Sunday, 3 October 2010

Which hospital bed are you in?

Sorry about the short interlude to this otherwise babbling brook of verbal doodling. Normal service is now resumed ...


I was writing only a few days ago about the Christian roots of this nation. The pope talked about them during his visit. You only need to totter down your local high street to find them sticking out of many doors. Even the Sunday opening hours are a vestige of a once Christian rhythm belonging to our public life in this country. Of course such roots are now somewhat wilted, a little dried out; maybe we should say gnawed away. Still, there they are. There is no use denying it like secular Canutes ordering the Christian tide to retreat. Hmmm, maybe that's not the best image, especially since the Christian tide is more likely to be outgoing than incoming. I'm not foretelling the action of the Holy Ghost. Merely commenting on the dimming of the day.

I'm mumbling away here to myself on these topics because I am about to begin another term of teaching in a British university. The students are settling in as I write. Correction: many are sleeping off the excesses of last evening, the first in the round of Fresher Parties. But then what on earth have they come to university for?

Okay, that's unfair. Few students ever turn up with a single agenda. Fewer still perhaps turn up knowing what their multiple agendas will be. It all has something to do with how we raise our children these days, and with how we acculturate them into British society or into western civilisation.

And there's the rub. To be acculturated means to be in a particular relationship to a culture, to be in the process of acquiring membership by the forms and processes that accompany cultural integration. I think that is part of the reason behind my growing feeling that such integration is only ever partially possible in our day.

Why? Because by the time our students arrive at university they have already largely acquired the criteria by which they make their choices about what to seek. Usually, these criteria are unconscious or hardly conscious. You have to look for them like you look for fossils, embedded into the rock of a personality which is already settled to a great extent. And the criterion by which choices are made these days is to be found in the several forms of individual expressiveness which they have learnt are the legitimate ones.

This is how I explain to myself my students' obsession with outcome over process. If they could buy the degree fresh off the shelf next Monday, how many would choose not too? I just wonder. You cannot ask them the question directly, because they would laughingly deny any interest in buying a degree. I look rather to how they treat the several intermediate targets which come between entry and exit: how do they learn week by week, do they grasp the questions which are embedded in the subject I teach, do they even care about them, and have they woken up to the world beyond the double-glazed, carpeted, mental lounge from which very often they gaze out on a world which, shockingly, does not share their priorities?

Do I sound negative about my students? I'm not at all. I try to respect them. I think it indispensible for most that they know I try to like them. I think I am just being realistic about what this project of higher education means.

I'm also thinking along these lines since I'm reading the memoirs of Patrick Leigh Fermor. I'm sure Fermor was an exceptional case; his writing is certainly exceptional. But along the highways of Europe, as a young, vagrant backpacker avant la lettre, he kept himself entertained by endlessly reciting all the snatches of poetry, song and prose his education had given him. There he was, this young man of nineteen, mouthing sonnets of Shakespeare, verses of Horace (in the original Latin), rhymes from Du Bellay, and a hundred other things besides. He relates how later on, as a soldier on Crete, with a German general under his custody, he connected suddenly in a quiet moment with the enemy when they found they both knew the same Latin verse about seeing snow on the mountain tops. How surprising the moments of human connection.

So what's my point? My point is not that I think my eighteen-year olds should be all like Patrick Leigh Fermor. But I could wish for them they felt something that Fermor felt, i.e. a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves, a sense that their education taught them to appreciate how it feels to walk in another man's shoes. They could have acquired this in some other way, not through refined high culture, but through a low culture that was still rich in human sensibilities. How on earth, I ask myself, are they supposed to learn that in an age of me, me, me, the X-Factor, the public sex lives of celebrities, and the society of consumer spectacle?

But isn't this also the age of charity? Maybe it is, on the industrial scale of Red-Nose Day. But is is also the age in which we are much more likely to have nothing to do with our neighbours (I hold my hands up incidentally) who are much more difficult, albeit immediate, objects of our charity. It is also the age in which leading national agony aunts can so misrepresent what charity means that they argue on national television that abortion can be an expression of what the mother thinks is best for an unborn child (I saw and heard it with my own eyes on the BBC this morning). We are relating to each other like the patients in Baudelaire's hospital. Relief is what we seek, more than happiness.

So, term will begin again, and I will face my next cohort of consumers. Will I be able to try acculturating them to my little area of western civiliation? Will I have to plant the dynamite that blows up the rock and allows them to examine the criteria they have brought with them? Is it possible to turn a shopper into an adventurer? Is is feasible to offer something else other than an off-the-peg and ersatz version of learning?

The answers begin a week on Monday ...


Ttony said...

Bear in mind that PLF never went to University at all. Walking from London to Constantinople was his three years of study.

My mother went to a Benedictine Convent school in Oswaldtwistle in the 30s and when I bought her "A Time of Gifts" when it first came out she noted that she had learned by heart exactly the same English poetry as had PLF.

Though too much Browning can be a pain in the neck for the listener, I wish I'd been taught like that.

Moretben said...

I shall try to return to that book. About twenty years ago, I got to precisely the point you mention and abandoned it there: three pages of PLF strutting his hyper-literate plumage got me thoroughly fed up with him (I suppose I must already have been not liking him, at some level). Belloc often has the equivalent effect on me, for similar reasons - that passage in The Path to Rome where goes into a puerile sulk about failing to cross the Alps in a blizzard, in his town shoes, nearly killing his poor guide in the process, is suugestive of nothing so much as Hemingway at his most tiresome. Belloc is redeemed by his delightful sense of humour. I don't remember any humour in PLF, but I'll go back with an open mind...

Moretben said...

Anyway, to answer your question (sorry): yes, it is possible - but probably at a rate of about five percent, for whom something will light the touchpaper. It might be something you present, or the way you present it. It might be something you never thought much about, rather than the things to which you devoted a great deal of effort and attention; either way, it's the dryness of the tinder that counts above all.