Another principle Andrew Metcalfe and Ann Game (Teachers Who Change Lives) derive from their corpus of interviews goes beyond the culture wars.
The canon doesn’t restrict student self-expression but develops it: students find their particularity by taking part in the life of cultural traditions. Because a tradition is continually changing, teachers initiate students to its wonders by allowing students to show them these wonders in a new light. In this way teachers demonstrate to students that the tradition will carry them if they carry it.
Yes but whose tradition? In any class I ever taught in the past twenty years at least a multiplicity of traditions sat in front of me. Should we just bulldoze all that potential, all that opportunity to expand our horizons, in the interests of some narrow Australian-ness? I don’t think so: rather let our Australian-ness expand to include what was hitherto alien. Time and again I have seen that wonder in practice, and neither Shakespeare nor Banjo Paterson emerged the worse for rubbing shoulders with Omar Khayam or Du Fu. Actor David Ritchie said in the relevant chapter of Teachers Who Change Lives:
Even when I am teaching I am discovering. For example, a group of students from China did a piece from The Seagull, which I’d coincidentally seen the week before. Chekhov calls The Seagull a comedy. The students’ English was not perfect but they were doing a good job. I said to them, It’s actually quite funny, go for the comedy, and it was hysterical, hysterical! They did it in a heightened style. One of the students’ mothers actually works for the Peking Opera and she’d got at that style. I went, Yes! Chekhov can work like that!
Interesting for me, as I know Nick, is Australian writer Nicholas Jose’s account of Mr Schubert, his English teacher.
I learned to read literature from him, a way of reading that was close, sensuous, and very precise. This subtle way of responding is what I still use when reviewing something or writing something myself. I feel quite confident in my method; I can trust my responses and I can articulate them. I don’t need to try too hard, but just do it naturally as I’ve been taught. I know it will work: I proved that to myself with Mr Schubert, who wouldn’t let me get away with showing off. When showing off, you’re interposing your own bright ideas, rather than letting your responses come from the text.
There is much in this wise chapter. Do seek out Teachers Who Change Lives.
Meanwhile, I think all this is a cue to think about my own English teachers over the past fifty years. Next time…