In the Kitchen

I moved into a temporary room last week in a house with a large kitchen. I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations there with people passing through. One was with a pilgrim who’d just travelled to World Youth Day in Madrid—it sounded like a true pilgrimage, memorable for the modern-day hardships of overnight coach-trips and traipsing round the city in blazing heat. While in Spain, the Pope gave an address to young professors at Spanish universities. Christianity has for centuries pursued truth, goodness and beauty through education, and the current Pope was himself a professor at the University of Bonn. His address was particularly relevant to the British situation when he spoke of the dangers of shackling universities to short-term economic and political ends:

We know that when mere utility and pure pragmatism become the principal criteria, much is lost and the results can be tragic: from the abuses associated with a science which acknowledges no limits beyond itself, to the political totalitarianism which easily arises when one eliminates any higher reference than the mere calculus of power. The authentic idea of the University, on the other hand, is precisely what saves us from this reductionist and curtailed vision of humanity.
In truth, the University has always been, and is always called to be, the “house” where one seeks the truth proper to the human person.

Intrinsic good provides a robust philosophical defense of university education (incorporating sciences and humanities), and not just for people of faith; the philosopher M. M. McCabe spoke on this topic during a recent discussion on ‘The Future of the Humanties’ (she starts speaking at 16.10). Some fly-sheets reprinted during the Cambridge vote of no confidence in the government (which ended in a dead heat), sing a similar tune. One headlined ‘Education is a public good’ states (I’m quoting from page 1132):

The current administration [government] understands universities, essentially, as auxiliaries to commerce. Its notion of higher education is that it is or should be a market; that students should be shoppers in this market; that scholars should be salesmen and saleswomen in it. Students have protested forcefully against this idea of what they are and should be. By declaring, collectively, that education is a public good, not merely a financial asset, we [academics] can repay the public’s trust in us and demonstrate that we continue to deserve it.

The second kitchen conversation was with a pure mathematician who is well-read in world literature and was cooking some pork. Our conversation kept coming back to the problem of literary canons. He was arguing that it’s perfectly valid to defend great literature—Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, writers whose first names I don’t need to write—that clearly come closer to expressing essential human truths. Slicing some green beans, I responded with general liberal arguments about the social construction of canons, the need to discover unrecognized achievement, and that as a Renaissance scholar I’m reluctant to insist that you’re a better person if you read Shakespeare as well as I can.

My friend pointed me to an interview with the American critic Harold Bloom that rails against declining standards in American literature departments due to the mingle-mangle of political niceties: ‘I do not give in to political considerations, however they mask themselves. All this business about gender, social class, sexual orientation and skin pigmentation is nonsense. I’m 81. I’m not prepared to temporise any more. I’ve been prophesying like Jeremiah since 1968, warning the profession that it was destroying itself. And it has.’ He pointed me towards a couple of other bracing reads: Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (1987) and a polemic by Alain Finkielkraut called The Defeat of the Mind (La Defaite de la Pensée¸ also 1987). I’d not read either of these, but I quickly tracked down the latter. Finkielkraut shakes his fist at a liberal multicultural agenda that dilutes the definition of ‘culture’ from affirming pinnacles of human thought to any recognizable social practice:

In effect the term ‘culture’ now has two meanings. The first asserts the pre-eminence of the life of thought; the second denies this: from everyday gestures to the great creations of the human spirit, is not everything cultural?’ Why should we give pride of place to the latter rather than the former, to the life of thought rather than the art of knitting, or the chewing of betel nuts, or the ancestral custom of dunking one’s buttered toast in the morning cup of coffee?’ So there is a malaise in cultural life. True enough, no one from now on is going to draw his revolver when he hears the word ‘culture’. But there are increasing numbers of people who, when they hear the word ‘thought’, reach for their culture.

Elsewhere he defends Shakespeare’s importance over a pair of boots, and envisions a dystopian scenario in which fanatics (believing in high culture) combat the zombies (brain-dead consumers). I’d agree that multiculturalism has its problems. I’m particularly bothered, as Finkielkraut and others better informed than me are, that it can assign cultural identities to people artificially, and hinder genuine interactions between individuals, all the more so in a world where technologies, trade and travelling bring people into contact with one another. The argument goes that you don’t protect collective identities by defining them as fixed entities—identity must be based on individual freedoms and rights. All the same, I’d counter the dichotomy drawn here between judicious prejudice and mindless tolerance. Respect from diversity doesn’t have to be a pre-agreed pact of non-aggression signed by officials who have precious few everyday interactions that really generate culture. Equality should be thoughtful and lively.

Based on my personal experience, I’d also want to disagree with those who solely defend a literary canon, or rationality as an objective: I’ve learnt a great deal from engaging with others who don’t fit easily into traditions of high culture. Some might object to my drawing the analogy, but there’s a similarity in my defence with an old argument used against Richard Dawkins: I wouldn’t assume that evolution gives me a superior knowledge of natural processes if I met an illiterate forest tribesperson, because that person has just as much real-world experience to draw on as I have, and my sophisticated mental designs don’t necessarily equate to a deeper understanding of reality. My rational idea do have practical benefits, such as providing the aeonautical technology  that allowed me to fly there, but the whole question here is about non-utilitarian forms of knowledge. Time is another good example: I can use a watch to devise an efficient schedule for my life, and make complex calculations about past and future plans, but someone who cannot tell the time, but can accurately tell you what time of day it is from the height of the sun possesses genuine awareness of how the world works. And I see that the same goes for literature too: canonical works have been successfully tested as providing rich insights into life, but this doesn’t mean that they provide our best definitions of what it is to be human, or that I can’t find insights in other books that are less cherished by my immediate society. Political correctness isn’t the only reason to listen for neglected voices.

So how do my two kitchen conversations relate? My argument in the second is against rationality as an objective criterion for greatness, and for holistic appreciation and understanding of the world in the pursuit of truth. Both of these arguments tend towards faith-based belief systems, and both are threatened when materialist or pragmatic concerns dominate an educational environment. A separate institutional factor in play here is that literary studies have become more specialized as more work is done, and there are greater numbers of academics; consequently, literary appreciation and intellectual grandeur have become amateur pursuits somewhat separate to professional work. The literary canon, as my friend quite reasonably saw it, remains a natural home for deep humanist thinking, and from this viewpoint inclusiveness leaches away this transcendental energy. But I read the canon more as a meeting-place where people discuss and contest issues, and is itself mobile. Sensitive, committed, opinionated engagement gives energy to these interactions. Being inclusive helps literature retain its special status as a point of contact between different people, different lives—but such interactions need to be genuine and whole-hearted, not based on a vague sense of correctness.

To complete the circle. The Pope imagined what an ‘authentic teacher’ looks like: ‘Young people need authentic teachers: persons open to the fullness of truth in the various branches of knowledge, persons who listen to and experience in own hearts that interdisciplinary dialogue; persons who, above all, are convinced of our human capacity to advance along the path of truth.’ Such teachers are committed, passionate and humble. They do not accede to relativism—and especially not officially-sanctioned relativism based on artificial sense of inclusiveness—but are willing to relate whole-heartedly with their subject-matter and with their students. There is much to take heed of in these sentiments. A public good of education is, as I see it, to facilitate such direct encounters. The Jewish philosopher and educator Martin Buber is a guiding light on this topic, as on this post in general.

In literature, those works (e.g. Shakespeare’s) which have proven a valuable resource for concentrated engagement between reader and text are likely to still be read and to encourage profound cognitive and emotional engagement. But this doesn’t automatically exclude unexpected discoveries that we can make by corresponding with marginal voices and listening to aspects of reality beyond our reach. A political spin on this is that minorities should not be restricted either from gaining empowerment by studying the canons, or the methods on which the West thrives. Literature develops ‘our human capacity to advance along the path of truth’ by encouraging meaningful relationships that allow us to look outside of those systems—political, economic, institutional—in which we exist, and this is something that can be genuinely liberating.


Leonels and Fletchers

Real Madrid recently bought a young footballer called Leonel who’s being talked up as the ‘next Lionel Messi’ (non-sports fans: he was FIFA World Footballer of the Year in 2009 and 2010). Leonel Angel Coira is just seven years old though. The same story crops up every so often: last season Arsenal snapped up Fletcher Toll, their ‘new David Beckham’….for their under-7 side. These signings always come in for the same criticism, that six or seven is just too early to guess someone’s adult potential. An interesting question to ask is whether you can make a world-class footballer from a seven-year-old, rather than just find a potential star. Does training at Real Madrid aged seven really provide more opportunities to improve than playing in the street?

Think about reading instead. An Oxford-based charity called Reading Quest works with six- and seven-year old primary school students who make a bad start with reading English (perhaps they have learning difficulties, or don’t speak English at home). About one in five students leave school unable to read confidently, and this creates problems later down the line. So Reading Quest offers these students a six-week series of one-on-one sessions to make up the gap, and tries to involve parents more in their children’s education. I’ve seen their tutors at work, and was impressed by how each lesson was tailored to that particular student, how the tutor always checked that the children followed what was happening, and that the children were encouraged to find reading enjoyable, so that they’d have the confidence, interest and strategies to make improvements after the sessions were over.

I was reminded of Reading Quest at the weekend when I met up with a school-friend who’s now a primary school teacher, and co-ordinates literary teaching at his school. He gave me a lovely comparable example of teaching children to paint using watercolour. You can spend half an hour with one child, showing him or her how to hold a brush and mix paints and that person will never forget how to do it. Or you could teach a class of thirty for an hour, and at the end no-one has properly learnt that skill. Now I know why my recorder classes at school sounded so terrible.

I mentioned to him that the previous week I’d been speaking to some Teach First graduates at a party in Kilburn, who teach at secondary schools and all agreed that engrained inequalities in educational achievement were already in place before Year Seven (age twelve). Those students who didn’t have basic skills in Maths and English couldn’t catch everything in their language and science lessons, and just fall further and further behind those high-fliers who’ve enjoyed lots of individual attention and so are better at learning. Children whose parents read stories to them when they were five, and received individual attention from empathic adults at school and home are likely to do better later on. These Kilburn teachers felt strongly that debate about access to universities needs to look much further back than A-Level grades.

For Leonels and Fletchers who play a team sport where (I imagine) you just need to play lots of football and keep being told to improve, I doubt it makes that much difference whether you’re playing for Real Madrid youth teams or in the local park. Talent will shine through. But one reason it’s different for school children at that age is that it matters whether you build up basic skills, like reading, that allow you to become an independent learner, gain more skills later on and hold some kind of interest in what you’re doing. And personalized attention probably plays an important role in acquiring these skills.

In Veliko Târnovo

Veliko Târnovo is a former medieval capital of Bulgaria, tucked away in a forested hill region where the iconic Tsarevets Fortress looks out across the Yantra river. Travelling from Sofia to Varna last week, I spent a couple of nights in the town, visited nearby Arbanasi, and stayed at a guesthouse which, by chance, also happened to be an English school (Guesthouse Diel–recommended).

The hostess was extremely friendly, spoke excellent English, and was also a passionate advocate of the benefits of studying literature. She gestured to her heart when talking about the empathy that students should bring to studying Shakespeare or Byron, and spoke of the importance of advanced literary skills in modern society. In Bulgaria as elsewhere though, many students are unresponsive in literature classes and choose degrees that will ensure a decent job rather than learning to interpret classic Bulgarian works like Ivan Vazov’s Under the Yoke.

As heart-warming as this conversation was, I don’t mean to portray it as an ad hoc convention of the East European branch of the Dead Poets Society. Our conversation turned, as such conversations sometimes do, to the indifference about literature among general publics. Why do so few students feel the power of great writing! If only Hollywood would make serious Shakespeare adaptations! Would that Total Wipeout was replaced by ‘An Hour with a Sonnet’ on Saturday nights!

Literature is a fairly niche pursuit: lots of people don’t read much, and not all that many read the ‘classics’ in their spare time. That’s how it’s always been, and that’s pretty much fine. I don’t hear mathematicians complaining that more people don’t spend their time brushing up on calculus at weekends, and I probably would have heard if there was a dearth of people studying black holes or nanotechnology or painting. There is a large groundswell of cultural activity in Britain (think of theatres, museums, festivals, newspapers) and to judge from all the books on sale on street-corners, there is in Bulgaria too. Promoting, say, George Eliot‘s merits to others need not entail pillorying them if they’d rather read science-fiction, or get back to Facebook after listening to you.

It’s also natural that literature specialists advocate what interest them, and hope to spark enthusiasm in others. An education in the arts provides the opportunity, in schools and in universities, for those who are responsive to literature to receive support as they pursue their interest, and for others to have some first-hand experience with their cultural heritage whilst gaining valuable literacy skills. Education helps along the exchange of ideas within invisible global networks of like-minded people. But not everyone will be lit up by literature.