Avoid a dose of nonsense to start the day

27th May 2005 at 01:00
Listening to great speeches in school assemblies is almost a contradiction in terms. Assembly is where children hear empty exhortations about the importance of hard work. The message is not that they must think for themselves or care for others or that they must ever, in any circumstances, ask questions. No, they must play their part as pawns in their masters'

five-year plans and make sure they contribute to the ever-improving statistics on the production lines of the examination factories.

But we are still obliged to find something to pad out the time between the first bell of the morning and the second. So teachers lumbered with organising assemblies in this post-Christian era seize on helpful publications packed with worthwhile and harmless suggestions for plugging the yawning gaps - such as the assembly on "The power of the spoken word" which I spotted in one such resource. When I saw the key phrase, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" I thought I would at least have the opportunity of listening to some words that had been strung together when rhetoric was not a term of abuse and there was no shame in being an orator.

But while it does no harm to read Shakespeare to boys and girls, it is counter-productive if the narrative accompanying the extracts is factually wrong. The comment on Antony's speech began routinely with an explanation that Antony was asked to make a speech at Caesar's funeral. But what he then did, according to the compilers of this assembly resource, was to turn the listening crowd against Caesar and his followers.

Now, as we all know, it was Brutus, not Caesar, who was the target of Antony's attack. If this material is being widely used in schools throughout the country, then thousands of young people are being subjected to a misreading of the Bard.

To make matters worse, the authors then explain that not all the best speeches are imaginary and that there are many great examples of oratory from history. As an example they cite the lines spoken at Tilbury by Elizabeth I when England was facing the might of the Spanish Armada. The words, "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too" make powerful prose, but did she really say them? It is likely that the text that has been passed down to us was written and polished by others in the days following her visit.

The custom of expressing things at a later stage more effectively for posterity would have been considered a natural thing to do, just as spin doctors these days tell the media what the prime minister is going to say before he has even said it. But it seems naive for the authors of school assembly material geared for key stages 4 and 5 to fail to appreciate this.

The blurb on this resource's glossy cover makes the bold claim that the material can be used "confidently" and goes on to assert: "We aim to ensure an educational experience of the highest quality." But the contents do not always match up to these brave words. If something has to be found to fill the vacuum left by the demotion of the Bible to the status of one text among many at the start of the school day, then publishers have a duty to come up with resources that are not riddled with basic errors. If children are to be treated to great speeches from the podium of platitudes, then they should at least be exposed to truths rather than dubious assumptions and basic misunderstandings.

Peter King teaches English at Wisbech grammar school, Cambridgeshire

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