Books Review - In defence of dunces
By Daniel Pennac
Daniel Pennac is something of a celebrity in France on the back of extremely successful fiction for both children and adults. Reads Like a Novel was a foray into non-fiction and sold a million copies in France alone. Its subject? Why we read and why we don't read, how children learn to read and then learn not to, how teenagers can be re-awakened to the joys of books, and finally, via a short manifesto of The Rights of the Reader, a declaration of the importance of reading, because "by making time to read, like making time to love, we expand our time for living".
Reads Like a Novel demonstrated a number of the same concerns that infuse the pages of School Blues. Pennac is on the side of the culturally adrift, the dispossessed, the failure and the dunce - and while you are recoiling from the use of a word that is now non-PC to the point of being archaic, I should point out that it is the word he uses to describe his childhood self. The French word is cacre.
"The dunce," he writes, "is a student who doesn't follow the straight and narrow path of normal schooling; he moves slowly and sideways, far behind the students ahead of him on the path to academic success... Duncedom is a tumour from which certain children suffer, and of which they must be cured, for it can prove fatal to society."
Pennac was a dunce. He couldn't spell and he was "unreceptive" to maths, he wouldn't learn dates, was incapable of learning foreign languages, had "a reputation for laziness" and was disruptive.
Then a handful of teachers, who were passionate about their subjects and inspired by them, saved him. With a degree finally under his belt, Pennac, too, became a teacher for 25 years.
School Blues is an account of childhood failure and pain, a teaching memoir, a critique of the education system and a collection of insights into the nature of teaching and learning, all stirred in with some existential discourse on the nature and process of becoming. It is a heady brew and, even better, an immensely readable one despite, or perhaps because of, an episodic structure that flits between memory, disclosure and reflection, with scant regard for strict chronology.
The educational system that firstly failed Pennac and subsequently paid his wages was, of course, the French one and School Blues offers insight into a system that will seem a strange world to English-trained teachers. Pennac's response to failing students is to give them a detailed and rigorous drilling in grammar, "the first tool of organised thought", with plenty of dictation thrown in: "I have always thought of dictation as a head-on encounter with language."
It is hard to imagine pupils in England coping with an instruction to, "write tomorrow's dictation for us - it should be six lines long with two reflexive verbs, a participle with avoir, an infinitive from Group One, a demonstrative adjective, a possessive adjective, two or three difficult words that we've already encountered, and one or two details of your own choice".
Despite a methodology that might seem both alien and antiquated at times, what shines through Pennac's teaching reminiscences is a passion for literature, high expectations, care and concern. And one other thing: "If you use this word when talking about education, you'll be lynched... love."
In the book's final section, What It Means to Love, Pennac pays tribute to the teachers who saved him as a pupil and to teaching colleagues who were willing to take in pupils that other schools had rejected and in turn try to save them.
This is not about faux father figures, let alone the Dead Poets Society. It is about kindness, rigorous and sympathetic professional teaching and inspiration. Teachers need lessons in ignorance, he says, so that they have greater understanding of "what it feels like to be the person who doesn't know what you know".
School Blues has already won the Prix Renaudot in France, has an introduction and jacket by Quentin Blake and a firm cover endorsement from Michael Morpurgo. What Pennac has to say in this impressionistic, entertaining, provocative and insightful book is of relevance to anyone involved in education. Its blend of philosophic reflection and societal criticism may be a distinctly French way of approaching its subject matter, but its cry for greater understanding and a deeply felt response to the plight of the cacre is clear. It would be nice to think that it could sell a million copies in England, just as Reads Like a Novel did in France.
Correction: The review of On Balance by Chris Danes in The TES Magazine on September 3 included an ISBN for an out-of-print edition. The book is published by St Mark's Press, ISBN 978-1907062094, price #163;9.95
About the author - Daniel Pennac
Daniel Pennac was born in 1944 in Casablanca, Morocco, and was a teacher before turning to writing children's fiction. His teaching experience inspired him to write The Rights of the Reader and now School Blues, which won the Prix Renaudot, one of France's top literary prizes.
The verdict: 9 out of 10.