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The lighting of fires

A million years ago when I was learning to teach we were set a question: why do we learn what we learn?

It is a question that has haunted the teaching profession for as long as it has existed. Socrates, a teacher of aristocratic young men, thought education was all about asking the right questions so that one could live a good life. That didn’t go entirely well for him as the teacher; he ended up put to death. We didn’t push ourselves that hard at King’s College London in 1986. 

Nowadays, what the government thinks we ought to teach in our classrooms (which might, I suppose, be the same as what they think pupils ought to learn) is called the national curriculum. Maths, Science and English are the core subjects. Modern Foreign Languages were taken out of that core some years ago and the numbers of pupils studying them nationally are now in something of a free fall (particularly in French and German). Teachers of Art, Music and Drama worry like mad, particularly in the state sector, because they aren’t compulsory and so may not attract the numbers of pupils required to sustain the subject. There’s every danger, in my view, of too few pupils doing anything more than the bare minimum if the curriculum is treated in this way. It is reductionist thinking and it is damaging. 

Such reductionism does a disservice to all subjects. My first Head of Department, when I was a junior chalkie at Sevenoaks School in 1987, used to describe Maths at GCSE as a ‘licence to bore’, because pupils were compelled to study it and the teacher could assume there would always be an audience. Maths is so much more than that, of which I am now getting glimpses, thanks to assemblies from our Head of Maths, Alex Hartley, upon subjects as diverse as Alan Turing and Euler. How dreadful to reduce Maths to ‘you need to do this’ or ‘because I say so’. Stephen Winkley, ex Head Master at Uppingham School, used to like winding up those who taught compulsory subjects by suggesting that most 15-year-old pupils would far prefer doing Drama GCSE than being compelled to do, let’s say, Physics. In my view, the best response to this mischief is in explaining the joy of Physics, rather than resorting to the argument of ‘you have to do it’ or, even worse, the clearly meretricious argument that Physics is the more ‘useful’ subject. 

At school we expect to learn those things we need to know to keep us healthy and safe; to enable us to do the things which matter to us; and, I would hope, to expand our minds. Some children find their minds expanded most in the undertaking of practical tasks; a design project, for example. (I can still in my mind’s eye see a current B pupil proudly wheeling his GCSE design coursework, a rather large drinks cabinet, into his hsm’s study at the end of last term!) Some find their world most enriched by the study of an ancient or modern language. Others will always prefer their intelligence to be fed by Art, or Music, or Drama; still others will find their talent best expressed on the cricket or rugby pitch, whilst very blessed souls will discover they can do, and enjoy, all of these things. The key to all learning however, is that most wonderful of human organs: the imagination. 

We are more than mere drones who have to learn Maths so we can add up, or French so we can buy a baguette. Learning is about feeding our souls, our emotions and our imaginations. Maths is about big ideas, answering big questions, and seeing our world aright; French is about accessing a rich culture and literature as well as being part of a wider world than the Anglophone. And of course my own subject, Classics, is about it all. What is it to be a human being? How do you live a good life? And, to my mind, the best literature and philosophy in the world. All of these subjects, in their different ways, feed the mind, the spirit, the imagination. They allow us to glimpse the marvellous. 

‘Nothing could be known about the world unless it was first pre-formed and transformed by the synthetic power of imagination.’ 

Kearney, Wake of Imagination

In the voyage of discovery that is teaching and learning, let us not forget the importance of the abstract; the importance of concept. To paraphrase W. B. Yeats, let’s not fill empty pails but light a whole range of different fires. Then our children might develop into the positive, creative, problem-solving adults the world needs them to be. And be happy, fulfilled souls too.

Tagged  Creativity