Tuesday, 29 November 2011

In praise of David Holbrook

I have been pursued by the BBC today. A news story is breaking that there have been more vacancies for English teachers in the UK advertised in the past few months than for any other subject. Someone wants to interview me about this. What should I say?

Well, for a start, I should ask, does this actually mean there is a shortage of English teachers? Presumably not, if all the vacancies are filled. I’d like to know how many of these posts had to be re-advertised – that would be revealing. If, indeed, the large number of vacancies means that young teachers of English get disillusioned and leave the profession then, yes, I am disappointed but not surprised.

I meet, and work with, many teachers of English and I'm full of admiration for the passion they bring to their role - teaching involves an element of performance: you've got be able to hold your audience, after all. And they must be doing something right: English degrees have been among the most sought after and oversubscribed in UK universities for many years, and remain so even now. This wouldn’t happen if there were no good teachers around to enthuse their students in the first place.

But English is a subject that can easily be made deadly dull, and it’s not a subject that takes kindly to over-prescription. When Curriculum 2000 was introduced by the now thankfully defunct Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, English at A level was encumbered with more Assessment Objectives, with weightings more strictly defined, than any other subject. It was a nightmare – for teachers, for their students and (believe it or not) for the people like me who had the job of creating specifications, setting papers, devising mark schemes and training examiners.

I'm old-fashioned enough still to believe that teaching is a vocation. I'm also old-fashioned enough to believe that English teaching is about fostering creativity, about teaching students of whatever age to be creative writers and critical readers, to use (forgive me for repeating a phrase I've used before, in an earlier post) the imagination with precision. It's about helping every student to develop his or her consciousness of being conscious. Fifty year ago this year, in his book English for Maturity (1961), David Holbrook wrote:

We need not suppose that poetry, however well taught, will make all our pupils, or even the best, into mature and balanced 'whole' men and women. It is rather that without access to English poetry they are deprived of one form of sustenance, one positive aid to living. All our wrestling with life, if it is to have any substance or courage, needs to draw on the power of the word, the metaphorical power which makes the flux of experience that much more tractable .... Poetry can help give 'the very culture of the feelings' and a grasp on life in terms of the whole sensibility: poetry is a civilization's positive hold on life. (p.87)

Does any student teacher today have the chance to debate such ideas - or to read them? Rarely, I suspect. I have searched the reading lists given to students taking a PGCE in English. Nothing remotely like Holbrook’s book (which used to be required reading for all such students) even scrapes onto the bottom of any list I have seen.

One of the things I admire about Holbrook, who died earlier this year and whose books I have been reading or re-reading in the past few months, is that he sees the job of teaching English as fundamentally the same whether one is teaching undergraduates or bottom stream children in a secondary modern school. In the Introduction to English for Maturity he wrote:

This book is offered to those who profess to teach English … to help them consider their work as part of all English teaching – whether in the university, in the grammar school, primary school or secondary modern school – and as of equal value. (p.7)

He was one of those lucky people who at different times in his career taught in schools, in adult education and in universities and he taught teachers too, so he knew the job of English teaching from every angle. In all his books up to and including his last (English in a University Education, 2006 – published forty five years after his first) he insisted that English matters because it is ‘a discipline which attends to the imaginative exploration of human experience’. One of his most telling titles was English for the Rejected (1964) and in that book he talked about the importance of making such children believe their imaginative writing mattered:

Read their pieces as you would [Molly] Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, or Finnegans Wake or the poetry of e.e. cummings, or the rich wild prose of Dekker, or Nashe. Listen to its rhythm and voice …. Encourage them to struggle with the reality of experience, and don’t substitute for this the struggle with mere problems of graphic layout. (pp.208-9)

You see, for Holbrook a teacher’s ability to teach effectively was directly connected to the passion that teacher still had for the literature they had read at university and continued to read afterwards. So, when I speak to the BBC, and I’m asked why there is a shortage of English teachers, I shall say maybe it’s because there is a shortage of teachers teaching teachers to teach with the same passion for, and belief in, the subject that David Holbrook had.

[illustration: the cover of the second edition of David Holbrook’s first and most influential book, English for Maturity (1961)

postscript: I have been duly interviewed by the BBC, in my capacity as Chair of the English Association, about the apparent shortage of teachers of English. The story, if it appears, will be on the BBC News webpage: www.bbc.co.uk/news/education

1 comment:

  1. I received my copy of English for Maturity today and have just finishing reading Part I: English in the Secondary School. For someone like myself who attended a secondary modern school for boys in the sixties, this makes disturbing and enlightening reading. Disturbing because it reminds me that I failed the 11-plus and, instead of going to the newly-built High School which I could see behind the houses across the street from where we lived, I walked down the hill to attend a 1930s school where, presumably, they only got ‘the duds’. As Holbrook points out, ours was a ‘second best’ education which prepared us for a working life in anything our modern world could offer outside the professions. Enlightening in that, whatever its failings and however tough the boys, I realise now that I was given the kind of education in English that Holbrook advocates, one which developed my imagination and creative writing abilities, albeit on a modest scale. When I left school I struggled with my reading of literature, a then growing passion which is now part of my life, stumbling on at least one word in ten. I had spelling drilled into me from the age of eleven until I left to start my apprenticeship at the age of sixteen and have never had a problem with it since. But I also had a head full of English folksongs that we sang once a week with the deputy headmaster conducting and the headmaster accompanying us on the piano. So when the local youth wing at the High School began a folk club I and a school friend of mine were able to get up and sing, a cappella, one or two of those folk songs. Not that we weren’t indifferent to the Beatles or the Stones! The two kinds of music existed side by side for us. Yet I do have a preference for teaching French 11-year-olds good old English children’s songs rather than pop song lyrics. So I suppose second best was good enough for me.