“…thanks for all the help you’ve given me over the past two years and for the opportunity to go to Switzerland. Thanks for making learning Geography so interesting.”
No different, I’m sure, from thousands of cards received at this time of year by teachers everywhere – but pleasing nonetheless. It’s interesting to note what my ‘A’ Level student chose to mention in her card; she has yet to take her exams, of course, but there is nothing there about meeting targets… It’s also worth recording that most cards go to individual teachers, rather than schools as a whole – which is perhaps illustrative of the scale at which we are most effective.
I spent a pleasurable hour during the half-term holiday re-watching some YouTube clips of my favourite music. It’s highly esoteric – Irish and Scottish traditional music – and the common response from lay listeners is that “it all sounds the same”. Well, it doesn’t. After decades of listening and playing, the pleasure increasingly comes from the minutiae: the skill with which the ornamentation is executed and the subtle, improvised variations and inflections on the tune that good players introduce. Then there are the variations of regional style and individual technique, as well as the ‘musical etymology’ of the tunes and sets, which all add to the richness. But you have to have worked at it, to have got under the skin, before such subtleties become appreciable.
In fields like wine or antiques or fine art I think it is widely accepted than some people discern subtleties that others don’t – but it’s definitely not true that wine is “all the same”. This is reasonably socially acceptable, whereas similar levels of refinement in other activities simply elicit accusations of anorak-hood. To me, it’s all the same – the inevitable product of many hours spent developing one’s knowledge and understanding. I hope that as a teacher, I am setting my students out on a pathway that will eventually lead them to higher levels of appreciation, for it is in those levels, no matter what the subject, that real lasting enjoyment is to be found – for those prepared to do the work.
It’s also evident that for each card-sender, there are many more who do not send thanks to their teachers, for whom schooling was perhaps a mundane, tedious and uninspiring process. Naturally, we should always be trying to improve this – but I wonder about the chances of success. In an age where most material needs are met for the vast majority, where pretty much anything you could wish for is available on tap for the wave of a plastic card, how much is there really left to strive for?
Most of the children I encounter seem to want little more than the continuation of their pampered childhoods into later life – and they appear (perhaps foolishly) confident that this will be so, even without the assistance of people like me. The amount of effort many of them put into their work often reflects this. The truth is, in deed (perhaps as opposed to word) most people just don’t get as exercised by notions of excellence and perpetual self-improvement as the teaching profession does.
Moreover, it seems to me that the world is increasingly configured to prevent people achieving higher levels of appreciation: in order to maximise market size, it is necessary to water down what is on offer, and this often means removing anything challenging, even though it is precisely in that challenge that the true reward lies. In many cases, specialisation results in divergence from the norm, a fragmentation in the search for the offbeat and exceptional, which is the antithesis of mass-market functioning. But without such effort, there can be no growth of appreciation: it is precisely an advanced appreciation of things that puts the shine on life.
My wife recounts the situation of a colleague who is deeply apprehensive about being taken on her first ever non-package holiday, on the grounds that she will have to find her own food. What to me would be a fantastic opportunity is, to her simply a threat. I think the same applies in most aspects of life – the whole point of convenience culture is to remove the need for effort. Many people’s lives seem to consist of similarly pre-packaged consumption, be it of high-sugar food, mass-produced entertainment, ways of dressing or places and styles of life. And this becomes a vicious cycle, since the more people subscribe to it, the more it will be perpetuated by the providers.
To me, education is about freeing people to make their own routes through life; this is why it grates so profoundly on me that educational institutions are increasingly factory-like and corporate in their approach. Education should be that activity of society that promotes diversity of thought and action, not the conformity of targets. But many people, be they parents, pupils – or teachers – seem content to accept a pre-packaged existence, and I am not sure really how much we can do to ‘help’ them: it is said that laboratory animals given their freedom often shrink to the back of their cages…
Then there are students like my card-writer, who have clearly been energised by their experience. How much of that situation is really down to me, and how much is inherent in the pupil, is a moot point. I found myself wondering what I actually did to elicit the thanks, and the answer is the same as I always do, after enough years in the job that it comes naturally. I think the key here is to embody those values too: how can someone aim a student at the finer things in life if they have no conception or experience of them themself?
Why should we assume that we need to aim only for the generalised, dumbed-down mass-consumption pitch? Why should we not encourage young people to find complexity and specialisation – and why has much of the educational system spent so much time dumbing down the work necessary to achieve this? It is deeply concerning that the refined tastes of the cognoscenti are often presented, at least in state schools as ‘not for the likes of us’.
Why have I, in the past, been criticised for being ‘too academic’ – when it is precisely those levels of refined functioning to which we should be aspiring in both teachers and taught?