Some enemies of teaching

It would be difficult to enumerate them all. Some of them are persons, who have found their way into influential positions they are unfit for; some are institutions, in which destructive or abusive practices have arisen by accident or default; others are ideas, which have developed unchecked in that twilight world where educational theory and charlatanry intertwine.

There are Directors of Studies who disrupt and distract their teachers with semiliterate emails; there are schools that contain procedures for impeding, harassing and humiliating the teaching staff; and, all the time in the background, there are the distorted ideas of democracy which Plato describes so well in his Republic and which have now produced a crop of students with little conception of what a university is for.

Then there is the meretricious side of it: the manoeuvres in order to rise in the league tables (the name is a giveaway); the money spent by less good schools on publicity in order to recruit pupils, when they should be spending it on getting and keeping the best staff; the concessions made to ignorant parents; and continually in the background the imperative to lower standards, to diminish expectations and to put all teaching into How to Pass mode.

Low expectation is the motif. One of our pupils, who had come into the Sixth Form from a school where he had been less than happy, arrived in our department when he was leaving, for farewells and thanks. We asked if he was glad to have spent two years with us. He said it had opened his eyes. He found it hard to explain—it is when you are eighteen—but he used the word expectation. He had assumed that lessons would be like what he was used to. But they were different. There was no patronising; no reminders that he was a teenager, and no concessions on the grounds of age; no tagging of his studies to the mass media or to commercial sport, celebrities or advertisements, no condescending talk, no silliness, no gimmicks.

But above all what he appreciated was the airy, liberating feeling that the occupation of the teacher was his or her branch of learning and not the syllabus. Every subject, he felt, had provided ways of thinking that he knew would be relevant in adulthood, and at the same time had opened the door to possible scholarship and research, should he choose.

Next post: Nausicaa.

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