An Orwellian Education

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Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950)

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), education plays a crucial role. It is because most of the animals do not succeed in learning to read and write that the pigs dominate the formulation of the principles of Animalism, the allegorical equivalent of Marxism-Leninism. But it is not only literacy which matters. Memory is a vital component of the plot too, as most of the animals fail to memorise the Seven Commandments, the founding principles of the Rebellion which are painted in large letters on the barn wall. Thus when Squealer, who represents Stalin’s Minister of Propaganda Molotov, alters the Commandments, the animals do not have a clear and certain reference point in their long term memories which allows them to be sure that something is amiss. Squealer also changes history, reversing the role of Snowball (Trotsky) from that of revolutionary hero to that of traitor. Squealer’s lies are so detailed and persuasive that they come to replace reality in the animals’ memories.

As the animals are the allegorical representation of the people of the Soviet Union, it’s worth considering what Orwell is suggesting about education for the masses. There are different types of animals on the farm, and their educational capacity varies from full literacy, in the case of the pigs who represent the Bolshevik elite, down to a complete inability to learn how to read and write, together with a very hazy, indistinct memory that is easy manipulated.

What does this suggest about the people of the Soviet Union under Stalin? Animal Farm suggests that there are different types of people who are capable of different levels of education, and there are those whose capacities for learning are so limited that they will always be at the mercy of their intellectual superiors. This was a widely held belief when Orwell wrote the novel in the forties, and it led to the creation of the two tier education system after the Second World War, based on the assumption that only a small minority could benefit from an academic curriculum.

Thankfully, this belief does not correspond with reality. The capacity to remember is not limited to a privileged few. It is a universal human capacity. Although fluid intelligence – the processing power of the brain – varies quite widely, crystallised intelligence – the store of schemas in long term memory – can make up for this variation. Everyone can remember. Everyone can become smarter and think better about anything, so long as they build up a store of knowledge in their long term memory.

This means that there are no sheep among the human race. There are no people condemned just to bleat whatever slogan the elite imposes upon them. All can remember, and this is the antidote to propaganda. But this antidote depends upon an education system that recognises this reality and endows ordinary people with the treasures of knowledge from past ages, so that they won’t be stranded in the present and easy prey to those who tell lies about history.

William C Bagley, who did valiant battle with his colleagues in the progressive-dominated Columbia Teachers College, put it well in 1922. He was concerned that the misuse of intelligence tests was leading to the categorisation of humanity into those who could and could not benefit from an academic curriculum:

To endow the masses with genius is biologically impossible; but to endow the masses with the fruits of genius is both educationally possible and socially most profitable. The mental tests will help most if they aid the teacher in discharging this transcendent duty. They will render a gratuitous and disastrous disservice if they encourage in the teacher the conviction that the illumination of common minds is either an impossible or a relatively unimportant task. (See Diane Ravitch, Left Back, p153)

The rhetoric of the twenties, with categories such as ‘feeble minded’, would not go down well these days. But in a softer form, these ideas persist. Too often, children are labelled as incapable when really they are just ignorant. The role of the school is to give them the knowledge that will make them capable, not to pander to their interests, and leave them just where they are: easy prey for manipulation.

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Teaching Knowledge: Spoilers Are Essential

800px-london_hoefnagels_map_of_1572If we are reading a novel for pleasure, we want the plot to unfold, and we very much resent having the surprise undone by being told in advance what is going to happen. But when teaching complex works of literature, we must use spoilers. We must give the game away right from the start.

Knowledge of a Shakespeare play, like any other knowledge, must build on the foundations of what was previously learned. If we jump in and start reading through the play, our pupils will not be able to see the wood for the trees. Unless one has a good idea what one is reading about beforehand, one will struggle to make sense of what one is reading. This problem is particularly acute with Shakespeare, where there are so many other challenges in terms of language, densely packed imagery and allusion.

Therefore, it is essential to begin with an overview. Before studying a play in depth, I require pupils to memorise a summary of the main events. This provides the framework, the map, so pupils do not become lost and unable to make sense of their surroundings. Having memorised this overview, we can repeatedly return to it. I can pause when dealing with an important passage in the play, and draw pupils’ attention to where we are.

For example, if we are looking in detail at the scene where Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, I can say to the class, “We’re in Act Three. What are the main events?” At this point, I will fire questions at pupils, ‘cold calling’ them to give them the opportunity to recall and retain this key information. We’ll go through the murder of Banquo, the ghost at the banquet, and the news that Macduff has joined Malcolm in England. Then I’ll ask what these events have in common – and we’ll remind ourselves that at this middle point in the play, Macbeth is consolidating power, but also that his downfall is beginning, and will continue through Acts Four and Five. Then we can return to the banquet scene with a fresh sense of its significance as a key moment in which Macbeth begins to lose the support of the Scottish nobility, who will desert him in ever greater numbers as the play moves towards its tragic conclusion.

All this discussion depends upon beginning with an overview. It depends upon frontloading explicit knowledge of key facts, before going into detail, and requiring the memorising of those facts to the point of fluency.

With this map in hand, pupils can begin to explore the complex territory of a play by Shakespeare. Without it, they are liable to get lost in the undergrowth very quickly.

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.

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).

Academic Knowledge

Academic knowledge is a mysterious and an ominous thing. We are told that young children are not ready for it, that some children will never cope with it, that ordinary folk have no use for it, that only elitists care about it.

What is this arcane and dangerous substance? How can it be distinguished from common or garden knowledge, so that we can place government health warnings on it, for the sake of public safety? After all, we wouldn’t want young children going too near it. Perhaps it’s time we put age restrictions on serious works of literature and history, and placed them on the top shelf in bookshops?

Clearly it is urgent that we establish some means of classification. Academic knowledge must be handled with tongs and kept well out of sight when tender young minds are present. So let’s look at a few examples. Consider fairy tales. They have lasted through many generations, have huge cultural resonance, and typically involve life or death battles between good and evil. This is looking serious: they share so many characteristics with Shakespeare’s tragedies. Therefore I suggest they be removed from the shelves of primary schools, in favour of cuddly stories about small children who lose their favourite teddies. The young must be protected!

And what about history? I have been shocked to discover that some young children are still being exposed to some actual historical dates. Such things have been proven by science to be inimical to the development of their creativity. Never must 1066 be mentioned again. Children must make their own history, by sharing family stories with each other, otherwise they might be in danger of discovering that they are not in fact the centre of the universe. Just imagine how traumatic that discovery would be for our delicate young pupils. Their little brains might never recover from it.

It’s time to get serious about protecting the young and vulnerable from the mental health risks posed by this toxic substance. Academic knowledge must be avoided!

(Image from Wikimedia).

The Experience of Mastery Learning

A major component of traditional teaching has always been memorisation. Core knowledge must be stored in long term memory, because unless you remember something, you can’t think with it, and you can’t even be said to have learned it. Learning means changes in long term memory.

To this end, I’ve put together ‘memory points’ for my pupils to learn, which consist of questions and answers. Here are a few examples from the year seven literature course:

When is Beowulf set? Beowulf is probably set in the sixth century, before the Germanic peoples converted to Christianity.

Who is Beowulf? Beowulf is a Geat warrior who crosses the sea to aid the Danes and later returns to Sweden to succeed his uncle Higlac as king.

Who is Grendel? Grendel is an evil monster descended from Cain, who brings death and destruction to Herot.

Of course, these do not stand in isolation. We read Beowulf, we discuss it, we analyse it, and we also enjoy memorising and reciting a part of the poem itself. The section we memorise is taken from the speech of Wiglaf, Beowulf’s cousin, when Wiglaf is attempting to persuade his fellow warriors to stand by Beowulf in his hour of need, as he takes on a mighty dragon in his final battle:

And we must go to him, while angry
Flames burn at his flesh, help
Our glorious king! By Almighty God,
I’d rather burn myself than see
Flames swirling around my lord.
And who are we, to carry home
Our shields, before we’ve slain his enemy
And ours, to run back to our homes with Beowulf
So hard-pressed here? I swear that nothing
He ever did deserved an end
Like this, dying miserably and alone,
Butchered by this savage beast: we swore
That these swords and armour were each for us all!

I never studied Beowulf before I decided to teach it. It was one of the many holes in my knowledge of classic literature. I have therefore been through the process of learning about it myself over the last year, as I have been introducing a more traditional, chronological curriculum. I have been learning the memory points myself, as well as the passages from the texts which I set for memorisation.

Going through the process of memorisation is highly instructive. I wrote the memory points myself, but that certainly did not mean they were thereby stored in my memory. If engaging with ideas and synthesising knowledge were enough for mastery, then I would have known them after having written them. But my knowledge was hazy at best after having studied the material and written the memory points. And if it was hazy for me, someone who is adept at literary analysis and already has a large store of literary knowledge, how hazy would it be for year seven pupils with far less prior knowledge and experience?

The haziness of the material as I have struggled to commit it to memory has helped me understand the process of mastering new knowledge. I have learned it with the classes. When we begin tackling a new set of memory points, we chant them together, gradually looking less and less at the page on which they are written. We tend to do this at the start and the end of a lesson, so there is time for forgetting in between. And because I am going through the process myself, I can see how much I have forgotten in that twenty or thirty minutes.

The continued haziness even after many practice sessions also helps me to see how we tend severely to underestimate the amount of practice required. When I am teaching something I have already mastered, I soon start to think, ‘Oh, that must be enough practice now’, but then I recall how much practice I did when I didn’t yet thoroughly know the material, and how it still hadn’t sunk in. Expert blindness is a very real and very misleading phenomenon. Our pupils really do need far more practice than we think they do. Putting oneself through the process of memorisation is an excellent way of convincing ourselves of this.

There has been no getting around it. Engaging, analysing, thinking, have not been enough. If I have wanted clarity of thought, if I have wanted real mastery, I have had to hammer the knowledge into my head, and that takes a lot of hard work. I really enjoyed writing the memory points, but actually mastering the knowledge they contain has been more about gritting my teeth and getting on with it, and suffering many mistakes and failures along the way.

Still, it has had its pleasures, and these are part of what Doug Lemov calls the ‘joy of schooling’. A class full of children is the most enjoyable environment imaginable for committing material to memory, because you can chant it enthusiastically together. It becomes a shared experience. Everyone is learning exactly the same thing, including me. How often I have been corrected by year seven pupils who have mastered the material more quickly than I have! It’s a great equaliser, because, as I explain to them frequently, and as I exemplify through my own struggle, everyone can memorise, but it’s not effortless for anyone. It just takes hard work and repeated, spaced out practice. That’s true whether you are eleven or thirty eight, whether you have three university degrees or none.

The Emptiness of the English Curriculum

Old BooksA new science teacher at my school reported to me a conversation which he had had with his pupils. They had asked with astonishment how he knew what they had studied before, when he had just arrived. He explained to them that there is a national curriculum which specifies the content to be studied in science, so pupils in different schools essentially study the same material.

I don’t know what that’s like. I teach English, in which the national curriculum doesn’t get much beyond ‘read some stuff and write some stuff’, once you’ve removed all the jargon and flannel. It isn’t until public examinations are being taken that things start to take a slightly more specific form.

I’m working on creating an English curriculum which builds knowledge of literature and literary history in a coherent, chronological way, so I will actually know more about what my pupils know from year to year, and they will be able to establish a mental schema into which they can fit new knowledge about literature across the ages. I would welcome a national curriculum for English that genuinely helped teachers build resources which they could share across schools. I would welcome a national curriculum for English that created a common body of knowledge, for teachers and for pupils.

There are many problems with curricular incoherence, as E D Hirsch has pointed out. One of them is that when pupils move between schools, there is no common body of knowledge that they are expected to know. When a new pupil arrives in my class, I just have to assume they know nothing about literary history and classic literature. It’s a pretty safe assumption, frankly, given the fluff which fills the English curriculum in most schools prior to GCSE. If they join in year eight or nine, it’s hard on them to have to try to catch up with the years of hard work my pupils have put into mastering core knowledge.

Specifying content and then testing it through national examinations is currently the only way in which coherence is established in the English curriculum. I am very much in favour of the testing of specific knowledge in English. Given the emptiness and incoherence of so much English teaching around the country, it can only be a benefit actually to specify something so that the years aren’t completely wasted on vacuous ‘creativity’. The howls of outrage with which testing of grammar and punctuation in primary school is greeted show how much resistance there is to the government’s, actually very mild, efforts to turn English into a real subject with some hard content that can actually be tested objectively. What, you actually want them to learn something specific? How off-putting!

With a significant increase in specific, objective testing, there would be some chance that at some point in the future, I would be able to depend just a little more on the pupils who arrive in my classroom knowing something definite. But for the time being, I just have to start from scratch and build the knowledge myself.