thefilthycomma #38 | | DJS

thefilthycomma #38

I have a bad habit of attempting to influence the reading habits of my students, both covertly and overtly. For example, a recent seminar on footnotes and referencing used examples drawn exclusively from the explorer geek section of my non-fiction library, specifically Thor Heyerdahl, Alan Moorehead and Peter Fleming.[1] In an attempt to encourage my students to improve their writing and reading habits, I also recommended some of my favourite non-fiction titles to them. These included Annie Dillard’s dreamy book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which should be compulsory reading material for everyone entering medicine or any related profession; and The Fatal Englishman by Sebastian Faulks.[2]

The Fatal Englishman has a number of proofreading and editing errors that make it professionally distracting to read: for example, there are several plurals rendered possessive with the grocer’s apostrophe, particularly in the middle section on Richard Hillary, and several instances of inelegant repetition that one would have expected a sensible copy-editor to quietly remove, as an alert waitress might sweep crumbs off a table before allowing the next patron to choose a seat.[3] It is also a great pity that the publisher’s budget did not run to printing the plates of Kit Wood’s art in colour, to complement and possibly illuminate Faulks’s careful analysis of Wood’s narrow colour palette in his later work. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating book, beautifully written in many places and showing a sensitive, concise and deft handling of the three young men that make up its subject that other biographers would do well to emulate; I very seldom read biographies because they are so often dreary, with events filtered by what the biographer is able to substantiate rather than what is actually interesting. I can’t get on with Faulks’s fiction, but this venture into non-fiction speaks to me. It contains three brief but detailed accounts of promising young men who died early and tragic deaths: Kit Wood, an artist who died at his own hand after many years of opium abuse; Richard Hillary, a pilot and writer, killed in a ’plane crash; and Jeremy Wolfenden.

Wolfenden’s profession and death are less clear-cut than those of the other two. The lives of Hillary and Wood both seemed to me to be dominated by their respective passions. The account of Kit Wood’s life makes it clear that he was driven by an overwhelming need to convey his artistic vision; similarly, Hillary seems to have been as much consumed by flames as he was by his own internal need to fly and to write about it. Both men, it seems to me, died as a consequence of being unable to balance the needs of their calling with their own physical frailty. Wolfenden, by contrast, is a clear example of someone unable to realise his talents in a meaningful way for reasons that seem to slither about the more one attempts to grasp them. He eventually slid into journalism and then espionage, apparently for lack of anything better to do; his death occurred in mysterious circumstances, but was probably a result of alcohol abuse one way or another. Again, drinking seems to have been something he did out of a sort of languid pointlessness, as if the idea that something more challenging or rewarding might exist had been scotched in early childhood. Although I find Wood and Hillary more compelling than Wolfenden (isn’t passion always more compelling than lassitude?), it’s Wolfenden that has given me the idea for this post.

Faulks makes the following observation: ‘None of the four Wolfenden children ‘achieved’ anything in the sense their father would have understood. This would not matter if they had seemed happier or more fulfilled in other ways.’[4] Faulks makes it clear that Jeremy Wolfenden was superbly gifted, so why didn’t he achieve more? Why didn’t he write a dazzling novel, play or collection of poetry? Why didn’t he stun the world of journalism, politics or indeed anyone outside the immediate circle of his acquaintance with his brain and wit? This inability to convert one’s gifts into socially-acceptable and comprehensible success is something I have noticed in my own life, and those of my friends. Two of the cleverest people I know, for example (S and H), have both struggled to realise their gifts. Both went to Cambridge and got first-class degrees. At the time of writing, S is in the final stages of a PhD, but had many years in the wilderness prior to re-entering the sanctuary of academia, and H, the brightest physicist of her cohort, is an accountant. My Chinese students are under the impression that a first from Cambridge will open the world to them like a picture book, but that hasn’t been the case here. For myself, being top of the class for most of my school career (in my chosen subject, at least) converted into feeling thoroughly baffled for much of my time at university as to really, exactly what it was I was being asked to do and why (nobody seemed to be able to articulate it); finishing university with no real idea of what I wanted to do in exchange for money; wandering into a career in university administration that ruined my health; and now working for myself: happily and regularly, but below the income tax threshold. I could easily name another half-dozen friends with similar stories of academic success that then fails to convert into anything very much. What the hell happened to all of us?[5]

My theory is that school and university don’t (and in their present structure, can’t) do the job they appear to set out to do. It isn’t that academia fails students, or that academic success is meaningless, or even that academic success only means something in an academic context (although all of these statements have some truth in them, I think). It’s also not that academic success doesn’t convert into professional or personal success (clearly, for many people, it does). I think it’s that, very often, academic success fails to convert into what one has been led to expect. Faulks quotes Wolfenden’s friend Colin Falck as follows: ‘[Wolfenden's] inability to find a way to live and be happy seemed not so much a personal failure as somehow a failure of all the English structures and systems that had produced him.’[6] This has the ring of truth to it, as does the whole of Faulks’s account of Wolfenden’s largely wasted gifts and opportunities: he simply didn’t know what to do with them, and neither did any of his teachers. He was being prepared for something, but nobody knew what.

Other reading (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in particular) suggests that participating in any form of education or training that one has not chosen to participate in is wasted time.[7] The point I want to suggest here is slightly different: I wonder if education or training where the point of what you are learning has not been made clear is a waste of time? In my own teaching, I am very careful to explain to my students at the beginning of each session why they need to know what I’m about to tell them, when they should expect it to be useful to them and how to rediscover the salient information at that point. For example, in a seminar about the correct way to footnote an essay, I might explain to them the consequences of not footnoting correctly; I might then suggest some points in the essay-writing process at which they should engage with the process of citing primary and secondary literature in a way that will meet the relevant requirements; and I might also point them towards useful online resources, encourage them to make helpful notes of their own, and provide a condensed ‘crib sheet’ of the take-home messages afterwards. We are all very clear what the point of us being in a room together is, and why whatever we are learning about is important.

This particular group of students are studying a foundation year prior to university, and so they are also very clear what the value of university study is and why they should want to pursue it. I’m not sure that’s true of school, however – neither the individual lessons nor the wider concept. Personally, I feel pretty cheated that working hard at school and university and jumping through all the hoops I was asked to jump through hasn’t resulted in a fulfilling job and heaps o’ cash.[8] That’s not because I feel I ‘deserve’ those things, but simply because that’s what I was lead to expect as a reward for all that work. The chain of logic that linked ‘working hard now’ to ‘fulfilling job and heaps o’ cash’ was never clearly articulated or explained, however, which leaves me wondering this: did I misunderstand the point of what we were doing, or did I fill in the blanks, in the absence of any real explanation?

What is the point of an education? Is it to prepare you specifically for employment in a profession that you choose in your teenage years? If that’s the case, I think a much stronger argument could be made for dropping subjects that have nothing to do with one’s proposed career much earlier in the process, to focus in on what is actually relevant. Is it to prepare you for life in general? If that’s the case, then surely the opposite approach should be taken, giving each student a broad base of subject knowledge and skills, on the grounds that many of these will be relevant both in and out of the workplace.[9] If one attempted to retrofit this idea, a quick examination of a randomly-chosen sample of schools shows that some schools take the focused approach and some the broad. In other words, they don’t know either.

Muriel Spark explores the etymology of the word ‘education’ (through the mouth of Miss Jean Brodie) as follows: ‘The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me, education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.’[10] She goes on to make a distinction between this drawing out of what is already there, as though one were extracting metal from a mine or rubber from a rubber tree (I’ve used those examples because duco also gives us the word ‘ductile’), the raw material then being fashioned into something useful at a later day, and the alternative method. This is represented in the novel by the choice that the girls have to make between ‘Classical’ and ‘Modern’ education, and by Miss McKay, Miss Brodie’s headmistress. She characterises the other, non-Brodie alternative as intrusion, ‘from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust’, as through one were stuffing a goose.[11] It should be noted, however, that for all her grand talk of Latin, Miss Jean Brodie does no such ‘drawing out’, but is just as keen to push her views into her students as anyone else (‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’ ‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’ ‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’)[12]

If Miss Jean Brodie is correct about the true nature of education (and, in the absence of any other input, lets assume that she is), then it seems to me there are three possible conclusions that can be drawn, broadly. One: that education should consist of drawing out something that is already there, but in this country and this age of league tables and exams, it is no such thing and we should use some other word to describe it (or, perhaps, because teachers are frail humans, it cannot be done objectively and one’s teacher will always be an intruder to a greater or lesser extent). Two: that the raw material of education is the students themselves, and therefore an unsatisfactory education should lead the student to consider his or her own contribution to the education and the concomitant lack of satisfaction. Or finally, three: the mismatch identified in the first conclusion leads students to draw some things out of themselves, but not others. The drawing out of the internal something-or-other is piecemeal, fragmented, ill-conceived and mismanaged: partly because teachers are under enormous pressure to do n things that have nothing whatever to do with why they want to teach in the first place, but also because none of the people involved are clear what it is they are supposed to be doing. In other words, we’re not bad: we’re just drawn that way.


[1] So as to set a good example for my students, I’m going to cite this post properly (something I never normally bother to do because this is the internet and people can just look stuff up for themselves). Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1958. English translation made from the original Norwegian under the personal supervision of the author); Alan Moorehead, The White Nile (London: Penguin Books, 1962); Peter Fleming, News from Tartary: A Journey from Peking to Kashmir (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd., 1936). For some reason Aku-Aku is not as well-known as The Kontiki Expedition (almost always stripped of its gripping explanatory subtitle, ‘across the Pacific by raft’) by the same author, but what it lacks in stories about sharks being hoiked out of the Pacific, continent-crossing vegetables and drowned parrots it makes up in tales of midnight meetings in underground caves, civil wars with the two sides delineated by a preference for the degree of stretching performed on one’s earlobes, and the final explanation of how the massive Easter Island statues were raised on end.

[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Collins, 1974); Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku; Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997); Sebastian Faulks, The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives (London: Vintage Books, 1997).

[3] I must admit that I’m never sure whether it should be grocers’ apostrophe (to indicate that there are lots of grocers, who all make this error), or grocer’s apostrophe as I’ve rendered it here (to include the error that it describes).

[4] Faulks, The Fatal Englishman, p. 321.

[5] I chose the title for this post as a reference to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, partly because Bob Hoskins died this week, and partly because I think it reflects some of the frustration and helplessness this topic makes me feel. You can also enjoy Jessica Rabbit singing the whole song with this phrase in context (voiced by the divine Kathleen Turner when speaking, and by Amy Irving when singing).

[6] Faulks, The Fatal Englishman, p. 323.

[7] Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Enquiry into Values (London: The Bodley Head, 1974).

[8] Again, I stress that I have a fulfilling job and enough money to subsist on comfortably enough, but this has only come about after years of stress and soul-searching.

[9] One would also want to see more practical stuff included in the curricula. For example, I use maths to do my accounts, budget our finances and fill out my tax return, all of which could have been included in the maths GCSE (in place of, say, critical path analysis). Or perhaps I am making an argument for two streams of education: one teaching academic content (critical path analysis; French verbs; sonata form; close reading of Chaucer) and one teaching practical or more obviously applicable content (comparing mortgage rates; conversational French; sight-reading; really understanding the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’). Both seem equally attractive to me, but they are certainly not equally useful in terms of what I am more likely to reach for on a regular basis. The ‘academic’ stream seems analogous to a complex, beautiful and seldom-used piece of kitchen equipment (an egg harp, say): perfect for the job it does and that job only (a job which it would be impossible to perform with any other kitchen tool). The ‘applicable’ stream seems more like, say, a good sharp knife: pretty good at most jobs, and used most days to prepare most meals. Should a well-equipped kitchen contain both, or one and not the other?

[10] Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (London: Penguin, 1961), p. 36. She repeats some of this on p. 45.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 11


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