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Off the shelf

I suppose I was about eight or nine when I developed whooping cough. It was a feared illness, then, with numerous folklore cures. In our mining village, though, everyone knew what to do, and I was duly taken close to the coke ovens to breathe in the sulphurous fumes.

Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery, near Barnsley - closed for nearly 30 years now - was "our" pit , and it had a fine array of coke ovens. Their purpose was to reduce coal to coke, so that it could be used in the iron and steel industry, and to do it in such a way that the tarry by-products were captured in usable form. Curing the whooping cough of local children was a bonus. I think that I always knew our splendid Simon-Carves coke ovens were a bit special - our elders proudly told us of their venerable age and pioneering nature. What I did not know, though, and have today discovered, is that they make a small link between my own life and that of the distinguished educational historian Professor Brian Simon.

In Henry Simon of Manchester (Pendene Press, 11 Pendene Road, Leicester LE2 3DQ Pounds 10) Brian Simon has written an account of the life of his grandfather, who came, in 1860 (as Heinrich Simon) at the age of 24, from Germany for a visit that turned into a permanent stay.

Henry Simon was a bright and enterprising engineer, brought up and educated in a country that valued engineering. After settling here he embarked on a range of projects including the modernisation of the way that flour was milled. Then, in 1878 he spotted, on a visit to France, an improved coke oven which he eventually brought to this country. "An agreement was signed in May 1897", writes Brian Simon, "with the Wharncliffe Silkstone Colliery Co Ltd, at Tankersley, near Barnsley, for the erection of 35 ovens and plant," - the very ovens, in fact, around which I wheezed and choked some 50 years later. Thus is history brought alive by experience - Asa Briggs in his foreword points out the importance of using personal accounts to illuminate great events. What Brian Simon's research has given us, he writes, is "the kind of European history we most need".

In 1852, the 17-year-old Heinrich Simon was studying at the Zurich School of Industry, already looking to a techno-scientific career. At the same time, in Dublin, John Henry Newman was delivering the lectures which were to develop into The Idea of a University. The themes which preoccupied Newman - the place of religion in education; the relationship between liberal education and professional training; the tension between science and religion - are still very much alive, and those who are embroiled in these issues today could do worse than revisit Newman's thoughts.

An excellent way of doing so would be to look at the recent edition from Yale University Press, edited by Frank M Turner (Pounds 12.50). This presents, as well as Newman's text, a chronology of Newman's life and a detailed list of contents. There are also number of essays, by a range of American academics, which set the issues in today's context - thus we have George Landow on "Newman and the Idea of an Electronic University".

I cannot help but reflect, however, that while Newman was agonising about religion and liberal education, young Heinrich Simon of Germany was on the bottom of an escalator of high quality technical education that kept on running long after his death and which only last year delivered a German managing director from new owners BMW into the headquarters of the Rover Group. As Newman perceived, part of the real debate about education is to do with whether, and to what extent, it should be vocational.

It seems to me that the answer to this stares us in the face every time we read in the local press of yet another pensioner celebrating an OU degree. In Beyond Fragments (Taylor and Francis Pounds 13.95), Linden West picks up on the fact that a majority of higher education students are now adults. In a series of biographical studies of adult students, he explores their motivation and experiences. Some of the stories remind us - and we need constantly reminding - of the way that bad school experiences can reverberate throughout a person's life.

One interviewee, Paul, recalls being still unable to read and write at the age of six. Desperately, he would, scribble on the page, failing to understand what was actually missing. And the teacher? The teacher would hold these sad pages up and make fun of them. "Yes, I cried . . . How does a six year old handle it?" Linden West's book is more than just a collection of stories, and the sociological analysis makes for heavy reading at times. It contains, though, a lot of food for thought for teachers at all levels.

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