Tag Archives: education

Should Poetry be “Relevant”?

Yesterday evening, my friend and I fell into a discussion concerning poetry. This came about as a consequence of me mentioning that I am in the process of producing a further collection of my own work.

During the course of our conversation, my friend mentioned that “poetry should be relevant”.

I responded that Keats great poem, “Ode to a Nightingale” (https://poets.org/poem/ode-nightingale), remains as relevant today as when the poet composed it. I said that the poem deals powerfully with the themes of beauty, life and death, and continues to resonate with the 21st century reader due to the fact that it touches on the human condition.

My friend acknowledged that “Ode to a Nightingale” is a wonderful poem. However he said that Keat’s work was written for an educated elite and was not read by ordinary people.

It is undoubtedly the case that at the time of the poems composition few “working class” people possessed the ability to read and write. Consequently “Ode” was (by and large) appreciated by an educated (and often wealthy) reading public. To acknowledge this self-evident fact does not, however imply that we ought to embrace the contention that “poetry should be relevant”.

Every poem is, of course relevant to the poet who puts pen to paper, (he would not have composed it where this not the case). A poet feels love, sadness, despair, sorrow, happiness (or a myriad other emotions) and feels impelled to compose a poem. In the moment of composition his poem is “relevant” to him and usually remains so throughout the remainder of his life.

However the power of a great poem lies in it’s ability to transcend time and place. From the early 19th century Keats “Nightingale” speaks poignantly to people of all social groups today. for the themes of life, death and beauty are as “relevant” to 21st century man as they were to the man or woman of the 19th century. Unlike the early 19th century, in the 20th (and 21st centuries) education is (in the developed world at least) now widespread, which enables people of all backgrounds to appreciate more complex poetry. I say “more complex”, for humans have always enjoyed poems, whether of the nursery rhyme variety, baudy verses or Homer’s “Odyssey” and “Iliad”. The latter were of course (originally) recited from memory so were accessible to people of all social stations. Therefore Homer, who is considered by some as “elitist”, was not viewed in this manner when his great works enthralled the ancients, when recited to the assembled populace.

We do, I believe need to be wary of assuming that because someone grows up in a tower block where the lifts rarely (if ever) work and gangs roam the estate, that they need (if, indeed they need poetry at all), to read poems about people living in similar circumstances to those in which they find themselves.

If an individual living in the circumstances described above writes poetry, she may well compose poems about gangs, drug dealers and other issues which often plague run down estates. Her work may possess literary merit (or it may not). However it should not be argued that her work is (due to it being based in gritty reality) more “relevant” than “Ode to a Nightingale”.

Of course the work of the poet living on a badly maintained estate is as “relevant” to her, as was Keats “Nightingale” to the poet as he sat penning it on Hampstead Heath. We should not, however jump to the assumption that merely because a person comes from poor circumstances that they are, somehow incapable of appreciating Keats, Shakespeare or Wordsworth. Through good teaching people of all kinds can (and should) enjoy our rich literary heritage, for it belongs to all of us. Certainly it is easier for the child growing up in a household full of books to gain an appreciation for the literary arts. But its by no means impossible for the girl or boy growing up on a poor estate to do likewise. Ultimately great art does not only transcend time and place, it also goes beyond social class and touches the hearts of us all. This is why I dislike the word “relevant” when applied to the appreciation of literature.

Empire

The British Empire is, to state the blatantly obvious, a topic of great historical importance, and a sensative subject capable of arousing strong emotions. The British Labour Party has announced, in it’s “Race and Faith Manifesto” that, if elected, it will investigate the impact of British colonialism:

“Labour will conduct an audit of
the impact of Britain’s colonial legacies
to understand our contribution to the
dynamics of violence and insecurity
across regions previously under British
colonial rule.
We will also:
· Create an Emancipation Educational
Trust to ensure the historical injustices
of colonialism, and the role of the
British Empire is properly integrated
into the National Curriculum, to teach
powerful Black history which is also
British history”, https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Race-and-Faith-Manifesto-2019.pdf.

As a historian, Labour’s “pledge” to carry out an audit of British colonialism causes me great concern. Whilst there where (undoubtedly) injustices committed by the British Empire, and its impossible to deny that many of those involved in colonial administration believed in the superiority of white (and, in particular British rule, which would, by today’s standards make them “racists), this is not the whole story. As pointed out by Jeremy Paxman in this article, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9085936/Jeremy-Paxman-Our-empire-was-an-amazing-thing.html, Britain played a leading role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, it stamped out the practice of widow burning in India, it built infrastructure in the form of roads and rail, and left a legacy of incorupt administration.

I am left wondering who will conduct this audit of British colonialism. Will it be a cross section of highly respected historians (of differing perspectives), or historians who are (from the outset of their investigations) convinced that the British Empire was a wholly bad thing with few (if any) redeeming features? From the wording of Labour’s Manifesto, I suspect that the latter will be the case, with left-wing (perhaps Marxist) historians carrying out “research” which will (when published) be hottly contested by other academics.

In education its vital that children learn about the British Empire, warts and all. If, however they only learn about the warts (with no acknowledgement of the positive role Britain played in the world), what they will be receiving will be indoctrination rather than education.

Racism is an evil (and also deeply stupid for there is no evidence whatsoever that the colour of one’s skin plays any role in determining intelligence). We share a common humanity and its right that the role of black people in this country’s history is acknowledged and celebrated. However I do not believe that what Labour is proposing is the right way to go about it.

As always I would be interested in the views of my readers.

Kevin

If Gandhi Was A Racist, Who Then Shall We Honour?

Back in 2016, Oxford University announced that it would not bow to the demands of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, and the statue of Cecil Rhodes would remain, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-35435805.

The Rhodes scholarship enables students to benefit from funds left in the will of the late Cecil Rhodes, irrespective of skin colour. However, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign contend that Rhodes was an “imperialist” and a “racist” and his statue has no place on the campus of Oriel College, Oxford.

I smiled with wry humour when I learned that radical students at Manchester University are objecting to the erection of a statue of Gandhi on the grounds that he described black people as “savages” and “dirty (amongst other offensive terms of abuse), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/17/manchester-council-urged-reject-mahatma-gandhi-statue-racism.

Let me be crystal clear. I did not smile at the offensive words used by Gandhi. Racism is wrong and should be condemned in the strongest possible manner. We all share a common humanity and skin colour does not define the value of a person, as value inheres in us all by virtue of our common humanity. Why then the reason for my wry smile? If Gandi can be attacked, who, then deserves a statue erected in their name? Please, someone show me the individual (living or dead) who is so saintly that they deserve a statue.

Both Rhodes and Gandhi where products of their time as, indeed are we all. In times to come those of us (including myself) who enjoy eating meat may be viewed by posterity as uncivilised, cruel individuals who predated on the inocent animal kingdom. Who, then will erect a statue to one of the meat eaters of today, irrespective of their charitable deeds, literary talent or whatever?

Will the vegetarians of today (or the future) be considered worthy of statues? What about the non meat eater who is a serial adulterer and treats his wives with utter contempt. If he is a great artist will his poor treatment of his wife be overlooked and a statue be erected in his name? Or will the policers of morals jump up and down and say “over my dead body”?

As Hamlet remarks, “treat every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping”. I answer few, if any of us, for we are all imperfect humans, living in a complex and imperfect world. So, no, Rhodes statue should not fall and those agitating for it to do so should find something more useful to do with their time.

Kevin

Should We Abolish Private (fee paying) schools?

At the recently held conference of the UK Labour Party, delegates voted to abolish private (I.E. fee-paying schools), https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/sep/22/labour-delegates-vote-in-favour-of-abolishing-private-schools.

The above decision strikes me as iliberal and an attack on the freedom of the individual to spend their own money as they see fit.

The philosophical underpinning of the decision is the belief in equality. Why (proponents of a ban on private schools argue) should a tiny minority (a privileged one to boot) be able to avail themselves of private education when the vast majority of the population do not possess the resources to do so. They further argue that many leading positions in society (for example the judiciary) is packed full of individuals who enjoyed the advantages of private schooling, whilst only a small proportion of top judicial appointments are held by those who attended state (non-fee paying) institutions. Private education does, they contend assist in perpetuating and widening the “class divide” in the UK.

If one accepts the logic of the position outlined above, why stop at the abolition of private schools? Should not parents who possess the resources to buy a home in an area with good state (I.E. non-fee paying schools) be prevented from doing so, and if not, why not, for it is surely unfair that some people can aford to move to areas with good schools whilst others can not? And what about parents who (whilst they do not send their children to private school) do pay for private tuition in music, maths, literature etc? Such tuition may well give the ofspring of such parents an advantage. Is not such an advantage unfair and as such should a prohibition not be placed on parents paying for private tuition? If the answer given to the last question by those delegates who voted for the ban on private schools is “no”, on what logic do they base their opposition to private schools, whilst accepting the right of parents to pay for private tuition often (but not always) in their own homes?

I myself do tutor a friend’s son most Saturdays in poetry. Whilst no money is paid (I wouldn’t accept it even where it to be offered) it is, nonetheless private tuition. If I can provide tuition to a friend’s son free of charge why then should not those (if any exist) wishing to pay me for the provision of said tuition be entitled to do so?

I was incredibly lucky and grew up in a house full of books. From a young age I experienced the delight of being read to by my grandfather and other family members. If we follow the extreme Socialist logic to it’s logical conclusion should we not take away some of the books from those households lucky enough to possess them and redistribute them to families with no (or few) books? And if not, why not?

Life is, in the final analysis unfair. Whilst its surely right that proper funding is provided to the state education sector (which is not always the case), that is not an argument in favour of abolishing the right of those who can aford to pay for private education to do so.
Variety is the spice of life and both private and state sectors can learn from one another, with the best aspects of both systems being incorporated (on a voluntary basis) by both institutions. Its also surely right that private schools who enjoy charitable status should prove their commitment to the local community by, for example opening up their facilities (such as swimming pools and playing fields) to local state schools.

I myself was lucky enough to attend a school part funded by the Catholic Blind Institute and part funded by the state. The largest class I remember consisted of perhaps 10-12 children, with other classes being smaller. The ethos of that school (which catered for both boarders and day pupils) was excellent and yes, I do feel privileged to have attended it.

As always I would be interested in the views of my readers.

Kevin

GCSE English

Tomorrow, a friend’s son will visit me and we will discuss W. B. Yeat’s poem “An Irish Airman Forsees His Death”, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57311/an-irish-airman-foresees-his-death

A’s son is preparing for his GCSE in english. Part of the exam will entail him analysing a poem he has not previously seen, on the theme of power and conflict. He will need to analyse the techniques used and make an evaluative judgement on the poem.

I am, of course delighted to help, and hope that our time together will be productive in terms of A’s son being able to develop the skills enabling him to analyse poetry. I will ask my friend’s son to say what he thinks of the poem in general terms, and then go on to ascertain his views on the techniques being utilised.

Although I write poetry, my degree is in history and politics and I hold no formal qualification in either creative writing or English Literature (other than an A-Level in the latter subject). Tomorrow will therefore be something of a learning curve for both my friend’s teenage son and myself.

(Note: I have no idea as to what poem will be set when A’s son sits his GCSE English. It could, so far as I am aware, be any poem concerning power and conflict).

The British Library Explores The History Of Writing

From tomorrow (Friday 26 April), the British Library will be hosting an exhibition concerning the history of writing. The exhibits include an ancient egyptian tablet which demonstrates that concerns about the quality of homework are far from being new! It also shows that worries regarding the decline in hand-writing are not confined to the 21st century. For more information please visit, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/24/living-by-the-pen-british-library-explores-history-of-writing.

Kevin

Men Mowing

As I at lessons sat
In school
(Generally obeying the rule),
I oft did hear,
Sometimes far, at others near,
A sound clear,
That of men mowing,
Knowing where they where going.

On my way home tonight
I had the delight
Of smelling new mown grass,
Which brought to mind
A more settled time
When I at lessons sat
Reading rhyme,
And men were amowing
Knowing where they where going.
Sometimes I almost weep,
When I think on what my country may reap.

Learning Poetry By Rote

An amusing article concerning the merits of learning poetry by rote, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2260419/Ill-vote-learning-poetry-rote.html. (The author is not in favour of said practice). As one of the commenters states, in the comments following on from the piece, much of the poetry I can recall is that from which I derived pleasure, for example Dowson’s “They Are Not Long The Weeping And The Laughter” and Beloc’s “On An Election”.

As someone or other once wrote:
There was a young Man called Moat
Who learned a poem by rote.
It was somewhat long
And concerned a thong
Or perhaps it was a goat!

Should only black teachers teach black children about slavery?

Some time ago, I came across this post, https://solifegoeson.com/2017/12/20/white-teachers-who-teach-black-kids-about-slavery-piss-me-off/. I commented, however as my comment was not published I feel compelled to state my opinion here.

In the above post the author argues (essentially) that white teachers should not teach black children about slavery because they (the teachers) do not understand the experience of non-white people (the prejudice faced by those who’s skin is black). At the end of the post the blogger does recommend that one way forward is for those who teach to come from a greater diversity of backgrounds. However the whole tone of the article is hostile to the concept of the teaching of slavery to black children by white teachers.

I am not black. I am, however disabled (I am registered blind). Throughout history disabled people have faced discrimination. This discrimination manifested itself in various forms, including the forced sterilisation of those with disabilities on eugenic grounds. Eugenics reached horrific heights during the Third Reich when Nazi doctors, SS officers and nurses murdered the disabled under the T-4 programme. Indeed the use of gas was first employed on the disabled prior to it being used to exterminate approximately 6 million Jews (men, women and children). You can find out about Action T4 here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aktion_T4.

I don’t, as a disabled person, (nor as someone who holds a degree in history and politics) argue that only disabled people are capable of teaching about the T4 Programme. To argue thus would be narrow minded on my part. Yes, as a disabled person I face difficulties and (on occasions) discrimination not encountered by non-disabled people, however those possessing empathy/those of goodwill can understand (and teach) about such matters.

It concerns me that if we carry the argument promulgated in the above article to its logical conclusion, that only disabled people will teach about disability related matters, only women will lecture on the discrimination faced by women throughout the ages etc. This risks leading to a closed academic environment, one in which I don’t wish to live.

Why You Should Read and Write Poetry

A good article on The Imaginative Conservative, entitled “Why You Should Read and Write Poetry”, http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2018/01/read-write-poetry-dwight-longenecker.html