Frank McEachran by Mary Beard

31st January 2014 at 00:00
For this Cambridge University Classics don, encountering a Dante-mad Italian teacher opened the way to a life of the mind

A teacher like Frank McEachran would never be allowed in Britain's education system today. He was a mad but utterly charismatic man who was completely, in modern terms, "off-message". There were no "learning objectives" for him.

Everybody called him "KeK" and he went around Shrewsbury in the West Midlands teaching his stuff - Italian language, English and philosophy - at a number of schools. His main post was at Shrewsbury School but he was also a jobbing teacher. He taught one class at Shrewsbury High School, where I went, for people interested in going to university - me included.

KeK looked like a mad professor. He was a sort of shaggy figure in his sixties. He had thinning white hair and wore a scarf and a woolly jumper, but he inspired us all to consider that the intellectual life of the mind had a point to it.

I had wanted to learn Italian in the sixth form - I had done Latin, Greek, French and German - but KeK's approach was unorthodox. The main point of us learning the language, to his mind, was so that we could read Dante.

He had this old textbook, Italiano Vivo, but we spent only a couple of weeks on it before we moved on to Dante. KeK wasn't concerned about us learning how to ask for pizza. Instead we got to the Inferno pretty quickly and were soon reading about the Gates of Hell and crossing the River of Blood. It was hopeless when you went to Italy - although we did get an excellent command of Italian grammar - but most importantly we were introduced to one of the most formidable works of European literature.

KeK taught us that there were things out there in the world of the intellect that I, as a little kid from Shrewsbury, could never have imagined. The idea of me reading Dante in the first place was frankly gobsmacking. It still is, really.

I was an only child and my mother was a headmistress and enthusiastic reader. My parents were committed, interesting people but they never suggested to me that there was an intellectual world beyond England. KeK showed us there was.

He had us reading Camus - I didn't know who that was. And he made us learn reams of poetry off by heart - something that would have made Michael Gove's heart warm (although I'm not sure the education secretary would have approved of all the choices, which included Bob Dylan).

KeK did this by inspiring us, but also sometimes by paying us. We were given 50 pence for learning TS Eliot's The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, for example, and #163;5 for The Wreck of the Deutschland by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

KeK taught us about learning, listening and talking about literature. He made us think there was something out there that was bigger than our world, where people talked and debated. He imparted passion, eccentricity and a sense that we were valued because we wanted to know these things.

For one of our classes we used to go to his flat and he always had the most luscious cakes and tea. We would talk about philosophy. I remember the glamour of existentialism and would dream of Simone de Beauvoir.

His was an impactful legacy. The legacy of teachers is quite complicated. You tend to glamorise the teachers you have liked. But what I remember of KeK is his enthusiasm, what he valued, the way he learned and taught us how to learn.

His attitude was that you were going to read it and you were going to understand it. By opening up possibilities beyond what we had imagined he gave us the confidence to go on and do something more. There was also a sense that this was fun.

There were no assessment criteria: it was just interesting. Some of it was hard for us. But if you were struggling you knew he would be around to help you get there; you had a sense that you were not on your own.

The things KeK taught have never left me. He was a brilliant man and, in one way or another, I think of him most days of the week; those little snatches of poetry float through my head.

In terms of current education policy, much could be learned from him. Surely the focus should be about learning, not about teaching; the teacher is most importantly the facilitator, not the crammer.

Mary Beard was speaking to Jo Knowsley.


Mary Beard

Born: 1 January 1955, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England

Education: Church Preen Primary School, Shropshire; Shrewsbury High School; Newnham College, Cambridge

Career: Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge; a fellow of Newnham College and Royal Academy of Arts professor of ancient literature; classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement and author of the blog A Don's Life, which appears regularly in The Times.

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