Beyond the utilitarian; a plea for enrichment through education

Tristram Kenton's photograph of the actor Ian McDiurmid playing the role of Galileo Galilei in Bertolt Becht's "Life of Galileo".

Tristram Kenton’s photograph of the actor Ian McDiarmid playing the role of Galileo Galilei in Bertolt Becht’s “Life of Galileo”.

I firmly believe that at times the drama of the past can open windows onto the world in which we live today. For example, when we watch one of Shakespeare’s great plays such as Julius Caesar or Richard the Second, we can view these as his interpretation of the historical events of the past, or see within the words and the actions on stage, parallels with today’s world. It is an indication of the greatness of the writing that we can sometimes be made to reflect on the events of today by writers and playwrights who have long since died but leave us with a rich legacy of their thinking.

This weekend Sara and myself, in the company of  good friends attended a performance of Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Brecht was a German playwright born in Augsburg at the end of the 19th century and in 1933 fearing persecution he fled Nazi Germany and settled in the USA. But even there he was not free from fear and was accused of communist sympathies and lived under threat during the McCarthy witch hunt era. It was possibly these personal experiences of persecution and injustice that had the greatest influence upon his writing of profoundly political drama.

The play that we enjoyed yesterday evening was The Life of Galileo, written around the time of the outbreak of the second World war. The play tells the tale of the great Italian scientist’s explorations of astronomy, his discovery of  four moons revolving around Jupiter and of sunspots on the moon, and in particular his observations that  supported the theories of Copernicus that the sun was at the centre of a universe around which the other planets, including Earth revolved. This story of discovery would probably not have provided material of particular interest to Bertolt Brecht had it not been for the fact that in 1614, Galileo was accused of heresy by the church which upheld that God’s creation of the Earth placed it above all other celestial bodies as his chosen centre of the universe. In his use of scientific methods and the recording of his observations, Galileo had challenged the thinking of the day and more especially the authority of the church.

The play builds in tension through Galileo’s trial and imprisonment, though it has a reassuring ending as truth finally triumphs with the smuggling of his written theories from prison and their eventual publication. The message that we may take away from this is that whilst efforts are made to suppress ideas that may be perceived as uncomfortable, as was the case with the church in the 17th century, or the Nazis or McCarthy witch hunts in the twentieth, in the end it is likely that truth will prevail. But this is not the sole reason why I believe that such powerful drama may have resonance today.

Walking away from the theatre our thoughts inevitably turned to our personal responses to Brecht’s play. We all agreed that it had been a theatrical tour de force, but more especially that it had some clear messages with regards to our concerns for what we perceive as currently happening in education. During the play Galileo rails against the efforts of the church to limit his work and to control his teaching based upon what he saw as being new discoveries and developments in science. He makes clear his disgust with the fact that all he is expected to teach is a strictly controlled curriculum that he believes will limit learning and inhibit the critical faculties of his students. Brecht, through the words of his characters challenges the limitations being placed upon learning and questions the authority that can determine not only what should be taught but also how it might be applied.

Here we agreed, we could see parallels with some of the more worrying aspects of the education systems in many of our countries today. It seems that even now many teachers work within frameworks where the curriculum has been narrowed to a focus upon a limited number of politically determined subjects. In my own country as well as in others, the priorities given to the teaching of English, mathematics and science has resulted in increasingly limited opportunities for children to explore history, geography, art and music and to have their understanding of the world enriched by these subjects. Furthermore, even within the teaching of English, a focus upon the mechanics of grammar has often led to the marginalisation of literature and a devaluing of the beauty of poetry and drama.

I am not suggesting that the policy makers and politicians who determine school curricula are in any way intent upon establishing a form of totalitarian control upon the teaching of children, indeed I suspect that they believe their actions are for the benefit of the society they wish to create. Neither am I denying that the teaching of English grammar, mathematics and science should not form an important part of the rounded education of every child. But the very restricted idea that all children need the same curriculum diet seems quite preposterous and is one that is likely to result in many young people whose interests lie outside of these narrow confines opting out of educational opportunities.

It would appear that for many politicians education is seen only in utilitarian terms as simply preparing young people to become efficient contributors to the economy of countries as members of a workforce. Whilst I certainly sympathise with the notion that all children need to develop skills that will enable them to find employment and the security of being able to support their families in the future, I am much more comfortable with an agenda that regards education as a process of enrichment.

I am certainly grateful to those teachers who taught me to read and write, to be reasonably numerate and to have some fundamental understanding of physics, chemistry and biology. But I am equally indebted to those who encouraged me to think critically through the study of history, to gain an understanding and appreciation of culture, place and the interdependency of people and environments in geography and religious education, and to appreciate the interpretation of feelings, mood and relationships in art, music and drama.

Brecht was right to draw our attention to the dangers of limiting what we allow teachers to teach and students to learn. Progress in all of our societies has been achieved through liberal approaches to education and by innovative teachers who see a spark of interest in every child or student that they teach and then pursue this as a means of stimulating learning. I would like to propose that for many learners one evening at the theatre immersed in the works created by Brecht, Chekov, Ibsen, Shakespeare or any one of a whole host of great playwrights is more likely to have a positive influence upon the thinking and understanding of those individuals than an additional page of mathematics homework.

Maybe you disagree. Continue reading

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” – Oscar Wilde


This child takes me into her world - both real and imaginary when she reads me a story

This child takes me into her world – both real and imaginary when she reads me a story

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Groucho Marx


The intention of my piece for World Book Day – “The time has come the Walrus said, to talk of many things” (6th March 2014) was to celebrate the joy of being a child (anywhere from the ages of 0 – 100 and beyond) and to remind us all of how easy and joyful it can be to become immersed in a book. As I had hoped the piece provoked some tremendous and often amusing responses. A couple of students and a colleague from the university dropped into my office to tell me about their favourite children’s books and there were some great postings on the blog. Neha chose to simply post William Blake’s mysterious depiction of the Tyger with its religious symbolism and wonderful rhythm, Barbara had clearly woven some kind of magic and had turned into Harry Potter and Maitrayee entered fully into the spirit of the Mad Hatter with her passionate celebration of eccentricity. Others gave me accounts of their favourite books and shared ideas for further reading. I must say that reading all of these responses made my day and left me smiling for much of the time.

Books and words have always been important to me. When I was a child I loved making up stories and writing these down on any available scrap of paper. Through my teenage years I read any novel, collection of poetry or work of history that came my way and then I was privileged to study literature as a student. The reading obsession has never gone away and I cannot imagine travelling anywhere without at least one book in my hand luggage. The height of decadence for Sara and I is Sunday morning, with no need to dash to work, sitting in bed accompanied usually by our cat, reading for an hour or so, simply for pleasure. (the cat incidentally remains indifferent to books, despite my best efforts!). What a great way to start the day.

It was therefore a tremendous delight to read of the enthusiasm expressed by others in response to my simple blog. But this was also tempered by the sad reflection posted by Mary with her report that in China reading for pleasure appears to be almost discouraged by the education system. Mary suggested that:-

“here in China, very few people read what you have listed for pleasure any more or ever. If people are actually reading those, they must be university students reading to pass their tests”.

What message, I wonder, are we giving to children about books if their only purpose in reading is to pass tests? This does seem to me to be more likely to deter children from learning than to encourage them to explore the riches of the world through the written word. Furthermore, I believe that the children placed at greatest disadvantage from this approach are those from poorer communities who have less opportunity to explore and learn about the world than those from more advantaged situations.

When I was a child I never imagined the experiences that I would have as an adult travelling to many parts of the world, meeting so many wonderful people from diverse and fascinating cultures. People from my community and background simply didn’t do these things. Education has given me opportunities that were never available to my parents and indeed the only time my grandparents’ generation travelled outside of the UK was to be shot at and shoot at others in two dreadful World wars!

As a child I explored the wonders of the world through the pages of books never really believing that the world beyond the pages could open up to me. I read every one of R.K. Narayan’s novels about the fictional village of  Malgudi, and loved Anita Desai’s Village by the Sea, never believing that one day I would spend time living with a family in just such an Indian village. The thrill of visiting Lu Xun’s house in Shaoxing, years after reading his hilarious account of his eccentric character, Ah Q, and finding a blue plaque on the wall of a house where Lawrence Durrell wrote the autobiographical Bitter Lemons in Cyprus and realising that I was exploring in reality places, people and events that I had first encountered on the pages of books has been a great aspect of my adulthood.

Travel has come to me as a result of education. But appreciation of the cultures that I have visited, whilst being built around the friendships I have made in many countries, was prompted much earlier by my reading as a child and throughout my life. Through books I was able to gain insights and build respect for the art, literature, religions, and cultural traditions that were distant from me as a child. To deny a generation this opportunity to explore for themselves outside of an imposed school curriculum is surely to rob them of their rights to understand the world and to develop as tolerant and appreciative individuals.

Ah yes but, I hear some of you saying. The book is dead, this is the digital age and we get our information fast these days from our tablets and smart phones. Certainly I say, there is a place for these. But equally there is surely a need for the beauty of the language of Shakespeare, the incise wit of Robertson Davies, the empathy created by Kenzuburo Oe, the profound spiritualism of Dante or Milton? Through Naqib Mahfouz I have visited the winding alleys of old Cairo, Chekov has given me a sense of the Russian Steppe and my senses have been filled with the sounds, colours and smells of South America by Borges, Llosa and Marguez. All of these are places I have never visited but of which I have learned a little at least in my imagination. Maybe I am just old-fashioned, but I suspect that there are other children like me out there whose eyes can be opened to the world and whose thirst for learning will be stimulated by the written word.

Perhaps the saddest fact here is that we see the need to establish World Book Day. If every day became a celebration of books there may be many more happy children in all of our countries. So, wherever you are in the world enjoy your literary greats and give your children the lifelong gift of books.