Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Education for a Civilised Country?

The Grade 10 text has to be finished in less than three weeks, and I’m certainly feeling the pressure. It’s not a bad feeling - a goal to achieve, and worthwhile at that, and something I know I can do, but it brings its dangers too. I’m not as patient as maybe I need to be. One of our writers, Peter, has been producing stuff which I think just will not connect with students, and which seems to me to be way below what I think he’s capable of. I’ve maybe been more short with him than in the past. Now he’s ill. Some say malaria, but I have the feeling it’s despair. Peter is a dreamer, and has written one good short story in his life, and I hoped he would rise to the challenge of beginning to think in terms of student-centred learning. But he’s a product of colonial education - treasures the old pipe a priest gave him, tells tales of his Welsh teacher, and writes endless lists of questions to ask students. I love this guy like - well, like I used to like my old pipe. Interestingly, his story was based on his realisation that trying to copy the “whiteman’ was not for him. But he got caught anyway. He half copies and half resists the whiteman, where I’ve been trying to get him to imagine his students’ needs and what he would wish for them in thinking and literacy skills. Damn, I should know better than to push a dreamer!

Anyway, I thought that for this blog I’d share with you one of the tales which I consider a success this week. All the ironies of education for this country seem to be encapsulated in it!

We’re working on Unit 10.3, Literature from PNG and the World (I know, a small and achievable outcome!)

Picture if you will my editing a poem and some exercises on it, prepared by a couple of teachers. Now, ignorant though I be, I had not come across “Titchborne’s Elegy” before. Says one of the teachers, “It’s by a young man who was to be hanged the next day.” Oh, I think, one of those Highwaymen having thoughts of the eternal before going to the gallows poems. Er, no, I thought as I read the poem. 1586. Hmm. Then I noticed a number of strange words that I was pretty sure weren’t right. Something about “my threat” being cut before it is spun. Needed to check the text for accuracy. Look up on (incredibly slow) internet. Find loads of sites with masses of materials about young Chidiock Titchborne who was a Catholic planning to assassinate Elizabeth I and get Mary on the throne in 1586. Yep, thread is indeed the word. Nice poem too.

But what the hell does this poem have to do with Grade 10 students in PNG in 2011? I had a sudden vision of colonial education teaching such poems because they are “A Good Thing”. There is still such a strong belief that certain poems are achievements of High Art, and must be taught because they are little solid diamond chunks of the Human Spirit, unlikely ever to be matched by mere mortals such as you or me. It’s the sort of thinking that makes me want to teach Limericks, such as that about the young girl from Madras (I’ll leave it to you).

Somewhere in all these doubts, I read more sites and thought more thoughts, and realised that what I had started thinking about was tribal fighting and the viciousness which always seems to pervade our lives when we project our fears about loss of identity on others. OK, so an authoritarian ruler of England was on the side of what we now know as the Church of England, and another authoritarian bunch wanted a leader for their own identity to rule. And a True Believer got caught, and nothing focuses the mind as the prospect of hanging. So, cheeky bugger that I am, I wrote exercises to go with the poem which got students to imagine it was about tribal fighting (the BBC website has exercises about gangwarfare, so maybe I’m not alone). I described just how Titchborne was executed (hung and drawn). Matilda and Thomas were horrified, and said “that’s barbaric”! I wrote, “perhaps you thought England was civilised”, and got them to write opinions about what leads people to treat each other like that. Naughty, perhaps, but maybe this is what studying poetry is about (oh yes, I did lots of analysis of the antithesis and the metaphors, the rhyme and rhythm as well, but that has to be in the context of what the important thing is: what is it like for a man to face death, and be able to come to some sort of peace about it? That must be above history and particular times. In short, that is about the existential condition of being human, now or any time.)

Well, that ‘s a more technical blog than most weeks, but if you follow the doubts and the exploration that I had to go through, I think maybe we’ve all got something to learn from this: what on earth do we mean by educated? We may spout guff about the outcomes of a lesson (and I do), but what education is about in the end is recognition of feeling, ability to think and balance that with feeling, and the the ability to communicate all that in language, visual, verbal, or whatever.

So my thanks to young Chidiock Titchborne, d. 1586. You spoke across the centuries, and maybe some of what you had to say may reach some raskols in Grade 10, before they hit the streets of Lae or some other town and kill innocent folk because of some crazy belief.

And, yes, I’m sorry, that happened this week too. In Lae. Tired of law and order problems, a bunch of vigilantes killed some Highlanders, whom they thought were criminals. They weren’t. Well, at least their deaths were quicker and less barbaric than Titchborne’s.