Where a child becomes the teacher and our hero learns a thing or two about how we know what we know
“Mosquitos ruin a safari”
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity, David Allen (2001)
How come I am on a day trip to Brighton? he mused. Another in his situation might think that he had died and gone to heaven; yet another that he was in limbo or entering purgatory; because for Oldman, this had become a private hell, but he doubted that the local Tourist Board would want to know that.
The weather had eased off and it was almost sunny. Penetrating further into the recesses of the town, his feet led him before the library, a handsome municipal edifice, gifted to the town in 1893 by one Samuel Wallingsworth, “For the Betterment of the People”, according to the stone block over the central door.
Philanthropy, now there’s a lost value. Yet all too ghastly just the same.
He was standing in front of one of those proudly opulent centres for instruction that one finds dotted all over Britain – and many of her ex-colonies too. Perhaps there is one where you are, buildings erected from the Proceeds of Trade borne of the destruction of local economies, not to speak of trade in populations. This one was an overblown configuration of rich terracotta framed in stone corbels and cornices with metal windows that had rounded tops and an impossible-number-to-clean of little-panes-of-glass.
A Decision In Committee had confirmed recently an Administrator’s proposal that the Council should look to its branding by painting all of its possessions in a lurid green. Elected members seemingly had felt this to be a modern way of going about their duties and the entire metal and wooden details of the façade had recently undergone redecoration in line with all Council vehicles including the municipal bus service, the proud headed notepaper and the public toilets on the promenade.
The rococo façade was consequently all out of kilter, so dominant was the paint, so wrong was the colour against the warm stone and brick, and he felt that this demonstrated only that the Council had appalling lack of taste.
The double entrance door lay under a pointed porch which encapsulated faith and learning in one sweep, somehow recalling non-conformist religious architecture as if applied to a school. Panels of frosted wired glass had recently been installed in favour of the original leaded stained glass, presumably to deter attack from the regular invasions of young hoodlums that Brighton was becoming famous for.
Dream on good burghers, how many of them have actually targeted a library for goodness sake?
Irritated, he yanked the door open, and pulled out, practically horizontally, a young woman who had had the misfortune to have the interior brass handle in her grip.
– Oh I am most terribly sorry, Oldman murmured, marching smartly inside before a response could be given.
There must have been a catalogue in the late 19th century whose contents allowed one to personalise items of architectural structure and detail, regardless of what was being constructed. Otherwise how come all these old buildings resembled each other so much? He meant not just that all late Victorian libraries looked the same, but that they also resembled the mansions, the schools, the fire stations and the country railway buildings too. How terribly garbled had Ruskin made the beauties of Venice!
This piece of philanthropic municipal magnificence was no exception. If the porch had been designed in the fashion of a brick lych gate, he was sorry to see that the entrance area between the outer and the inner doors was more like a public toilet, all cold tiles and high windows. Early attempts at saving energy perhaps and designed solely as a transition space, devoid of poetry to hurry one along?
Once through this antiseptic airlock, the interior was warm, with rows of bookshelves disappearing into the back of a large building that was not unlike the municipal baths of the era. Heat rose from a series of grills in the floor, assisted by large cast-iron radiators placed around the room, some not even against the walls. The foyer area held a lot of shelves in a diagonal arrangement, to house what looked like the popular novel, crime fiction and the like. To the right was placed an L-shaped reception desk where several librarians sat and quietly processed books in time-honoured fashion, stamping a paper stuck inside the cover, yet not in any particular order or, when taking back returns, placing rows of books temporarily onto large wooden trolleys in some mysterious classification.
Beyond, lay the central zone of the library, with its impressively grand and high clerestory roof, flooding light into the heart of the displayed collection. Acres of tomes on orderly shelves, and that particular smell of old library books. Some Philistine had covered the Minton tiling in the entrance with an indifferent set of rough carpet tiles, and the endless wood flooring in the main area had been overlain with what looked like sisal matting (yet could not have been surely?), to deaden the endless creaking of the ageing boards. In this kind of building, aesthetics, not to say comfort, had always to give way to public safety, he knew.
Three symmetrical doors led off from the back wall into a series of further rooms, the left dedicated to magazines and the daily papers and the right recently made into a children’s room. The middle and more imposing door of the three led into what could have been for all intents and purposes the civic market, an all-metal structure holding up a complex arrangement of pointed tiled roofs. But instead of fruit, veg, red cuts of meat and colourful rows of useless domestic items fashioned from thin plastic, the sign over the door advertised “Reference Library”.
He sat down in there rather absently and picked up the book the previous occupant had left there face down. ‘Birds of Europe’ he read on the spine, quite a tome, feeling the weight as he endeavoured to turn it over.
– You got a test too?
He looked up. The hoarse enquiry had come from a young woman on the other side of the reading desk. A schoolgirl by the look of it, early teens, awkward in the blouse and tie that they made her wear. The neat round hat with its overstretched elastic sat on the table beside her.
A poem in light and dark he thought, with pink round cheeks. She was surrounded by books and had been writing in an exercise book, the ink staining her fingers as would soon the cigarettes around the back of the lavs. Looked like she had a lot on.
– Miss Figgis is an old cow. We hate her. She has gone and given us a history mock and hardly any time to prepare. How can anyone learn all of history? she wailed, indicating the piles of books.
– What are you preparing for?
Up until then he had not really had the notion that there was anything to prepare for at all, but the question hung in the air all the same. He turned over the book. Pica pica stared out at him.
– But that’s just a picture book, she said craning her neck.
– Shhh, came a response from somewhere else. She dropped her voice.
– Are you studying ornithology? Go on, give me five facts about that bird.
She leant forward and pointed, the better to hear him.
Had he known he was going to be tested he might have listened more carefully in the Builder’s Shed.
– Errm, part of the crow family, sociable bird, female incubates the eggs, eats baby songbirds…
– Yuck. What’s the point in knowing all that?
– Well… education is important.
– Yes, but is schooling?
He was a bit thrown by that one. Surely education was important, his only way out had been education. What did she mean, schooling?
– You know, transfer of the body of knowledge.
– Places like these have been the repository of all human knowledge since time began, haven’t they? Think Alexandria. You lot reckon that we should absorb as much of it as possible and you call it education. Well I call that schooling. It’s deadly stuff. Did you ever pause to think by how much the shelves in here would have to grow per year in order to accommodate everything that is now known? It was all right when it was built, there was less around, but now… They cannot now actually get into this one building everything people like you expect me to learn.
He had not considered it, it was true.
– And have you ever analysed the teacher-student relationship?1 No? Well, I have had plenty of time I can tell you, day in and day out at St Bride’s. That’s my school. It basically involves the person who knows: Miss Figgis, and a lot of virtuous apprentices, me and my friends.
– [ The following is mostly an as yet unattributed internet quote ] “Teacher talks about some frozen reality, reduced to bite-size chunks as it is considered more digestible if static, more predictable if kept in a box for the content. Whether about values or empirical reality, she turns it to stone in the process and it loses all life.” We on the other hand, we go out with boys, smoke fags, wear make-up, are obsessed with fashion and would die to get into a disco, snog and drink alcohol. Where’s the join?
She spread her hands.
– Most of what we get in school is completely alien. You lot want us to be filled up with your contents but they are so detached from our reality, that even you would be challenged to find any real significance in them. It’s just words, words, words in the end. In one ear and out the other. The outstanding characteristic of this narrative education in fact is the sound of the words, not the transforming power of their meaning. “Four fours are sixteen; the capital of France is Paris.” Information which you send us off in our spare time to record, memorise and repeat without worrying that we have no idea what four fours is sixteen of, nor why Paris is a capital. And what does anyone need a capital for anyway? Are we told that? No.
Quite heated now.
– That’s why I refuse to talk about education. This is schooling.
She spat the words out in a hoarse whisper that reached the rafters.
– No, we are containers to be filled by teachers and the more we are filled up, the better teacher Miss Figgis apparently is! Yet worse, the more swots there are in the class, the more stupid the rest of us look. It’s what Paolo Freire called the banking concept of education, in which any scope for student action is restricted to deposits and savings. I know some weirdos in my class actually get something out of behaving like twitchers or trainspotters, all classification and catalogues, but when I look at them, do you know what I see? Sad people who have filed themselves away in the process, bereft of their own human abilities to create, transform and truly know things. Where’s that restless, impatient, continuing and hopeful inquiry that we human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other?
He felt uncomfortable, challenged, unsure what he was expected to do about it. She went on:
– I can’t believe that you are just sat there expecting me to solve this situation. You’re the adult!
There was a pause while she studied him, he still silent. The tone became sardonic.
– Try reconciliation? Reverse the current? Recognise my power to teach and yours to learn?
A pause. Almost pleading now.
– How far do you want me to go?
Then abruptly looking at her watch.
– Crikey is that the time? Quick, here’s some ideas for you.
– One: please get us all out of the Curriculum and engage me in Dialogue, but for that you will have to respect me, young and unformed as I am. Second: don’t act on me, work with me. Help me inform my actions properly. It’s OK, I can cope with Theory and I am a child, I need Boundaries. Three, make me more Conscious of what is going on around me, help me name the world. Teach me through what is happening to me, not to you, and I’ll be passionate about learning.
The librarian was upon them.
– I am most terribly sorry but I will have to ask you to leave.
A whispered hiss, and pointing to the large-print sign hanging from one of the cross-beams: “Shhh! Quiet Please”.
The girl gathered her things unabashed, stuffing her papers and pens into her satchel. As she walked off awkwardly under the weight of the dead trees in her bag, he saw her plonk on her head the round hat and snap the elastic under her chin. Puppy fat echoed. He winced.
Plenty of passion, but a bit black and white all that. Take that lot too literally and you could be accused of over-simplification. Too oppositional also, and you could see how formalising what she called “dialogue” could actually lead back round to some sort of curriculum if not careful.
Put plainly, when all was said and done, teachers still have to teach. But he felt sympathy for her notion of smuggling in all kinds of ideas about learning in a sort of magpie way.
The librarian was still standing over him.
– You too, sir.
He was being shown the door!
He made to protest but withered under the glare. Handing her the book, he shuffled meekly from the room.