Tag Archives: teachers

Leaning Left

There has been some wailing and gnashing of teeth by our leaders on the current state of education. Not the usual stuff: terrible standards, grade inflation etc.

No this time it’s content.

Esther McVey and Gavin Williamson are bewailing the apparent left wing bias in education. Esther McVey stated recently: 

“I am now hearing that people aren’t teaching you what they need to – they’re overly indoctrinating you. It’s gone political, people are saying it has gone to the left, they’re forcing ideas on you.” The Independent

She says these attitudes are putting off “white working class pupils” who find that Miss or Sir’s beliefs are at odds with their family’s beliefs. Conservative MP for Tatton, David Lidington, suggests that “white working class lads” are turned off, because these beliefs are at odds with family views on Brexit – quite what Brexit has to do with it I’m not sure, it’s perfectly possible to be left wing and pro-Brexit.

Gavin Williamson talks about so-called “no platforming” I’m not quite sure what that means either, unless it means the teacher is not supposed to ask students to treat each other with mutual respect, that they are not supposed to stop them name-calling based on race, religion or orientation.

But Esther McVey is insistent that pupils are being “indoctrinated” and that “it has gone to the left”

Has it though? Has it really? Or was it always there?

Let me introduce you to Ignorance and Want – spoiler alert – left wing warning.

“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both,”

Do you know which book Ignorance and Want are characters in? That’s good teaching by the way, try to open by questioning rather than telling, not too pedagogic. That being said you probably do know – you were probably taught it at school, you will be taught it at school now, if you do GCSE English Literature, by most exam boards at least, and you will celebrate it every Christmas.

Ignorance and Want are the less famous children in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge. “Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?” 

Ooh snap Scrooge! The Spirit quoted your own Tweet, damn! Mic drop!

Ignorance and Want Public Domain

My point is this that Michael Gove, aided by Dominic “eye test” Cummings, has revamped the exam system. He took A Levels back to a two year course, minimised AS Levels and revamped the syllabus to be more “traditional” but “ay there’s the rub”- the tradition of English literature is, at the very least, social comment, if not socialist.

Dickens’ London, as explored in Oliver, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, or Great Expectations (which is on the syllabus) and of course A Christmas Carol, explore the poverty, injustice and the conditions of London at the time. Dickens’ exposed those conditions then, precisely to inform a society that wanted to ignore the treatment of its children, some of whom genuinely did not know and were appalled by that treatment. Dickens, like David Copperfield worked in a bottle factory, aged twelve while his father was in debtor’s prison, darn it! There I go again being left wing! 

Or there’s this: 

“With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt, Enriched from ancestral merchandise, And for them many a weary hand did swelt In torched mines and noisy factories, And many once proud-quiver’d loins did melt”

and a bit later

“For them the Ceylon diver held his breath, And went all naked to the hungry shark; For them his ears gush’d blood; for them in death                     The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark Lay full of darts;”

and a bit later

“Why in glory’s name were they so proud?”

That’s from Isabella and the Pot of Basil, by that bastion of English poetry John Keats.

The whole story is about a woman who marries someone below her social class, for love, thus threatening the inheritance of her two brothers, who murder her husband. I’ll leave you to discover the relevance of the pot of basil. That poem is on the A Level syllabus, hard to teach without slipping into social justice, class system, feminist issues. Then there is Thomas Hardy who was no fan of war Drummer Hodge is on the A Level syllabus as for modern poetry Maya Angelou, Benjamin Zephaniah, Carol Ann Duffy – all and many have social comments to make.

Death of a Drummer Boy Charles Moreau-Vaulthier Public Domain

There’s modern novels such as Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro’s vision of a totalitarian capitalist dystopia; Animal Farm, Orwell more totalitarian dystopia; To Kill a Mocking Bird, Harper Lee, racial and social injustice and to be honest Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte) is not a great advertisement for capitalism, nor Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) for a compassionate society. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) explores the transactional nature of marriage pre feminism, and back to Dickens the prison hulks of Great Expectations, haunt modern day discussions regarding where to house refugees… and don’t get me started on Film Studies… oh go on then.

Attack the Block (dir Joe Cornish) – poverty in Peckham exposed by aliens. Tsotsi (dir. Gavin Hood) (Oscar Best Foreign Film 2005) poverty in South Africa; Winters Bone, (dir. Debra Granik) Oscar nominated, an early Jennifer Lawrence, poverty in America; Slumdog Millionaire, (dir. Danny Boyle) Oscar Best Film – poverty in India; City of God (dir. Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund) – poverty in Rio; Captain Fantastic (dir. Matt Ross) – not poverty actually, but an alternative way of living; Little Miss Sunshine (dir. Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris) an attack on the American Dream. Even when you teach Rear Window or Vertigo (dir. Alfred Hitchcock), contemporary culture and society are explained and compared. You don’t have to know any of those films to know that they deal with life, with issues, yes Toy Story (dir. John Lasseter) is there and it is a little light on social comment but it is still a discussion of justice, mutual respect and cruelty.

These are all texts approved by the OfQual in the government revamp.

It is not necessary to know the texts I am referring to, to know that to teach them needs context – context is all – as Margaret Atwood says in The Handmaid’s Tale (on the A Level syllabus). Literature, the arts, and cultural studies require exposition of our world and teachers do that with an open mind, precisely to open minds. You cannot hide the poverty in Dickens or the rage in Keats or Hardy. You cannot hide the fact that Percy Shelley was sent down from Oxford for distributing an atheist pamphlet, Mary Shelley was the daughter of a feminist or the fact that Byron joined a revolution and died in its service (well okay not in the fight). Even Tennyson recounts England’s most heroic failure in The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Kipling may honour the Empire, but we still have to talk about the Empire.

Finally I’m still not terribly clear why David Lidington thinks all this is connected with Brexit, Brexit was and is a cross party issue, just because a piece of literature teaches compassion or explores issues of injustice does not mean we cannot have Brexit. The link between Brexit and a lack of compassion is in the ear of the beholder, it comes under of the heading “if the cap fits” it is not in the text or the teacher.

Teachers teach what’s on the page.

Media Melting Pot

file8181298830552I  have been thinking about Media Studies, I have been thinking about the name, the content and the style. I have been planning lessons, trying to introduce students to the value of understanding their media and trying reassure parents that Media Studies is a valid and rigorous subject to study, now that’s tough. The reputation of Media Studies is that it is, not to put it mildly, a joy ride. It’s the bread and circuses of education, it’s the easy subject, the one to offer as a sop to the students who, from now on, will have to stay on until their eighteenth birthday. ‘Give them something easy to do’, is the message that comes from any number of enrollment interviews and the clever students, the ones who are rigorous, the ones headed for the Russell Group universities with the A stars, it’s not for them, they should not waste their time on such a subject, watching the TV, studying film, what nonsense! No one could possibly take this subject seriously – and yet, and yet we study narrative theory, cultural theory, semiotics and all the associated terminology is applied. In six months my students learn to analyse images, moving and still, using denote and connote, they identify camera angles, chiaroscuro, mise-en-scene and they learn the connotations of the language. They begin to understand how they are being positioned constantly by media to interpret meanings in a way that it is intended by the producer, and they begin to understand that they have the right to challenge that. They discuss narrative construction from binary to Bettelheim, they investigate character colour and culture. They begin to read the insidiousness of stereotyping, they begin to understand the implications of power and propaganda in media, in short they develop a critique for survival in the modern media dominated environment and yet this is counted as easy and irrelevant.

However, this is not a narrow minded polemic in defense of Media Studies, I have given this some thought, if only as a puzzled teacher who cannot quite understand why a subject that seems to be so important to every aspect of our lives should be treated with such contempt, and as a result fail to attract the most able minds to its critique.

Media Studies does differ in its approach to its subject and maybe that’s where we could start. The syllabus I follow and have followed with two exam boards allows a wide range of choice of texts, it is topic driven. Thus when you teach semiotics – choose what you like to teach it; teach an event – choose what you like to teach it, audience effects, stereotyping, industry issues, choose whatever text you like to teach. As a result the choice of texts is driven by the desire of the course and its leaders to attract students and the desire of the individual teachers to teach what they fancy and thus the level of rigour in critique can vary.

file5581281481565Don’t get me wrong, I think you can teach any text to a serious level of academic understanding, witness my early research on Buffy for a festival lecture, only to find reams of academic discussion on the relationship between Sumerian mythology and the teen vampire slayer, in America they are much less limited, Bryan Singer studied film at the University of Southern California, School of Visual Arts, Scorsese studied film at New York University’s School of Film, to do it you study it, you take it seriously and then it rewards you. That may speak to the vocational element, but since not every student of film since 1966 and before (when Scorsese went} has become an award winning director like Scorsese, safe to assume a fair few are working in other careers and doing very nicely thank you. Behind the industrial aspect is the unrecognised (in this country) plethora of subjects that lend themselves to important cultural research. However perhaps allowing teachers to choose their favourite texts is a mistake. Students are subjected either to Tartovsky and Bunuel too soon, to challenge their perceptions of film making, or treated to the vagaries of fandom as teachers head for the favourite star or film and treat the students to an admiration of Harry Potter or George Clooney.

Would it not be better if the exam boards set the texts?

Nothing too restrictive, just like English – pairings or triplings of text – a choice of ten maybe and once you had chosen your triple you stuck to it examining those texts in detail and guiding students to detailed, rigorous answers in an exam – so for instance:

Newsnight Winter’s Bone coverage of US Presidential inauguration
Louis Theroux documentary Tsotsi coverage of 2011 riots
Panorama Blood Diamond Broadsheet and Red Top news
Local documentary strand Eastenders coverage of the Olympics
Wildlife documentary Submarine Jersey Shore
Side by Side Restrepo coverage of the Oscars
Cosmopolitan/Vanity Fair Little Miss Sunshine Coronation Street

You get my drift, none of the above may be at all appropriate but my suggestion is that the topics of semiotics, culture, audience theory, narrative theory, technical evaluation, representation, ideology and industry are applied to specific pre-selected texts, that allows the subject the respectability of rigour and reigns in some of the eccentricities of choice that pander to personal preferences or marketing.

If Media Studies (and personally I think should be renamed Media Criticism) is to survive at all it needs to challenge the assumption that it is easy to do and that means not just challenging the students but challenging the teachers.