Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Culture Club

I once had a teacher who was a very cultivated man, in a conservative sort of way.  Having himself gone from a state grammar school to Cambridge, where he became a disciple of F.R. Leavis and earned a Ph.D. in German literature, his commitment to state education was such that he dedicated his life to secondary school language teaching in a New Town, just a few miles -- geographically -- from his own home town.  Culturally, the distance from his historic market-town to the brash new council estates of Stevenage was rather greater than those few miles, and from Cambridge, just 25 miles away by road or rail, the cultural mileage was astronomical.

Born in the 1950s, ours was the first "new town native" generation to pass through a school which had, in one form or another, existed on its site by the Great North Road since 1558, catering to the educational needs of the sons of the gentry of rural north Hertfordshire.  Like the "old town" -- actually little more than a village -- which had been engulfed by the New Town, the school found itself the bewildered victim of a hostile takeover.

Clever boys from homes with zero "cultural capital" were clearly a challenge to the teaching staff, most of whom were heavily invested in what we might call Establishment Culture.  They played in amateur string quartets, were the backbone of local sports teams and dramatic societies, and served on committees and ran youth clubs.  Quite a few were evangelical Christians or Labour Party activists.

Seen from their vantage point, the poverty of our legacy was very real.  Our homes were book-free zones, and by 1970 the New Town was a cultural wasteland, with no theatre, no concert hall, no cinema, no gallery, no museum, no nothin', other than a library, a swimming-pool, a bowling-alley, and a dance-hall.  Our teachers tried to engage us in "improving" pursuits.  The problem was, we weren't listening.

School magazine 1966
(Po-Mo avant la lettre...)

Why?  Because we were also the first generation to have grown up during the supernova phase of pop culture.  Nothing at school -- particularly lo-fi activities like school plays, debating societies, magazines, and orchestras -- could compete with the extra-mural excitements of the years 1963-72.  Pop culture roared in to fill the cultural vacuum at home.  Girls, guitars, drink, drugs, clothes, revolution, alternative lifestyles -- these were the things we aspired to.  The most active engagements between staff and pupils that I recall were disputes over hair length.  School was a rite of passage, but we did not intend to emerge as little gents-in-waiting.

Disaffection was our thing.  It was a badge of pride not to be asked to become a "prefect".  I and my friends passed through that school without touching the sides: we rarely joined in or contributed to the broader life of the school. We were taken aside and told as much, fairly regularly.*  We took what was on offer, sceptically, but gave little back, on principle, as if we were in the army or a prison.  We served our time, then shook its dust from our fancy zip-sided boots.  I should probably say I regret this attitude now, but I don't.

My very cultivated teacher tried his best to rescue those of us who came into his care in the sixth form, but it was an uphill task.  Once, he took us on a theatre visit to Cambridge; I remember his amazement, when he treated us to a meal afterwards, that some of us had never eaten in a restaurant before.  Lessons were shot through with invaluable throwaway clues:  how else would I have known that Emma was regarded by some as the greatest novel, or that Beethoven's late quartets were a pinnacle of human achievement?  His teaching style was eccentric, easily mocked, but highly effective.  His unfeigned anger that not one of us had troubled to find a German equivalent for "Ker-blam!" in a translation exercise was seared onto our adolescent brains.  But I'll also never forget the time he awarded me A++ for an essay on Gottfried Benn's poetry.  If my German is any good, it is entirely due to his teaching.

Scholars of German embarked for France
(Ingelheim Exchange trip, 1971)

However, in a final act of disaffection, I chose to study English, not German, and at the "other" university, having grudgingly allowed myself to be talked out of applying to art school.  I, like most, never returned to discuss any of this, though I rehearsed the angry conversation often enough in my head.  That teacher died unexpectedly in the 1980s, and I am rather older now than he was then.  It is odd to think that, despite this age advantage and my broad cultural activity over the years, I have not and will never have the depth of engagement with official "museum culture" that he had.  I am unlikely ever to find the time, or inclination, to listen to Wagner's Ring or even to read Emma.  Though I have listened to the late Beethoven quartets; I find I am able to sense, but will probably never grasp, the loftiness of the achievement.

Life has changed, radically, since the 1960s. Schools have changed, too.  My German A-level group of six boys -- just six! -- seems to have taken place in a long-ago and far-away Golden Age of privilege.  My own children went to local sixth-form factories where hundreds of students study popular subjects in each year. German, it goes without saying, is no longer taught in most state secondary schools.

The mountain of new cultural products grows annually ever larger**, obscuring and distorting the venerable artefacts of earlier, quieter ages buried beneath deep archaeological layers.  Who has the time to dig, to re-evaluate, to re-frame the old?  What the contemporary world needs now, more urgently than ever, is adequate contemporary responses.  The nagging feeling that Schubert ought to deserve more attention than, say, Joni Mitchell is part of the baggage we left behind on the long trail from there to here, along with the prefects' badges and school ties.  That reflex deference to the canon is the soft-power arm of an older, pre-democratic world.

And yet -- and I hesitate to say this -- some might point to the decline of languages in our state schools, and see a direct link with the discarding of the old, the difficult, and the canonical in favour of newer, more straightforward work, untested by time, which is easier to understand, and easier to teach by a new generation of teachers with rather less cultural hinterland.

Perhaps that's why that nagging feeling about Schubert & Co. never quite goes away.  And for that, I'm never sure whether to blame or thank my one-time teacher.
Dare any call Permissiveness
An educational success?
Saner those class-rooms which I sat in,
Compelled to study Greek and Latin.

Though I suspect the term is crap,
If there is a Generation Gap,
Who is to blame? Those, old or young
Who will not learn their Mother-Tongue.

from W.H. Auden, Doggerel by a Senior Citizen

The Anxiety of Influence...

* I particularly enjoyed being asked to shave more regularly, by the Head of Sixth Form, because of the bad example it set the younger boys.

** In the UK alone, about 150,000 new books are published each year.  If only 0.1% are worthwhile, that's still another 150 British books you'll never get around to reading.  Not to mention those published in the USA, France, Germany, Spain, Latin America...


Huw said...

Lovely photo, Mike. Atractive and symbolic! I learnt German at Secondary school, from the stern and bearded Herr Long (appropriately enough in context of the rest of the post), and have always valued it, despite travelling to France more often than Germany.


Huw said...

And here's my take on a similar idea (http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3828/12562568064_c0ebab1f96_c.jpg)


Mike C. said...


"The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows" (Sydney J. Harris)


Dave Leeke said...

Good post, Mike.

I actually had a Year 11 student question me in class yesterday in some sort of epiphanic moment, "Oh so you CAN disagree with what teachers tell you about poetry?" Yes, of course you can - you could actually have your OWN ideas.

Anyway, here's an article that appeared yesterday, that I read a few minutes after reading your post: http://ind.pn/1e2xm5T

Just saying, sniff.

Mike C. said...


Of course, it's always better if your own ideas are *good* ones...

As for posh (as in the Independent article) the irony was that, back in the 70s, nothing could have been less fashionable than being posh. I knew of public school kids who had taken "de-elocution" lessons, so vey cd tawk jest loik us, innit?


Kent Wiley said...

There is something fundamentally sad about this memory of the past. Have we taken a seriously wrong turn with our permissiveness? I'm always reminded of something that was attributed to Hitchcock by Donald Spoto, that there are no great artists without repression. Perhaps its form is no longer the identifiable "Establishment Culture" but some kind of monolithic conformity with the designs of Apple/Microsoft/Google.

Mike C. said...


It's complicated...

For me, the central issue in the arts is the overturning of the "canon" of what counts as certifiably Great Art (which has been done for perfectly good reasons, and with the best of intentions). Without that, it's like trying to do Physics, but with everyone granted permission to make up their own constants. I mean, if there are no true literary "constants", why even bother?

It's why I'm not an academic -- I could see my whole subject self-destructing before my eyes. Unfortunately, this opened the way for legions of black-clad frauds (who, in the main, don't read or even much *like* literature).

To an extent, it's the price we pay for democracy. People like the egregious Gove (a name that will mean nothing to you -- he's our conservative education minister) think places like China and Japan have lessons for us in "attainment", conveniently ignoring the repressive nature of those societies, their vast industry of out-of-school tutoring, and the high price paid in child suicides, etc.

I don't believe in hothousing kids with no academic talent; but kids who *do* have it should be identified and brought on at a fierce pace, in the same way it's done in sport. The Manchester United junior squad does not train at the pace of its weakest recruits...


Kent Wiley said...

Indeed, it is complicated. As democracy asserts its leveling influence, those with the inclination and wealth do what they can to assure that their progeny get all the opportunities the system will allow. The monetary divide does what it can to counteract the effects of democracy, and pays for everything from education to political influence, which serves to widen the divide further.

But at the other end of the spectrum, even here in our local schools, in a county of substantial wealth and education, the county education administrators are more concerned with graduation rates than they are with providing a superior experience for the students who are motivated to do more than "get by."

I don't know what you do with "kids with no academic talent." Because how much of it is a result of economic circumstances in their lives? Obviously many escape; most do not. At least locally, it looks like our administrators are attempting to raise all boats. But in the process the truly talented are left to their own devices.

Mike C. said...


Yes, it's much the same here, perhaps even more so: private education is a given above a certain income level (you need a minimum of about £10-15K p.a. per child).

My solution has always been: LOWER the school leaving age, provide jobs and apprenticeships with the money saved, and make provision for late returners to education. With all due respect to the hard work of teachers, probably 80% of kids are spinning their wheels uselessly after age 14... Get them out of the way, and concentrate hard on the ones who want to be there.