Blog

Captain Raindrop # 2 – interview with Rory Darling

In my second interview of my Captain Raindrop project, I interview Rory Darling.

Rory taught Maths and History at many of the top boarding boys preparatory schools in the country, including Summer Fields, Cothill, Ludgrove, Aysgarth and Elstree.

In Part 1, he talks about his entrance into teaching and the changing life of preparatory schools in the 1970s – 2000s.

Please get in touch if you’d like me to Post Part 2 too.

Please bear with me as I learn more about interviewing, editing, etc etc etc!

The Great Conversation (I’m looking for a pupil!)

I am looking for a school-age student who has the time and inclination to read a Great Book with me online via Skype. Please leave a comment or email me if of interest.

The idea is expanded in this link, which begins as follows…

“The Good Books are food for a wholesome imagination. They are well-written. They introduce young people to characters they will never forget. They soar beyond easy cynicism or nihilism. They soar beyond the sweaty halls of politics. They may well have villains in them, there may be warfare, but there will not be the creepy relish for bloodshed—no itch for the base, the sick, the bizarre, the filthy, the evil. We know where to find these Good Books. They are everywhere, or they used to be. It almost does not matter in what order the children read them, and many of them can be read again and again, and are as satisfying for grownups as they are for the wide-eyed little ones.”

Professor Anthony Esolen

 

Certain books are as pertinent to our day as they were to the day in which they were written. They are so significant that their influence continues to be felt in our writing, thought and conversation today. Reading these books brings great joy and wisdom, but being part of this “great conversation through the ages” also gives a tremendous cultural leg-up. And for one of the first times in history… most of these books are free!

Inspired by the work of  E D Hirsch, which shows not only the great cultural benefit of the knowledge contained in such works but also the cultural deficit suffered by those who remain ignorant of them, we feel there is an opportunity to bring these books to children – especially to those who might not otherwise encounter them – in a considered sequence. We have chosen 56 books – an achievable 4 per year for children from the ages of 5 – 18 – and arranged them in a rough age order below. A link to a free version of the book is also included.

Such selections are necessarily arbitrary and are further compromised by their inevitable Western and English-language bias. It is important to note that, for the reasons noted above, they have been chosen for their cultural, more than their literary, significance. They can be read independently or – especially with the younger ages in mind – with the aid of a tutor, teacher or parent.

Read the selection here.

Captain Raindrop – Interview with Rhidian Llewellyn

Last week I began a part-time project to interview retired prep school teachers about their teaching methods.

My first subject was Rhidian Llewellyn. Rhidian began his teaching career at Heatherdown. From 1980-1984 he was Head of History and English at Arnold House School in St John’s Wood, London. In 1986 he became Senior Housemaster at The Dragon School, Oxford before being appointed, at the age of 32, Headmaster of Papplewick School, Ascot. He now advises parents and schools via his educational consultancy, Llwellyn Education (http://www.llewellyneducation.co.uk/).

In this interview, we discuss:

  • Life in a prep boarding school
  • Teacher recruitment – 1970s style
  • The breakdown of trust and the rise of conformity
  • Justice vs. Mercy
    – and much much more!

Hope you enjoy! Part Two can be found suggested on the right hand column of YouTube.

The link is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kt–sy4xRA0, and is posted below.

Paddy Leigh Fermor’s historical imagination

I have previously quoted Arnold Toynbee, whose immersive reading of History allowed him to ‘see’ – through what Iain McGilchrist would call the world’s “semi-transparently” – historical incidents taking place as it were before his eyes.

In a similar vein, I love this excerpt from one of Paddy Leigh Fermor’s letters, which I heard quoted by John Julius Norwich at a talk not too long ago. He is imagining the route of an elephant called Abulahaz sent by Haroun-al-Rachid as a present to Charlemagne in 802 AD:

I wonder which route he took? Bagdad-Palmyra-Aleppo-Antioch, then by sea probably to Bari and along the Appian Way to Rome; then north, over the Alps at the Brenner, across Germany and up the Rhine? Or Venice, perhaps, then Vienna and along the Danube? I like to think that perhaps the Caliph sent him via the Hellespont or the Bosphorus and through the Byzantine Empire – they were on fairly good terms till the end of 802. But then they would have had to cross the new Bulgarian state, reigned over by a horrible khan called Krum, who, at banquets with his boyars, used to drink out of the skull of his defeated enemy the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus, bisected and lined with silver. They were a rotten lot. I bet if they had spotted Abulahaz they’d have eaten him. But if they had got through Bulgaria all right (travelling after dark perhaps) things would have been better in what later became Hungary, because Charlemagne had defeated the beastly Avars there, and scattered them eight years before. There would have been a few Slav settlers gaping at the doors of their huts as the little troop went by: Abulahaz, his mahout and grooms, and probably an escort of Bedouin lancers.The Hungarian plain was ideal elephant country then – all swamp and forest, unlike now. (One is so prone to forget that a squirrel in the reign of King John could travel from the Severn to the Humber without once touching ground.) I do hope the elephant went that way, because it’s just the way I went, and am writing about. I could have come nose-to-trunk with his phantom on the banks of the Tisza (a Hungarian tributary of the Danube) as he squirted cool jets all over himself among the reeds……

Full transcript here: https://patrickleighfermor.org/2016/01/20/paddys-world-transcript-of-john-julius-norwichs-talk-for-the-plf-society/

 

 

Heritage School

Today I visited the wonderful Heritage School in Cambridge. There’s so much I’d like to say about the school, had we but world enough and time, but will limit myself to these select quotations from their website for now. The school is a tremendous example of how it is possible to be original and innovative without necessarily feeling the need to “embrace the new”.

Far too often learning is seen as a means to an end – good exam results – rather than an end in itself. At Heritage we understand that good exam results are necessary for progression, but we will never let the legitimate demands of our exam system obscure the central purpose of education: preparing young people for life.

At Heritage our Infants and Juniors go on a Nature Walk once per fortnight. Its purpose is to encourage detailed observation and identification of ‘ordinary’ natural phenomena such as local wildlife, flowers, plants and trees. We are privileged to have easy access to the Cambridge University Botanical Gardens. Students keep a Nature Notebook where what was observed is identified, described and painted using water colours. Nature Study encourages children to have ‘seeing eyes’. Charlotte Mason wrote: ‘Eyes and No Eyes go for a walk. No Eyes comes home bored. He has seen nothing, been interested in nothing, while Eyes is all agog to discuss a hundred things that interest him.’

Picture Study encourages a similar attention to observation and investigation. It involves looking with concentrated attention at a reproduction of a great painting once each week. The painting is then turned over and its details are described from memory. In this way children will get to know a great artist and his work each term. This greatly increases their pleasure and engagement when they can see the original in a London museum, for example, or a 10 minute walk away at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

In June each year we have a ‘Screen Free Week’ to encourage families to think about the amount of time that is spent on screens and to make extra time for other life enhancing activities, including reading.

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.

(http://www.malverncollege.org.uk/Exam-Results)

Oundle Trivium

I recently came across this initiative from Oundle School, and was so heartened that I think Mr Gunson‘s words need quoting in full! What a wonderful example of a school actually enacting that well-worn phrase: “education for its own sake”.

Will follow with interest…

It is vital that pupils do not equate all learning with assessment.

Trivium has no syllabus and no prescribed content. It is a course based on ‘interestingness’. The brief is to educate; to introduce pupils to ideas and culture, to sow seeds and to broaden the educational experience.

The topics explored vary from group to group; whilst one class is studying the works of Koestler, another may be immersed in the art of Berlin. One set of pupils may be discussing ethical aspects of technological advance, whilst another is introduced to the poetry of Yeats.

Many of the themes will overlap, and this is important: one’s appreciation of a work of art is enhanced by an understanding of historical context.

The close relationship between the teacher and the pupils develops during the course of the year. Small set sizes allow for the classroom atmosphere to be similar to that of a tutorial. The philosophy of the course can be summed up by E. M. Forster: only connect.

Rudolf Steiner’s Blackboard Drawings

I’ve just finished Gary Lachman’s very enjoyable biography of Rudolf Steiner, which I hope to summarise in a later post.

For now I thought I would share a few of Steiner’s rather haunting and childish blackboard drawings with which he illustrated his lectures. Loads more available online of course.

(source: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/03/26/arts/openings-in-tokyo/rudolf-steiner/#.VyDnKvkrKUk)

(http://visualmelt.com/Rudolf-Steiner)

Toynbee: How History can enrich perception

Arnold Toynbee, in A Study of History, digresses to muse upon…

“the experience of a communion on the mundane plane with persons and events from which, in his usual state of consciousness, he is sundered by a great gulf of Time and Space that, in ordinary circumstances, is impassable for all his faculties except his intellect. A tenuous long-distance commerce exclusively on the intellectual plane is an historian’s normal relation to the objects of his study; yet there are moments in his mental life — moments as memorable as they are rare — in which temporal and spatial barriers fall and psychic distance is annihilated; and in such moments of inspiration the historian finds himself transformed in a flash from a remote spectator into an immediate participant, as the dry bones take flesh and quicken into life.

He then gives this example from his own life:

“The present writer, for example, 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 as lasting consequence of the instantaneous effect on him of a passage in the table of contents (periocha) of the eighty-ninth book of Livy’s history upon which he had stumbled one day when, during his reading as an undergraduate for the school of Literae Humaniores at Oxford, he was unexpectantly ploughing his way through the surviving précis of the lost books of Livy’s work in the faint hope of gleaning some additional scraps of knowledge of the appalling history of the Hellenic World in the last two centuries B.C… As the student read this quickening passage of an arid epitome, he was transported, in a flash, across the gulf of Time and Space from Oxford in A.D. 1911 to Teanum in 80 B.C., to find himself in a back yard on a dark night witnessing a personal tragedy that was more bitter than the defeat of any public cause.”

(my emphasis)