The Pedagogy of Perception

Last Friday, I attended a fascinating forum on Liberal Education put on by Benedictus at Blackfriars in Oxford. Its title was The Liberal Arts -Education and Society.

Every guest was invited to offer a 5 minute reflection on one aspect of Liberal Education. Anthony Radice, for instance, offer these thoughts on Memory and Liberal Education.

I wanted to make a few exploratory remarks about Knowledge and Perception, and ended up speaking mainly about horses…

I started by looking at how Bitzer defines a horse in Hard Times (“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth…etc”) and said that those of us who defend a “knowledge-rich education” are too often lampooned as calling for this sort of desiccated approach.

I contrasted Bitzer with Sissy Jupe, who is unable to ‘define’ a horse because she has grown up amongst them. Knowledge, for her, in this domain at least, is entwined with Life – and is vivified as a result. This, I argued, is essential for a cultivating a rich, healthy perception of the world. C S Lewis makes the same point in Abolition of Man, arguing for an education that has “some blood and sap in it—the trees of knowledge and of life growing together.

I then used C S Lewis to say that not only should knowledge be conveyed vividly, but affirmatively too:

Of Ruksh and Sleipnir and the weeping horses of Achilles and the war-horse in the Book of Job—nay even of Brer Rabbit and of Peter Rabbit—of man’s prehistoric piety to ‘our brother the ox’—of all that this semi-anthropomorphic treatment of beasts has meant in human history and of the literature where it finds noble or piquant expression—

I wondered what effect a presentation of knowledge in such a way – Vivid (memorable) and with a Positive / Affirmative Disposition – has on students’ Perception. I marshalled Blake (“I look through [the eye], and not with it…”); Coleridge (“We receive but what we give…”); Owen Barfield (“…if quantum physics is true, we see reality not as it is, but as we are…”) to make the point that we have a choice about the way we attend to the world, and that the world responds in kind.

I finished by saying that it was an under-explored job of teachers to aid this effort so that their students’ world is more animated, more enchanted, more pulsating (and by extension less alienated) than it would be otherwise. I said that teachers could perhaps put more thought into whether their lessons were going to have the same effect on their students as the experience I have recounted by Toynbee, who “still retained, some forty years after one experience of the kind, an abiding sense of personal participation in the war of 90-80 B.C. between Rome and her Italian allies…” 

Could there be more thought, analysis and experimentation to develop a Pedagogy of Perception?


Exam Results and League Tables

UK independent schools are in a bit of a bind when it comes to exam results and league tables. They know that their parents are in one sense “customers” who like to know what they’re “buying”, but they also know that it is the most important aspects of a good education that are the hardest to measure. So I was very heartened to read the Headmaster of Malvern College’s line on public examinations, which seemed to strike the right balance between the pragmatic and the romantic:

If you have been looking for Malvern in the so-called League Tables, you are not likely to find us as Malvern, along with about half of the other independent schools in the country, does not voluntarily participate in an attempt to rank schools solely on the criterion of perceived success in public examinations. In no way does this mean that we do not celebrate the academic achievements of our pupils; indeed, the academic cornerstone of Malvern is central to much of what motivates us and we are extremely ambitious for our students… At Malvern, we make special provision in a range of ways for those who are academically gifted and have every intention of continuing this programme.

The principal reason for our being unwilling to enter league tables is that we do not wish to support a system which becomes the raison d’être for many schools and limits and influences, to a disproportionate extent, a focus on a broad education. In simple terms, we believe that there are a range of other factors of enormous importance in assessing the education offered in a particular school and we do not subscribe to the view that schools can be assessed in the same way as, for example, football clubs.

Secondly, the criteria used to determine where schools lie on such tables are, in essence, the construct of newspapers and different criteria may be applied by different newspapers in any particular year: for example, A*-A, A*-B, A*-C and A*-E may all be used depending upon the newspaper.

Our pupils are aware that they will move into a competitive world and it is vitally important that each one of them has a keen academic focus and builds the strongest academic profile possible. But we do not wish to be an ‘academic factory’ and the rounded education which attaches significant importance to music, art, drama, games, Duke of Edinburgh Award activities, as well as work in the broader community and beyond, are also at the heart of our overall programme.