Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Learning What It Feels Like to Be You - Andrew Strong

What do these have in common?

personal finance
self defence
Mandarin Chinese
media education
computer programming

These are things that at one time or another I’ve heard people propose as subjects that should be introduced into the primary school curriculum.  My favourite, one that I’ve not included on this list, is golf. 

Whenever I hear some expert or other spout off about what it is should be added to the curriculum I want to ask them whether they can suggest what should be removed from the school day so that their particular obsession can be added to the list.

I can think of plenty of things that shouldn’t be taught. The curriculum is bloated with content.  Much of what children learn in school they forget within a few months.  Perhaps some of the things we assume are sacrosanct should be scrutinized more objectively. 

Primary schools seem to put much more emphasis on, symmetry, for example, than they do on trying to equip children with the means of understanding why other people behave as they do. Perhaps symmetry is easier to teach.  A Martian observing the typical day in a British primary school would probably imagine that after leaving school humans spend most of their lives puzzling over how to add fractions or recognising the properties of 2d shape.

I’ve often wondered if most of the curriculum is devised as a means of managing large numbers of pupils.  It’s much easier to control children if they are busy trying to solve a problem using pencils and paper, than through the volatility of a discussion, or role play, unpeeling the layers of difference between the way individuals see the world.

You may say that pupils will learn this sort of thing anyway. But it’s my experience that they don’t. Misconceptions about motives aren’t learnt in the playground.

And why, for example, is there so much emphasis on writing? Writing, and particularly writing stories has formed an essential and unquestioned part of the primary school curriculum in the UK for as long as anyone alive can remember. And as someone who is fond of writing stories, I have, perhaps, turned a blind eye to the fact that not all children love it as much as I do.  All the technical aspects of story writing are incredibly difficult to teach to a ten year old farmer’s son who has never read a book out of choice and who would rather be outside scrambling on his motorbike, or helping with the lambing, something that is very likely to earn him a living in the years to come.

Writing stories is a very particular skill, a language all of its own. But do all the tricks children must learn to write stories successfully – for example, using the past tense –  benefit them in any other way? I don’t mean listening to stories, or recounting them orally, I mean writing them.

Once I’d got used to the idea that perhaps not every child I’ve met is as excited about writing stories as I am, I wondered whether writing could have a purpose that transcends the story. And I’ve come to believe that it does.

Earlier this week on Radio 4’s ‘Who Was Rosalind?’ I heard it mentioned that as part of learning Latin, boys in Shakespeare’s time were taught ethopoeia.  They were expected to write and perform a speech for a person very different from themselves, often a woman, and as much as possible see the world from this other’s point of view. Thus, it was suggested, Shakespeare learnt to understand how to think, and write as a member of the opposite sex.

Just before he died, David Foster Wallace gave a very moving description of why he writes.  One fundamental reason, he said, was to understand others.  He imagines his default reaction to seeing a woman yelling at her offspring in the supermarket.  But then he tries to imagine her life:

“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line - maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.”

This may be extreme, but it makes a point. We don’t really know what is going on in stranger’s lives, or in their heads.  Developing ethopoeia could encourage a suspension of judgement of others, a willingness to imagine their point of view.

Encouraging this particular form of empathy could also further a better understanding of the importance of reading.  I love this passage by philosopher Denis Dutton, discussing literary scholar Joseph Carroll’s study of Pride and Prejudice.  Forgive me for quoting it at length, but I think it’s very pertinent.

‘Mr. Collins introduces himself to the Bennett household in a letter that is read by the family. This letter is, as Carroll nicely describes it, “an absolute marvel of fatuity and of pompous self-importance,” and much is revealed in how mother, father, and the Bennett sisters react to it. The excessively sweet-tempered older sister, Jane, is puzzled by it, though she credits Mr. Collins with good intentions. The dull middle sister, Mary, says she rather likes Mr. Collins’s style. The mother, in her typical manner, only reacts to it opportunistically, in terms of a potential advantage in the situation. It is up to Elizabeth and her father to see clearly what a clownish performance the letter represents: their understanding marks an affinity of temperament and a quality perceptiveness the others lack. But what Carroll’s analysis makes clear is that there are two more people — not fictional characters, but actual human beings — who are in on the agreement between Mr. Bennett and his second daughter. These two further individuals are also members of their “circle of wit and judgment.” First, there is Jane Austen...and second, there is you, the reader. The creation and experience of the novel brings about a uniting of points of view, a sense of shared sensibility not open to everyone, and a broadening of perspectives. It is no small enjoyment for the reader to be included in this exclusive group.’

Being able to stand in the shoes, sit in the clothes, inhabit the bodies as well as understand how different people see the world in completely different ways, these offer us the opportunity to question many of our assumptions about gender, age, race, sexuality. Reading can do this, and writing has the potential to achieve it too.

Of course this isn’t the only function of reading and writing and the last thing I want to do is advocate what for me are pleasurable experiences as a means to an end.  But if the concept of ethopoeia were introduced, then being able to empathise could be given the same status as spelling or long multiplication, computer programming and even golf.  I think it would help make a better world.


Penny Dolan said...

Wow! That's a big thought for me to work on, today, but very glad that you've made it.

Do like your description of that farmer's son. Have met some similar out in rural Yorkshire, where little rabbits do not live happily ever after in all stories.

I've always felt that the frequent use of symmetry in school cames from its usefulness as time-consuming task, lack of reading requirements, use as artistic display and link to maths. Cynical? Moi?

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

I know next to nothing about teaching and education but this does resonate, Andrew. In my son's reception class, there are 8 girls...and 22 boys. I suspect that as his class progresses through primary school, this concept might help the children understand better what will likely become something of two 'camps'.

(Penny, I like your note about the rabbits. My mum was a farmer's daughter. As a little girl, she bred rabbits...and sold them to the butcher for pocket money!)

Tamsyn Murray said...

Thank you for that lovely extract about Mr Collins' letter. I hadn't considered that the reader is often admitted to an exclusive club by the writer but love the idea.

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very good post

Andrew Preston said...

From personal experience of primary schools where thrashing and belting were the norm, I'd say that teaching and control go together.

Lucky for some teachers that Latin isn't taught at primary school. Pupils might learn there is a difference between teaching and education. Educio.., to bring out from within, as I remember. Whereas teaching for me, usually involved the other direction.

Stroppy Author said...

Ah, Plato's belief that all knowledge is innate and the point of education is to enable the soul to rediscover it. There may be no innate knowledge of symmetry, but there is of how to be human. The trick, though, is to encourage empathy along with a developing theory of mind, which writing stories can do. I think the concept of ethopoeia is tackled in drama?

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