A Student’s Thesaurus

Gabriella Gruder-Poni writes about her experiences as a PGCE (i.e. trainee) teacher in English in an article called ‘The Reader Gets Angry‘. She describes the repeated opposition she encountered from fellow teachers when attempting to teach students about areas of knowledge unknown or without immediate to relevance to them. Gabriella becomes isolated as she tries to introduce new material to her students: for example, another teacher criticizes her for mentioning Leonardo da Vinci on a worksheet because a student ‘won’t have heard of the 1500s or of Leonardo’.

Gabriella concludes that her state school suffered from a ‘poisonous combination of classism and anti-intellectualism’. The teachers assumed students wouldn’t or couldn’t grasp anything not already familiar to them. Topicality rules. I’ve heard similar stories from state-school teachers in English and other subjects who speak warmly of teaching, but feel disillusioned at schools as learning environments. I’ve been told several times that students aren’t challenged or appreciated as individuals. Gabriella writes that:

I eventually came to suspect that the real reason for the banishment from the classroom of anything that smacked of culture was the lack of interest not among students but among teachers. For the students, especially the younger ones, regularly showed themselves to be curious about subjects other than gadgets and celebrities, giving the lie to the teachers’ assertions that times past and distant places were ‘inappropriate’ material for lessons.

I’ve written before that I don’t think Shakespeare is for everyone, but I’m still very sympathetic to Gabriella’s experiences. I admire Gabriella’s stand on seeking to develop students’ curiosity for new ideas. I’m struck by how the teachers she encountered took relevance and familiarity to be synonymous: a subject is relevant if the student is already familiar with it. So ‘gadgets and celebrities’ are in, and other cultures, other ways of thinking are out. This seems a logical fallacy. There are always topics that are unfamiliar but have hidden relevance. I believe that it’s fundamentally a good thing to reach out to something new and seek to understand it because the process fosters tolerance, open-mindedness and curiosity. ‘Relevance’ becomes an issue when deciding which new topics to teach: that’s why British students tend (if they learn any language) to learn French or German, not Malay or Sanskrit, though all of these languages would bring pedagogical benefits to all students. One reason that Shakespeare is still read so often and still placed on school curricula is that for centuries people have empathized with the basic sense of humanity that radiates from his works, and still do.

Her frustration with vocabulary teaching is exemplary. Having read her article in another source (a college alumni magazine), I know that the series that enraged Mr F— is called Wordly Wise, which looks like a reliable method to learning new words. The main arguments against learning complicated, polysyllabic vocabulary is that it’s unfamiliar and irrelevant: the students won’t know the words, and they don’t need to know them. You might well ask why students who’ll never use or hear words like ‘spurious’, ‘reiterate’ or ‘apocryphal’ should be made to learn them. These words are just used to sound smart, right? Here’s Gabriella again:

‘They’ll never need those words’, never need words like ‘assail’, ‘assimilate’, ‘mishap’ or ‘ostentatious’. Why not? Didn’t he expect them to read and write? I began to suspect that my students’ woeful ignorance might be a consequence of attitudes like those of Mr. F—.

She’s right that if you don’t expose students to such vocabulary at school, then they’re less likely to encounter more texts that use them and so remain with the basic literacy skills to read, say, a tabloid newspaper but not much else.

There’s also an important argument to make about the larger purpose of language acquisition and usage. We don’t just learn difficult words so that we can write well: it’s usually best, as George Orwell tells us, to use the fewest and simplest words possible. But sometimes the simplest word will be ‘assimilate’ or ‘reiterate’. That’s because we use language to describe the world and make distinctions. ‘Red’, ‘yellow’, ‘green’ and ‘blue’ articulate primary colours that we see, but there’s a whole wide spectrum out there: vermillion, teal, cyan, magenta and many many others (and even more if we count Dulux neologisms like ‘Indian Ivy’ and ‘Summer Surprise’). There are many other word spectrums. ‘Gesticulate’ has a different shade of meaning to ‘point’, ‘waggle’, ‘gesture’ or ‘wave’. There’s an important moral difference between choosing the words ‘catastrophe’, ‘disaster’, ‘screw up’, ‘accident’, ‘error’, and ‘mishap’. I wouldn’t use the same word to describe losing £5 that I would to describe famine, just as I wouldn’t think that starvation and a lost takeaway meal are misfortunes of a similar scale.

A thesaurus (from a Latin word meaning ‘treasury, store-house’) helps a writer to locate just the right word in a given spectrum. Choosing words requires sensitivity and attention: just the sort of skills you learn by studying English, listening for different connotations and learning advanced vocabulary. Gabriella reports that she was scolded for overemphasizing dictionaries: they should apparently ‘only be used a last resort’. In fact, I think the impulse to look up any word you’re not sure about is one of the best habits you can learn from studying English. But if you suffer a ‘lack of faith in words’, as Gabriella puts it, then you’re not likely to appreciate the cognitive skills and mental agility to be learnt from studying new words and new literature.

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The Home and the World (Ghare-Baire)

It’s easier than it ever has been to find films. Cinemas, television channels, retailers (including specialists like Moviemail), film rental and streaming companies (e.g. Mubi), magazines (like Sight and Sound and Little White Lies), film festivals, degrees and other courses—these are all ways to discover new films. It’s so much simpler than it was forty years ago, when you’d have to wait and hope that a film would come out sometime in the movie theatre.

I’m still waiting for the new Béla Tarr film, The Turin Horse, to come to the big screen in England though. I don’t do pirate movies in principle, and I’d be even less likely to settle for a poor-quality or small-screen version of this movie. I was lucky to watch my first Tarr movie, the sublime Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), on a large screen a couple of years ago. See his short Prologue (to Visions of Europe) to get some sense of his work’s strength: I’ve probably watched it ten times, and it still socks me hard in the gut.

Tarr’s marginalization is one example of how screen culture is choked by commercial pressures, even though there are many new avenues to discover film, and independent cinema is apparently thriving again. Andrei Tarkovsky’s unwavering belief that film should aspire to fine art is not much closer to becoming orthodoxy. There’s much to be said for receiving an education in film and screen culture, as in literature.

The Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray would make it high on my list of master directors who don’t appear often on British TV. See Pather Panchali (1955) first, a film about how a boy called Apu struggles to maturies in a poor household in rural Bengal. Recently I watched The Home and the World (1984), based on Rabindranath Tagore‘s novel of the same name. Bimala is a wife who’s encouraged by her husband Nikhil to move outside of the rooms she’s enclosed in, and receive a Western education, learn to sing and read, and become more aware about the world. Nikhil invites his wife to meet Sandip, a hard-liner for Swadeshi, a movement to boycott foreign goods. Nikhil won’t stop the poor traders at the market he runs from selling cheap foreign imports because he knows that they can’t afford to buy local goods. Bimala has to get her bearings rapidly in this political environment, as she is forced to choose between Nikhil’s and Sandip’s values and personalities.

The film is a meditation on practical ethics that recalls my surface-scratching reading of the Bhagavad Gita, and Gandian politics: is it better to pursue principles at all costs, or compromise as situations demand? It’s also informative about Hindu-Muslim tensions, colonialism and female independence, but isn’t in the least bit abstract or beard-stroking.

Ray is a master of producing films that depict people’s relationships and thoughts from their glances, their postures, and how their bodies fill the screen, and in doing so reveal wider implications with absolute clarity. The film is immensely compassionate, humane—and watchable. The Home and the World is available in a box set that also contains Ray’s great adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People (1989). I’m optimistic his films will still be known, will be better known even, in a hundred years’ time, and studied more widely in academic programmes too.