Miss Jean Brodie and the Art of Free Speech

I’m extremely grateful to Andrew Old, in that he has seen fit to re-blog virtually all my ramblings these past months to his wider audience on The Echo Chamber. However, judging from his comment last evening, I seem to have touched a raw nerve with my reference to Miss Jean Brodie. But at least it has provided an opportunity to bring forward a discussion I had been meaning to have for some time: that of ‘difficult issues’.

There may be many reasons why Andrew chose not to re-blog yesterday’s piece, so this is partly in the realm of speculation. I  of course unreservedly respect his editorial sovereignty over his blog. I wonder, though, whether this one reference to someone he considers unacceptable rather clouded his judgment about the rest of the piece, which nonetheless managed to set the hit-counter spinning. I should state again, in no way was I endorsing either the specific views or behaviours of that fictional character, simply her belief that education is in part about awakening passions and thereby enriching lives. I agree that one should not take knowing risks with the future of one’s pupils – but we delude ourselves if we think we can know that future or our part in it in any case.  The consequences of that particular story should not negate this view, and Muriel Spark’s narrative needs to be read in the context of its 1930’s setting when Fascism was not yet fully-known as the evil that it has since been shown to be.

I recall  being instructed on numerous occasions  that as a teacher, one should always take a firm line when ‘unacceptable’ views are expressed in the classroom, the principal one being racism, but extending to other issues too, of which homophobia seems to be the most recent. I have always felt unease about the teacher effectively censoring that which may be discussed – it is yet another expression of the politically-correct Big Brother mentality, and all it is likely to achieve is the repeated sweeping of such issues under the societal carpet. It worries me, too, that we are advised that certain forms of abstract thought are not permissible: what kind of advocacy is that for the power of thought? How are young people to arrive at their own views if they are not allowed to consider all the options, even momentarily? If young people cannot discuss such issues openly in the relative safety and seclusion of the classroom, then where are they going to be levelly discussed at all?

As I mentioned a few days ago, my own view is that anything learnable-about ought to be ‘fair game’ for discussion in the classroom, my only overarching rule being that people need to be prepared to justify and discuss their views maturely and to have them challenged by others. The teacher’s job is to ensure that all are heard equally, and perhaps to probe the flaws in all lines of argument. In Geography, sensitive topics do crop up from time to time, notably the issue of immigration and its associated racist outlooks. However unsavoury, it is pointless to deny that hostile views exist, and they do form part of the reality of our national life. In my opinion, it is much better to acknowledge that fact, and have an open and balanced discussion about it than pretend it does not exist. That said, I do have two additional rules: firstly that any form of incitement is absolutely unacceptable, and secondly that I always make it repeatedly plain that the coverage and discussion of such issues in no way means that I endorse them.

While one clearly needs to moderate this in line with the age of the pupils, I have yet to find pupils of any age or background who have found this approach unacceptable; in fact, they tend to rise to the occasion and seem to welcome the opportunity to have an open discussion on important matters.

In previous years, I have also organised politics days, when representatives of local political parties visit and speak to our sixth form on a carousel basis. This immediately raises the minefield of who is invited and who isn’t. While the school understandably drew the public-relations line at the BNP, we have generally invited all who were represented locally – and the sixth formers proved themselves more than up to the task of reading between the lines of the speakers from groups as wide-ranging as UKIP and the Greens. In fact, they also grew adept at trading off the answers of one speaker against the next as they progressed round the carousel. In general, giving partisan interest groups sufficient rope to hang themselves works far better than attempting to censor them.

We need to ensure that our professional dialogue maintains similarly high standards. One of the principal complaints of recent years has been the overwhelming hegemony of one educational world-view over the others, not helped by its Establishment backing. However, one of the worst culprits of correct-think has been the liberal left, partly in the shape of the teaching profession. It is at least as capable of being blinded to reasoned argument as its opponents in the conservative establishment. Personally, I find both groups equally off-putting, and equally unconducive to reasoned discussion.

In the current debate about where education is heading, and in particular new forms of representation for teachers, my profound worry is that we are simply seeing a new round in the ongoing battle of ideologies. Andrew Old has espoused at length the value of considered, critical thought, and rightly so; but this is not the same as simply coming to the ‘right’ set of alternative conclusions. If we are to have a genuinely open debate, it is essential that we accept the limitations of our own thinking; a truly open debate does mean permitting views that we may personally find noxious. We may also find we have missed a more widely-valuable contribution if we allow it to be obscured by a relatively small but contentious point of order. In the case of Miss Jean Brodie, the point made in my reference was not the one that Andrew appeared instinctively to recoil from, but something more general, and I believe perfectly valid.

We should not dismiss complex arguments in terms of simplistic views of right or wrong; that is my main concern regarding the tendencies in the teaching profession as a whole – in its more messianic moments, it seems to struggle with the concept of plurality. This is ironic as plurality of approach is one thing that can deliver a balanced education-experience. We will only move on when we genuinely divest ourselves of all ideologies – including our own. Or at least, we learn to recognise them for what they are. A certain quote from Beatrice Hall regarding ‘defending to the death your right to say it’ comes to mind.

3 thoughts on “Miss Jean Brodie and the Art of Free Speech

  1. I should probably point out a few things. The Echo Chamber is not a free for all. I am subscribed to roughly 600 education blogs & struggle to read them all (fortunately not all are active). The Echo Chamber is meant to be a filter, and you’ll find a couple of posts there about what I try to filter out. If I have consistently reblogged your posts it is a sign your blog is very good and very suitable, rather than that it is something I can be counted on to do.

    One of the things I do try to filter out, and it’s a common feature of blog writing, is the tendency to reference something someone is not actually familiar with. The most common version of this is the out of context or misattributed quotation, and you will find I have been utterly ruthless about this. You are right I didn’t reblog your last blogpost because of the Jean Brodie line, because I did find it hard to believe that anybody familiar with the book would reference her in that way. Yes it was set in the 30s, but it was written in the 50s and fascism was not her only character flaw. I still can’t figure out why you’d use that analogy if you were familiar with the book, but you wrote as if you weren’t familiar with it and had referenced it anyway, so I chose not to reblog the post.

    By the way, I haven’t reblogged this one because that Voltaire quotation is misattributed.

    I hope I haven’t caused offence.

    • All of that is absolutely fine with me. I certainly don’t take it for granted that you will accept what I write, and I hope that came across in the start of today’s post. You haven’t caused any offence.

      I concede that my own reading of Spark’s work was a long time ago, and maybe I should have checked it more closely than I did. In fact, it was something of an after-thought to the main piece. I am not a literature specialist, but I think I would rather have been taught by Brodie than any Ofsted jobsworth!!!

      I always check references, but admit that you caught me with the ‘Voltaire’ one. You will perhaps note that I have now changed that attribution. Other than that, general verdict: must try harder!


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