A bit like the rubella jab

Many important things happened this week. Two of them were as follows: Dr. Maya Angelou died, and a mentally unstable racist and misogynist shot some women.

Straight away, I’ve reduced both those things in terms of detail, impact and nuance: I haven’t explained who Maya Angelou was, how she died or why it’s important. Similarly, ‘shot some women’ ignores the numbers involved (could be four; could be forty), ignores the men who died (there were actually more male victims than female) and didn’t name any of the people involved. It’s that tendency to reduce complex stories to a few words, how that causes us to lose accuracy and detail, and how that in turn compromises our ability to have a sensible debate prompted by events, that I want to talk about here.

First of all, let’s un-collapse the two statements above, starting with Dr. Maya Angelou, who died this week aged eighty-six. As one might expect from someone with many talents and a long life, she made substantial contributions to many fields in many different ways. She was a dancer and actor, but also a director, playwright, scriptwriter and composer. She wrote the script and composed the score for the 1972 film Georgia. Her script was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and Georgia was the first film ever made with a script by an African-American woman. She was a political activist: she knew both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, was consulted by several presidents, and believed in (and campaigned for) marital equality. She was a journalist, writing for The African Review and the Ghanaian Times and editing The Arab Observer (living and teaching in Africa while she did so). She was professor of American Studies at Wake Forest. She won three Grammy awards. She spoke six languages. I’m also making sure to use the prefix ‘Dr.’ lots of times because I have read that she placed a great premium on politeness and formality. Dr. Angelou was best known as a writer and poet, of course, and in particular for her first and best-known collection I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The first poem of hers I ever encountered was ‘And Still I Rise’, which was part of my GCSE anthology. Modern technology allows us to hear her reciting her own work, and it’s a rather more compelling experience than reading it aloud line by line in a classroom. She recites from memory, as if the words have just come to her as she is sitting there, and with the possible exception of the late Clive Merrison[1], she also has the best laugh I’ve ever heard. Dr. Angelou died quietly in her sleep, and her death is important because it causes us to reflect upon her life, and why that is important.

The ‘mentally unstable racist and misogynist’ I referred to above is Elliot Rodger. His online rants make it clear that he hated women for rejecting him sexually, and that he hated other men for having access to sex that he didn’t. He killed four men and two women. Their names are as follows: Cheng Yuan Hong, George Chen, Weihan Wang and Christopher Martinez. The women were Katherine Cooper and Veronika Weiss. You will notice that the first three men I named have Asian names (they were Rodger’s two roommates and a friend of theirs), and hence my use of the word ‘racist’ because in this case the two different prejudices are intertwined: Rodger described Asians as ‘repulsive’ and attributed some of his own failure with women to his racial background (he was half-Asian), before then stabbing three Asian men for being more sexually successful than he was. No, that doesn’t make any sense, but see above where I said he was ‘mentally unstable’. I don’t think I need to prove that Rodger was mentally unstable, because that’s at a tangent to what I want to say, and also because it seems clear from what has come from Rodger himself that the cogs were rattling around in the box. I also don’t think I need to justify my use of the word ‘misogynist’, because he just killed six people to make himself feel better about his lack of sexual success. However, if proof were needed, here is a sentence from his ‘manifesto’:

Women should not have the right to choose who to mate with. That choice should be made for them by civilised men of intelligence.[2]

I’ve read some comments online from people proud of their own ability to do maths, who say that a man who kills four men because they can get sex and he can’t isn’t a misogynist if he only kills two women. That’s nonsense. First of all, these are clearly primarily opportunistic, symbolic killings, since he didn’t actually know either of the women and only two of the men. Neither of the women had rejected him and it seems that none of the men ‘stole’ women from him. Secondly, a person who thinks men are entitled to sex is a misogynist, regardless of who they then choose to take their ensuing rage out on. Plenty of good men are caught in the crossfire of domestic violence and misogyny, sometimes literally. The boyfriends, husbands and friends of women who are the intended targets are also at risk, and it doesn’t make sense to say that only women who are hurt by men who want to treat women as possessions are the victims of misogyny. These four men were killed because of the racist and misogynist beliefs of Elliot Rodger, and his mental fragility, and how easy it is to get hold of weapons in the US. In the wake of these murders (and Elliot Rodger’s suicide), there has been a lot of discussion, online and elsewhere, about violence towards women (#Yesallwomen; #Notallmen and so forth). What I want to think about here is why we can’t seem to have more nuanced, grown-up discussions.

Dr. Maya Angelou’s death has lead to a proliferation of inspirational quotes (some taken from her work, some not). She was unquestionably an inspiring woman and her work is eminently quotable, but I find this reductionist. It’s straight out of the Oprah Winfrey school of therapy, where the things that help you deal with your problems are not reflection, talking, drawing on the time and compassion of your friends, and getting professional help, but pithy sentences printed on the sleeves of coffee cups (I know Dr. Angelou was Oprah Winfrey’s friend and mentor, but I think the point still stands). Try Googling ‘Maya Angelou’ and you will find that ‘Maya Angelou quotes’ appears above ‘Maya Angelou poems’, for example. That won’t do.

I think that in this tendency to reduce complex things to simple labels, we can also see some of the reasons that misogyny continues to exist. There is no simple answer or single change that will prevent violence against women (and men), because the people that commit these crimes, large and small, do so for their own particular reasons. Each case needs to be examined carefully, not lumped together with others that seem similar so that we can declare that violent films (or heavy metal, or poor parenting, or Rush Limbaugh)[3] are the sole cause of everything we’ve chosen to put in that category. One of the reasons that misogyny continues to exist, for example, is that even good, decent men and good, decent women struggle to eradicate it from their own thoughts and behaviour, and one of the reasons they struggle to do so is that we have such bland, broad labels to work with: OK and Not OK.

For example, I read a post from a confused man this morning saying that he always asks him wife’s permission before they have sex, and was this OK? Responses (all from women) ranged from ‘of course. It’s called consent’ to ‘of course not. Sex is something you do together.’ I honestly can’t provide a yes/no answer to this question, and I think that’s part of the problem: not every question has (or should have) a yes/no answer. If that particular man and his wife think it’s important that he asks permission, and if that is part of how he shows that he respects her, good for them. It could also so easily be part of a commodification of sex, in which the man is only allowed to ‘purchase’ a certain amount of sex from the woman when she says it’s in stock (and after he’s ‘paid’ for it in some way, perhaps). We also don’t know whether the consent she’s giving is meaningful: for example, we don’t know if she’s allowed to change her mind; we don’t know whether he pesters or coerces her; we don’t know if he deliberating asks her at awkward moments, forcing her to cancel other plans in order to make him feel better if she says ‘yes’, or giving him ‘reasons’ to be pissed later on if she says ‘no’. I don’t like the idea that I’m doing my husband a favour by having sex with him, or that he needs to ask my permission (but I don’t need to ask his?), but at the same time marital rape is totally a thing and consent should never, ever be assumed, so again for me there is no yes/no answer here, even in my own relationship. Here’s a simpler, more everyday example: a man opening a door for a woman can be a kind, polite and respectful act or it can be patronising, mocking and old-fashioned. You have to be there in order to see how it was done, what the context was and who the people involved were, so that you could judge for yourself.

What I’m driving at here is that of course there are some behaviours that go straight in the ‘don’t ever do that’ pile, but I think there is also a huge grey area, in which men and women blunder about, trying to figure out if they’re being offensive/offended or not. Whether the various behaviours in this grey area are OK or not depends on context, intention and the relationship between the two people far more than it depends on the behaviours in question. The fact that the grey area exists, and that both men and women seem confused about what is OK and what is not, gives misogynists a place to hide. It allows them to say ‘women can’t make up their minds’ and complain about how difficult it is to be a modern man. When they are told off for doing/saying something unacceptable, they get to say that they don’t know what the rules are and so can’t be blamed for breaking them. That’s not good enough. We need to be able to have a more nuanced (and more balanced) discussion of these issues so that people can’t make that excuse. Yes, all women know real misogyny when we experience it. We need to learn to identify it when we are told about it, too. We need to educate men and women to understand that the context, nuance and the intention of what was done or said is what makes it acceptable or not. Nothing else (nothing) is relevant: not clothing, not drunkenness, not marriage, not age, not culture, not previous behaviour, not the social norms and certainly not the law.

This morning, I have read an enormous number of stories from women talking about their own experiences of rape, sexual assault and misogyny, and they’re all appalling, as is the sheer number of them, and how many of these women received further abuse from people they confided in, including from other women. The lack of nuance in some of the responses to these stories is deeply depressing, lumping them all together in order to make a bland, broad statement, about how men or women (or parents, or schools, or universities, or the police) should change their behaviour to Make Things Better. That isn’t going to work, not because the changes being suggested are facile (although a lot of them are. 8pm curfew in university towns, anyone?), but because the nuances of the different stories have been lost. You would not lump together all the sick people in a hospital, give them all the same advice (‘eat more fruit’, say) and expect them all to get better. Similarly, the celebrities who have been in the news recently (Jimmy Saville, Stuart Hall, DLT, Max Clifford and so forth) and their systematic abuse of vulnerable girls and women are just as appalling as (but also very different from) family members that abuse younger relatives, or vicars/teachers/scout masters who take advantage of the children in their care, or husbands that beat their wives and children, or burglars that rape frightened old women, or creepy colleagues that feel entitled to touch you up whenever you are unwise enough to make yourself a cup of tea. I’ve just grouped four male celebrities of similar age and habits together for the purposes of making a point, but if you examine those cases individually, even these four superficially similar men differ from each other in non-trivial ways. Just as you need different methods and tools to clean crap off different surfaces, we need different methods to tackle these different manifestations of the same thing. Just as we can do better than to reduce Dr. Maya Angelou to a single sound-bite, we can do better than to simply advise women to dress conservatively and carry pepper spray. So many of the stories I have read in which women did report what had happened to them described being met with ‘slut-shaming’ (i.e. questions about their clothing, drinking and other behaviour). This isn’t just misogyny reflecting back on itself, but part of the search for a quick, simple fix that will Make Everything Better without anybody having to do any proper thinking. As long as there are men (and women) who think that women owe men sex, and that they signal this through the way in which they walk, dress, flirt or stand (rather than what they actually say and think), the sense of entitlement and confusion that Elliot Rodger felt will continue.

Alan Alda likens misogyny to a disease (specifically polio), and asks why we can eradicate one but not the other, and it’s a compelling analogy. Misogyny is like an infection that some people have chronically and cripplingly, but that makes almost everyone cough or sneeze from time to time. Feminism needs to be something that men buy into, and that they feel included in. Feminism doesn’t say that men are animals that need to get themselves under control. Feminism says that men are people, and women are people, and all people deserve respect. Feminism does men the courtesy of expecting them to be civilised. If I may over-stretch the medical analogy, it feels to me sometimes that feminism is a bit like the rubella jab: only women are entitled to it, and only the ones that were at school that day.


[1] Merrison is my favourite Sherlock Holmes in sound only (although of course I also love Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Brett and the rather wonderful Richard Roxborough, who played Holmes in an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles that I don’t think has been bettered). Clive Merrison’s diction and tone are perfection, with the (surprisingly dirty) laugh the cherry on the cake.

[2] If only this was taken from an essay entitled ‘Some Things Aristotle Was Wrong About’.

[3] Rush Limbaugh thinks the Hunger Games are to blame for these murders, because Rodger’s father works on the series and the series involves people killing other people. If I kill some people this afternoon and leave a YouTube video saying that my reasons for doing so are important, nuanced and relevant to any subsequent discussion, is my father’s tendency to bark ‘that’s irrelevant’ at people relevant?

An unparalleled display of shawms

A cursory glance at the walls of a friend’s room, house or other similar display of personal effects is likely to contain pictures of them in Foreign Parts. An unscientific trawl through Facebook pages today included pictures of friends and acquaintances riding elephants, posing on or near the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, or in one way or another recording their presence in some country than isn’t Britain. I leave aside the wider (but not very interesting) question of why people put so many photographs of themselves on Facebook at all. One friend of mine has over three thousand photographs of himself on his Facebook account, a large number of which show him in semi-darkness, gurning in a desperate, out-of-focus sort of way, with no caption or explanation as to where he is or what he might be doing beyond the cryptic album titles (‘Mobile uploads’; ‘Found on memory stick’; ‘untitled’). Instead, I want to consider the phenomenon that is the foreign holiday.[1]

I like a city break as much as the next man, but if I’m honest I can’t stand more than four or five days in (say) Copenhagen before I start to feel like a leech and a fraud.[2] I feel like a leech because here I am, spending my own hard-earned money on nothing but my own pleasure: taking myself to art galleries, museums and parks, eating out three times a day, speaking another language (extremely poorly and only when I need to order food) and generally Wandering About Looking At Stuff. I feel like a fraud because I know I can’t really afford to do this. One of the best days Garden Naturalist and I ever had on a city break was during a trip to Brussels, when we went to the Museum of Musical Instruments. I think one of the reasons we enjoyed it so much (beyond an unparalleled display of shawms and medieval bagpipery) is that it cost us very little. By accident, we had arrived on the one day of the month when entry to the museum happens to be free, thereby saving ourselves ten euros or so. This in turn made us feel that we could afford to eat in the museum restaurant, which is on the roof and has a spectacular view across the city. While doing so, we happened to catch an announcement that there was about to be a (free) performance downstairs of a trio, playing dulcimer, piano and double bass, starting about five minutes after we expected to finish our lunch. We watched the entire thing, sitting on the steps up to the exhibition of proto-oboes. The three middle-aged musicians were astonishing, particularly the dulcimer player (an instrument I had never seen played before). Thus, we were amused, educated and busy for most of a day, paying only for food. Most city breaks, however (and I’m thinking particularly of places like Vienna) are ruinously expensive if one isn’t careful, which in turn (for me) produces pressure to be squeezing as much fun or edification as possible out of the experience at all times. This has become even more the case since going freelance fulltime, because I now know exactly how many hours it has taken me to earn whatever sum I have just dropped on a boat trip up the Seine or whatever.

Fundamentally, I cannot reconcile myself to the idea that travel in and of itself makes one a better or more interesting person. As Alistair Cooke says, ‘I don’t know who first said that travel broadens the mind, but he might have added the warning that the broader the mind, the thinner it gets.'[3] With the exception of the Louvre, I have been to all the major museums in Paris. I’ve enjoyed this enormously, but I struggle with the notion that anyone other than myself has been enriched by this (and even more with the idea of articulating exactly how I feel I have been enriched). A longer, less intense trip produces the same, nagging sense of ‘unentitlement’. My first trip to China was in 2008 and Garden Naturalist and I saved up around £2,000 to pay for three weeks of holiday, visiting Xi’an, Beijing and Shanghai. Again, we had an amazing time, visiting most of the places and things that you visit when you go to Xi’an (terracotta warriors, hot springs, towers, street fountains), Beijing (Great Wall) and Shanghai (the Bund and, for me, the textile museum). I’m sure we were both enriched by the experience in some ill-defined way, and the trip certainly achieved its other two stated objectives: to spend time with my father; and to get me away from Britain altogether, so that I could recover from the horrible job I had just quit, while at the same time being totally inaccessible to any of the people I no longer worked with who might want to ask me questions or persuade me to come back to work on a temporary basis.[4] The ‘enrichment’, however, I find an elusive concept. The idea of planning either a city break-type trip, or a longer visit to one particular place, feels enormously self-indulgent. Yes, I would have a wonderful time, in exchange for my hard-earned cash. I would learn a lot and meet people and look at foreign whatnots and eat foreign food. Good for me. Is that really a good use of that money? Is travel simply to broaden one’s mind (and I am not at all sure that travel achieves this) legitimate?

The conclusion I have come to is that I am unsuited to holidays abroad in which the ‘seeing the sights’ part is longer than three or four days. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable – almost itchy, in fact. Holidays in my own country don’t make me uncomfortable, and I think this is because having the language means I can be less of a parasite: I can buy food and cook for myself, read signs and notices and navigate accordingly. This in turn makes it easier to feel that I am (temporarily) ‘living in’ whichever place I am visiting, rather than clamping myself to it like a limpet for a few days, sucking out £500-worth of pleasure, and then going home again. My annual trip to China, for example, typically consists of four or five days of fun-time (this overlaps with ‘recovering from jetlag’ time), followed by a week of hard work. This balance suits me: I work incredibly hard for a week (and am paid accordingly), and so feel I have earned the fun-time that precedes it. When people ask me why I’m in/going to China, I say ‘I’m here to work’. That feels legitimate: I am here to be enriched by the experience, certainly, but my primary purpose is to give something to, or do something for, the country I am visiting at that moment.

Giant Bear and I have just returned from our honeymoon, which consisted of three days in Cornwall and a week in a narrowboat on the Worcester-Birmingham canal. We had incredible weather, more like Corfu in summer than Britain in April: clear, burnished blue skies that allowed us to do honeymooner things like walking hand-in-hand on the beach and pointing out each other’s sunburn. It never occurred to us to have a foreign honeymoon, but if we had, I don’t think I would have felt able (allowed?) to enjoy it fully. Other considerations aside, Britain is really very beautiful and I don’t feel I have explored even a tenth of what home has to offer. I have also come the wider conclusion that perhaps mind-broadening comes from what you do, who you are with and what you bring to the encounter, rather than where the encounter takes place. This is similar to my thoughts on education expressed in a previous post (see Why Don’t You Do Right?), in that I remain unconvinced that simply sitting through an education produces anything worthwhile: you need to know why you are there, and what you are supposed to be getting out of it. I think the same thing has to apply to foreign travel: it is simply so costly, both environmentally and financially. If I’m not sure what the object of the exercise is, as I remember saying to an unnamed and slightly creepy man in a pub many years ago who offered to buy me a drink, I think I’d rather have the cash.[5]


[1] Or, as Edwin Starr might have phrased it, ‘Travel! Huh! Good God, y’all! What is it good for?

[2] I considered calling this post ‘The fraudulent leech’ as a sort of companion piece to The uncharitable goat, but decided on balance that this might have been misleading.

[3] Alistair Cooke (1979), The Americans: Fifty Letters from America on our Life and Times (London: The Bodley Head), from the letter entitled ‘The Hawk and the Gorilla’, first broadcast 2nd June 1978, p. 286.

[4] I discovered later than it took several months for them to appoint a replacement – they hadn’t even drafted an advert by the time I left, even though I gave three months’ notice.

[5] ‘One farmer, as a gesture of appreciation to his men of an urgent job well done, bade them call at the inn on their way home and drink a pint on his score. Whereupon one said, “If it’s all the same to you, master, I’d rather have the sixpence.”‘ Adrian Bell, Corduroy (London: Cobden Sanderson, 1930), p. 227.

Why Don’t You Do Right?

I have a bad habit of attempting to influence the reading habits of my students, both covertly and overtly. For example, a recent seminar on footnotes and referencing used examples drawn exclusively from the explorer geek section of my non-fiction library, specifically Thor Heyerdahl, Alan Moorehead and Peter Fleming.[1] In an attempt to encourage my students to improve their writing and reading habits, I also recommended some of my favourite non-fiction titles to them. These included Annie Dillard’s dreamy book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which should be compulsory reading material for everyone entering medicine or any related profession; and The Fatal Englishman by Sebastian Faulks.[2]

The Fatal Englishman has a number of proofreading and editing errors that make it professionally distracting to read: for example, there are several plurals rendered possessive with the grocer’s apostrophe, particularly in the middle section on Richard Hillary, and several instances of inelegant repetition that one would have expected a sensible copy-editor to quietly remove, as an alert waitress might sweep crumbs off a table before allowing the next patron to choose a seat.[3] It is also a great pity that the publisher’s budget did not run to printing the plates of Kit Wood’s art in colour, to complement and possibly illuminate Faulks’s careful analysis of Wood’s narrow colour palette in his later work. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating book, beautifully written in many places and showing a sensitive, concise and deft handling of the three young men that make up its subject that other biographers would do well to emulate; I very seldom read biographies because they are so often dreary, with events filtered by what the biographer is able to substantiate rather than what is actually interesting. I can’t get on with Faulks’s fiction, but this venture into non-fiction speaks to me. Faulks outlines his purpose as follows:

The stories of young people who delight parents and friends with their talents have a concentrated significance in their beginnings, and in their premature ends there is a natural poignancy that brutally epitomises the disappointment that is also common but less evident in longer, duller lives.[4]

The book contains three brief but detailed accounts of promising young men who died early and tragic deaths: Kit Wood, an artist who died at his own hand after many years of opium abuse; Richard Hillary, a pilot and writer, killed in a ’plane crash; and Jeremy Wolfenden.

Wolfenden’s profession and death are less clear-cut than those of the other two. The lives of Hillary and Wood both seemed to me to be dominated by their respective passions. The account of Kit Wood’s life makes it clear that he was driven by an overwhelming need to convey his artistic vision; similarly, Hillary seems to have been as much consumed by flames as he was by his own internal need to fly and to write about it. Both men, it seems to me, died as a consequence of being unable to balance the needs of their calling with their own physical frailty. Wolfenden, by contrast, is a clear example of someone unable to realise his talents in a meaningful way for reasons that seem to slither about the more one attempts to grasp them. He eventually slid into journalism and then espionage, apparently for lack of anything better to do; his death occurred in mysterious circumstances, but was probably a result of alcohol abuse one way or another. Again, drinking seems to have been something he did out of a sort of languid pointlessness, as if the idea that something more challenging or rewarding might exist had been scotched in early childhood. Although I find Wood and Hillary more compelling than Wolfenden (isn’t passion always more compelling than lassitude?), it’s Wolfenden that has given me the idea for this post.

Faulks makes the following observation: ‘None of the four Wolfenden children ‘achieved’ anything in the sense their father would have understood. This would not matter if they had seemed happier or more fulfilled in other ways.’[5] Faulks makes it clear that Jeremy Wolfenden was superbly gifted, so why didn’t he achieve more? Why didn’t he write a dazzling novel, play or collection of poetry? Why didn’t he stun the world of journalism, politics or indeed anyone outside the immediate circle of his acquaintance with his brain and wit? This inability to convert one’s gifts into socially-acceptable and comprehensible success is something I have noticed in my own life, and those of my friends. Two of the cleverest people I know, for example (S and H), have both struggled to realise their gifts. Both went to Cambridge and got first-class degrees. At the time of writing, S is in the final stages of a PhD, but had many years in the wilderness prior to re-entering the sanctuary of academia, and H, the brightest physicist of her cohort, is an accountant. My Chinese students are under the impression that a first from Cambridge will open the world to them like a picture book, but that hasn’t been the case here. For myself, being top of the class for most of my school career (in my chosen subject, at least) converted into feeling thoroughly baffled for much of my time at university as to really, exactly what it was I was being asked to do; finishing university with no real idea of what I wanted to do in exchange for money; wandering into a career in university administration that ruined my health; and now working for myself, happily and regularly, but below the income tax threshold. I could easily name another half-dozen friends with similar stories of academic success that then fails to convert into anything very much. What the hell happened to all of us?[6]

My theory is that school and university don’t (and in their present structure, can’t) do the job they appear to set out to do. It isn’t that academia fails students, or that academic success is meaningless, or even that academic success only means something in an academic context (although all of these statements have some truth in them). It’s also not that academic success doesn’t convert into professional or personal success, as clearly for many people it does. I think it’s that, very often, academic success fails to convert into what one has been led to expect. Faulks quotes Wolfenden’s friend Colin Falck as follows: ‘[Wolfenden’s] inability to find a way to live and be happy seemed not so much a personal failure as somehow a failure of all the English structures and systems that had produced him.’[7] This has the ring of truth to it, as does the whole of Faulks’s account of Wolfenden’s largely wasted gifts and opportunities: he simply didn’t know what to do with them, and neither did any of his teachers. He was being prepared for something, but nobody knew what.

Other reading (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in particular: see Zen and the Art of Relationship Maintenance) suggests that participating in any form of education or training that one has not chosen to participate in is wasted time.[8] The point I want to suggest here is slightly different: I wonder if education or training where the point of what you are learning has not been made abundantly clear is a waste of time? In my own teaching, I am very careful to explain to my students at the beginning of each session why they need to know what I’m about to tell them and how they should expect it to be useful to them. For example, in a seminar about the correct way to footnote an essay, I might explain the consequences of not footnoting correctly; I might then suggest some points in the essay-writing process at which they should engage with the process of citing primary and secondary literature in a way that will meet the relevant requirements; and I might also point them towards useful online resources, encourage them to make helpful notes of their own, and provide a condensed ‘crib sheet’ of the take-home messages. We are all very clear what the point of us being in a room together is, and why whatever we are learning is important.

One of the groups I teach currently is a class studying a foundation year prior to university: they are also very clear what the value of university study is and why they want to pursue it. I’m not sure that’s true of school, however, in terms of either individual lessons or the wider concept. Personally, I feel pretty cheated that working hard at school and university and jumping through all the hoops I was asked to jump through hasn’t resulted in heaps o’ cash.[9] That’s not because I feel I ‘deserve’ those things, but simply because that’s what I was lead to expect in exchange for all that work and conformity. The chain of logic that linked ‘working hard now’ to ‘heaps o’ cash’ was never clearly articulated, however, which leaves me wondering whether I misunderstood what we were doing. Did I simply fill in the blanks, in the absence of any real explanation?

What is the point of an education? Is it to prepare one specifically for a profession chosen in one’s teenage years? If that’s the case, I think a much stronger argument could be made for dropping subjects that have nothing to do with one’s proposed career much earlier in the process, to focus in on what is actually relevant. Similarly, one might put far greater effort into introducing young people to a more varied array of careers. Or is school there to prepare one for life in general? If that’s the case, then surely the opposite approach should be taken, giving each student a broad base of subject knowledge and skills, on the grounds that many of these will be relevant both in and out of the workplace.[10] If one attempted to retrofit this idea, a quick examination of a randomly-chosen sample of schools shows that some schools take the focused approach and some the broad. In other words, they don’t know either.

Muriel Spark explores the etymology of the word ‘education’ (through the mouth of Miss Jean Brodie) as follows: ‘The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me, education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.'[11] She goes on to make a distinction between this drawing out of what is already there, as though one were extracting metal from a mine or rubber from a rubber tree (I’ve used those examples because duco also gives us the word ‘ductile’), the raw material then being fashioned into something useful at a later day, and the alternative method. This is represented in the novel by the choice that the girls have to make between ‘Classical’ and ‘Modern’ education, and by Miss McKay, Miss Brodie’s headmistress. She characterises the non-Brodie alternative as intrusion, ‘from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust’, as through one were stuffing a goose.[12] It should be noted, however, that for all her grand talk of Latin, Miss Jean Brodie does no such drawing out, but is just as keen to push her views onto and into her students as anyone else (‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’ ‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’ ‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’)[13]

If Miss Jean Brodie is correct about the true nature of education (and, in the absence of any other input, let’s assume that she is), then it seems to me there are three possible conclusions that can be drawn. One: that education should consist of drawing out something that is already there, but in this country and this age of league tables and exams, it is no such thing and we should use some other word to describe it (or, perhaps, because teachers are frail humans, it cannot be done objectively and one’s teacher will always be an intruder to some extent). Two: that the raw material of education is the students themselves, and therefore an unsatisfactory education should lead the student to consider his or her own contribution to the education and any concomitant lack of satisfaction. Or finally, three: the mismatch identified in the first conclusion leads students to draw some things out of themselves, but not others. The drawing out of the internal something-or-other is piecemeal, fragmented, ill-conceived and mismanaged: partly because teachers are under enormous pressure to do n things that have nothing whatever to do with why they want to teach in the first place, but also because none of the people involved are clear what it is they are supposed to be doing. In other words, we’re not bad: we’re just drawn that way.


[1] So as to set a good example for my students, I’m going to cite this post properly. I know this is the internet and people can just look stuff up for themselves, but that’s not the point) Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1958. English translation made from the original Norwegian under the personal supervision of the author); Alan Moorehead, The White Nile (London: Penguin Books, 1962); Peter Fleming, News from Tartary: A Journey from Peking to Kashmir (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd., 1936). For some reason Aku-Aku is not as well-known as The Kontiki Expedition (almost always stripped of its gripping explanatory subtitle, ‘across the Pacific by raft’) by the same author, but what it lacks in stories about sharks being hoiked out of the Pacific, continent-crossing vegetables and drowned parrots it makes up in tales of midnight meetings in underground caves, civil wars with the two sides delineated by a preference for the degree of stretching performed on one’s earlobes, and the final explanation of how the massive Easter Island statues were raised on end.

[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Collins, 1974); Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku; Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997); Sebastian Faulks, The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives (London: Vintage Books, 1997).

[3] I must admit that I’m never sure whether it should be grocers’ apostrophe (to indicate that there are lots of grocers, who all make this error), or grocer’s apostrophe as I’ve rendered it here (to include the error that it describes).


[5] Faulks, The Fatal Englishman, p. 321.

[6] I chose the title for this post as a reference to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, partly because Bob Hoskins died this week, and partly because I think it reflects some of my frustration with this topic. You can also enjoy Jessica Rabbit singing the whole song with this phrase in context (voiced by the divine Kathleen Turner when speaking, and by Amy Irving when singing).

[7] Faulks, The Fatal Englishman, p. 323.

[8] Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Enquiry into Values (London: The Bodley Head, 1974).

[9] Again, I stress that I have a fulfilling job and enough money to subsist on comfortably enough, but this has only come about after years of stress and soul-searching.

[10] One would also want to see more practical stuff included in the curricula. For example, I use maths to do my accounts, budget our finances and fill out my tax return, all of which could have been included in the maths GCSE (in place of, say, algebra). Or perhaps I am making an argument for two streams of education: one teaching academic content (critical path analysis; French verbs; sonata form; close reading of Chaucer) and one teaching practical or more obviously applied content (comparing mortgage rates; conversational French; sight-reading; really understanding the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’). Both seem equally attractive to me, but they are certainly not equally useful in terms of what I am more likely to reach for on a regular basis. The ‘academic’ stream seems analogous to a complex, beautiful and seldom-used piece of kitchen equipment (an egg harp, say, ‘so specialised as to become practically useless’, as Thomas Richards writes of gadgets on display at the Great Exhibition): perfect for the job it does and that job only, perhaps even a job that it would be impossible to perform to such a degree with any other kitchen tool. The ‘applied’ stream seems more like, say, a good sharp knife: pretty good at most jobs, and used most days to prepare most meals. Shouldn’t a well-equipped kitchen contain both?

[11] Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (London: Penguin, 1961), p. 36. She repeats some of this on p. 45.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 11