Thursday 5 September 2013

Why are so many schools so staggeringly dull?

My children went back to school this morning.  It has been a shock after a Mediterranean-style summer.  Just wearing grey flannels again after so many weeks has been seriously upsetting.

And I sympathise, I really do.  I'm a Liberal and therefore wholly committed to education, but I sometimes stumbled over effective answers to the inevitable question: "Why do I have to go to school?"

Because when the utilitarians are in charge of education - as they still are, despite the change in government - I'm not absolutely sure.  They go to a wonderful primary school, which does so much more than force them online to prepare to be IT drones in later life.  But still my nine-year-old has to swap reading The Hobbit for Tom Goes Shopping, or its equivalent, and that is another shock.

When he has to swap reading whole magical stories for the comprehension of short uncompleted, soulless passages, it is cumulatively like cutting off a child's daemon, as so graphically described by Philip Pullman in Northern Lights (see picture above).

And it is so ineffective.

When I think of the huge resources employed to stuff me full of French from the ages of nine to sixteen - seven long years, three times a week - and how basic my command of the language remains, it makes me cross that school is still so staggeringly dull, so utterly committed to Gradgrindian dullness, so miserably unable to stand up to Ofsted or any of the other utilitarian agencies.

Had I been sent to France for a month by my school somehow, they could have dispensed with the long, drab procession for seven years.  Maybe that would have been impossible, but there must be a middle way.

Children are fascinated by languages when they are in other countries - that is another thing I learned this summer, in Normandy.  It is only when they get home that they grind away at the grammar.

So, yes, I'm cross on behalf of my children that they are being prepared for exams, and for employment, rather than being educated and inspired - and prepared to make their own way in life.

So just to celebrate the continued existence of the educational utilitarians, here is Sissy Jupe - a circus girl - being cross-questioned in class in Dickens' Hard Times:

"You mustn’t tell us about the ring here … Very well then … Give me your definition of a horse.”  (Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

“Girl number twenty unable to define a horse! … Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals!” …

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer …

“Bitzer,” said Thomas Gradgrind. “Your definition of a horse.”

“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs too. Hoofs hard but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” …

“Now girl number twenty,” said Mr Gradgrind, “you know what a horse is.”

Now, ask yourself about other public services too.  If they could escape the Gradgrindian influence, and make things happen as I could have been taught to learn French - inspiring, human, thrilling - might we not have a more effective public services system?  And might it not cost very much less to run?

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