Wednesday 11 December 2013

What schools do to poetry sometimes

Did I like poetry when I was nine, I was asked yesterday?  I was asked, in fact, by my nine-year-old son.  I thought about it and could barely remember.  Then suddenly, a painful vision of myself aged nine reciting a terrible poem about a camel, flashed into my mind.

I was interested and pleased that the school is pushing poems at them, though my son is not.

Why not? I asked  What's wrong with them?

Because they only give us poems by Michael Rosen, he said.

Now there I could understand.  Actually, I have huge respect for Michael Rosen as a tireless populariser of good writing to children.  His work is fun and often funny, but he has spawned so many poor competitors that I could begin to see the problem.

Don't you like any poems, I asked?

Yes, he said: he liked the line: "In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie..." 

Now I am writing as a fully paid up Liberal.  I believe in education, but my kind of Liberal has to be pretty clear what that education is for.  It isn't to turn our children into cogs that fit more neatly into the system.  Nor is it to turn them into the shock troops going over the top in the battle of statistics with the Far East, or just to get their school to the top of the narrow league tables.

There are other kinds of utilitarian liberal who might say otherwise.  Not me.

None of those are bad things, but they are absolutely pointless if education doesn't move, inspire, shape and create imagination.  If it doesn't foster creativity.  If it doesn't help humanity evolve a little beyond the assembly line.

I know why the curriculum specifies poems-as-jokes, and fights shy of inspiration at the age of nine. I know why it fears anything more than talking down to the children. Yet my nine-year-old could be inspired with the right brand of Tolkein-esque romanticism.

It won't work for everyone, but then nothing will.  The alternative is the lowest common denominator screed of words that might capture their attention and make them smile for a moment.

Because, actually, I do remember my own terrible recitation experience.  My own poem I've forgotten completely, except for the word 'camel', but I remember every word of the poem that was recited after mine - Rudyard Kipling's 'The Way Through the Woods'.

This may be a character flaw of mine, but I was moved and inspired.  As a Liberal, opening that possibility has to be the kind of education I aspire to.

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