I will even be richer for the giving, as the process of teaching deepens my knowledge.

Knowledge grows and develops among people more like plants than like manufactured commodities, by the abundant production of seeds in the minds of those who acquire it, which in turn produce further seeds, and so it spreads, as long as the conditions are right for germination.

But how widespread are those favourable conditions? How many schools have a clear, direct mission to transfer to the next generation the most important human knowledge, which cost so many of our ancestors so much struggle? How many teachers realise that every single one of their pupils is capable of establishing firm foundations in every academic subject, so long as memorisation and repeated practice are an ordinary feature of teaching? How many pupils are cheated out of the mind-expanding potential of the great truths of science and literature, being patronised instead with ‘relevant’, dumbed down content that leaves them exactly where they started, or even poorer, convinced that it is their opinion that matters, not the timeless insights of greater, wiser minds?

Knowledge only costs us the effort to acquire it, but it is a priceless acquisition. It is one of the greatest tragedies of our education system that knowledge has so often had a price tag attached. Because of the bad ideas that have burdened so many state schools for so many years, those who have wished their children to acquire knowledge, the heritage of every human being, have often felt that they need to pay fees, on top of the taxes which they have no choice but to pay, in order for this to happen.

(Image: The Little Schoolboy by Antonio Mancini, 1852-1930).

Learning to Love Literature

That hotel, which is pure surface, apparently.

In Seven Myths, Daisy Christodoulou rightly identifies the philosophy underlying progressivism as postmodernism, because of its rejection of truth, which then leads to a refusal to pass on definite knowledge, seeing in this merely the imposition of one person’s beliefs upon another. Thus the central purpose of education, which as Chesterton points out, is only ‘truth in a state of transmission’, is lost.

But there is another aspect of postmodernism which poisons education: the declaration that there is no depth, only surface, as in Fredric Jameson’s famous analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Staying on the surface means gazing at the forms of literature, and declining to enter into its deeper meaning. Indeed, English undergraduates are taught to reject the whole concept of deeper meaning which can appeal across ages and generations as a humanist myth that has been disproved by the more advanced thinking of the cultural materialists. Materialism denies the soul, and therefore denies the existence of any transhistorical human nature to which great writers could appeal across the centuries. We are left only with shifting surfaces, supplemented by reductionist sociological readings that turn literature into a mere historical artefact, and usually one which supports the evil oppressors.

Thus the very existence of a deeper content to literature is systematically attacked by university English departments, and we are left with two things: form, and sub-Marxist historical context. Two boxes which GCSE and A level examiners are endlessly ticking. There isn’t any message. Or if there is, the medium is the message. Or the message is the same message over and over again: that everything is written to support the powerful and crush the poor.

How excruciatingly dull and lifeless.

All my teaching career, I’ve battled with the expectation to place form and context so prominently, when what I really want to talk about is content. Does anyone read anything because they want to admire its form or comment on how it relates to economic arrangements? Or do we read things because we’re interested in their subject – I mean their human subject? Of course there is a connection between the form, context and content, and for the fullest understanding of meaning, we need a sensitivity to the forms of literature as well as its living, human context, but the form is never an end in itself and the artwork can never be reduced to historical documentation. The form is merely a means by which the artist communicates. The artist wishes to communicate something to the reader. He is an artist because he is highly skilled at shaping language to communicate. What he communicates can have multiple meanings, layers of meaning, certainly, but meaning there is, and meaning is what the reader is looking for.

Meaning at its highest level is significance: philosophical significance, moral significance, human significance. The meanings of great literature are endless and inexhaustible. That’s why people keep reading it generation after generation. They don’t keep reading it so they can say, “Wow, look how he used personification there” or make erudite comments on how the base has shaped the superstructure. They read it for meaning, deep meaning which changes their lives.

That’s where the love of reading comes from. And that’s why we so often kill it in schools. David Didau has written about this recently, inspired by a controversial lecture from the ever interesting Frank Furedi. One of the points David considered was whether we do not think enough about what pupils are reading, because we are too concerned about how they learn to read. This is so crucial. In every area of the curriculum, but especially in the arts and humanities, the how has replaced the what. Form has replaced content: this is the skills agenda. It is one of the progressive mantras, and it is thoroughly postmodern. It doesn’t matter what you read. What matters is that you develop skills of literary and contextual analysis, and you can do that with any material, so the argument goes.

It’s certainly true that you can analyse anything, even the most trivial products of popular culture. George Orwell was one of the first to do this, with his essays on seaside postcards. These artefacts have an interest for their cultural meaning. But they are not of interest in themselves. They do not have the intrinsic interest of great literature. They do not have a meaning which can appeal across the generations, because it is deep enough to speak to any human soul. When we favour form over content, analysis over meaning, context over artwork, we take the power out of the hands of the artist and place it in the hands of the scholar and the critic. Thus does literature crumble into dust; thus does it turn into a dead butterfly pinned to the page.

The life of literature is in its meaning. That’s why we love it, if we love it at all. Everyone who has fallen in love with literature will say that it has changed their life. And they’ll never say it changed their life because of the subtle use of a concluding couplet or the skilful deployment of metaphor. Those techniques may have helped it to have the impact it did. But it was never the artist’s intention that we should stop at the surface and never enter the depth.

How are we to lead our pupils into these depths, so that they can discover the joy of reading? Firstly, we need to do a lot of reading great stories out loud, from a young age. Right from the start, children can start meeting Goldilocks and Robin Hood and St George and King Arthur and Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver and Ebenezer Scrooge. Exposure to a wide range of great stories from a young age will open their minds to all the wonderful experiences of literature. They should be listening to stories that are well beyond their ability to read, because it gives them a glimpse of the exciting territory that lies ahead once they have mastered that skill.

Secondly, we need to do a lot of memorisation, and this can begin even before children can read. Memorisation can be done entirely orally, and it gives possession of beautiful and meaningful words to the child. They can own them, and turn them around in their heads, speak them loud and soft, taste them in a way that cannot be achieved without this ancient, wise practice of committing to heart.

There it is. Simple. At primary school, alongside thorough training in the skills of decoding, lots of reading out loud and lots of memorising. And there’s no reason not to continue sharing stories and committing poetry to heart at secondary school.

Further reading:

Against Analysis, Or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

To Educate Human Beings, You Must Believe in Their Existence

(Image from Wikimedia).

Substandard Poetry in Exam Anthologies

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Yes, I remember Adlestrop. But some of the other GCSE poetry, I’d rather forget.

I’ve been working on finalising my resources for teaching GCSE over the summer, and it has caused me to reflect on some of the material I am required to teach. In selecting novels and plays, I have been able to make choices of texts which I know will build cultural capital. As well as being great works of art, the literature I have chosen – Macbeth, A Christmas Carol and Animal Farm  – are all texts which have had a significant influence, and which form reference points which are valuable to learn for the sake of cultural literacy.

In selecting poetry, I have a choice of three collections put together by the exam board. All of them contain poetry from 1789 until the present day: in other words, from the Romantic era onwards. Firstly, the 1789 start point is a missed opportunity. It cuts out the work of wonderful poets such as Donne, Marvell and Herbert entirely. Still, I am grateful that at least it goes back that far. The older selections are all worthwhile, both as works of art and as culturally influential, but once we get past the middle of the twentieth century, the quality goes rapidly downhill. In the selection I have chosen, which I consider the least worst option, nothing later than Elizabeth Jennings is good enough or culturally influential enough to merit the time and effort of studying it in preparation for a major public exam.

I have a simple way of testing whether poetry is worth studying, at any age or level of ability: is it worth memorising?

What makes a poem worth memorising? Firstly, the beauty of the words that the poet has chosen, in the order which he has placed them, make great poems priceless intellectual possessions which we should want to give to our pupils. Secondly, great poems, precisely because they are memorable and beautiful, make a significant contribution to the culture of our nation. Are they likely to be referred to by educated people? Have they had a large impact on later writers and thinkers? William Morris said that everything in a house should either be useful or beautiful. Great poems are both. Memorising great poems is a rich and exciting experience for young people, which gives them an intellectual and aesthetic gift which will last a lifetime.

That’s why it’s such a tragedy when substandard poetry of questionable cultural importance forms such a large part of exam board anthologies. Huge numbers of young people will be focusing their minds on these poems. They may even be memorising them (although this practice is strangely rare). If they’re going to put all that effort in, it should only be for the best and most important writing. It should not be for lines like these:

let me be your vacuum cleaner
breathing in your dust
let me be your ford cortina
i will never rust

Is anyone seriously going to claim that such lines merit as much space in the nation’s poetry study as Blake’s

I wander thro’ each charter’d street
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Ask yourself: if you were going to memorise one of these, which would it be?