If only he had learned a little less

20th August 2004 at 01:00
From Shakespeare to Orwell, literature is full of education's saints and sinners. Ted Wragg reads a new collection

The Best Days of Your Life: teachers and pupils in literature and letters. By Raymond Chapman. Canterbury Press pound;14.99.

Are schooldays really the best days of your life? Maybe they pale against some of the better features of adult life, like being able to drive a car, go on holiday to places of your own rather than your parents' choosing, raise your own children, buy a house, get promoted, or take charge of a class instead of being bored in someone else's.

This collection of short readings about education, from early years up to adult life, has been put together from many sources by Raymond Chapman, former professor of English at the University of London. There are extracts from fiction - some sources well known, others more obscure - alongside accounts of people's lives, whether as teacher or learner.

The book is comprehensive in many senses, except for the shortage of references to the comprehensive school itself. As the author explains in his introduction, any historical account of education is bound to give prominence to the public schools, for that is where many authors and raconteurs were educated. But this hardly matters, since readers of all ages are fascinated by tales about boarding schools, from early times right up to today's Harry Potter stories.

The interesting and strong feature of this book is that the selection has been made by someone steeped in literature, rather than, say, a practising teacher, so many of the extracts come from English literary classics, including the works of Jane Austen, Anne and Charlotte Bront , Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, George Orwell, William Shakespeare, Anthony Trollope and Oscar Wilde.

Chapter titles confirm the literary background, as they are taken from someone's writing in that particular section: "Kindest of Teachers"; "Rigid, Course and Despotic"; "Little Savages"; "Those Merry Times". The author prefaces each chapter and individual extract with a short note of explanation, which one sometimes wishes had been longer.

The content of the book varies from gripping to tedious, from the 16th century to the recent past. Fans of Dickens will be pleased to see his priceless description of M'Choakumchild from Hard Times: "He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty's most Honourable Privy Council's Schedule B, and taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin and Greek. He knew all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoplesI Ah, rather overdone, M'Choakumchild. If only he had learned a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more."

There are many kindly teachers. Jane Austen describes, in Emma, how Highbury was a place where children could run about a great deal and Mrs Goddard, the mistress, dressed their winter chilblains with her own hands.

Booker T Washington, born into slavery in the United States in 1856, tells of how a black ex-soldier from Ohio comes to his town and offers education for the first time to the black children there.

Alongside these saints are the thrashers, wicked persecutors and tormentors of children, who would nowadays be locked away. In Nicholas Nickleby, Wackford Squeers beats a boy "until his arm was tired out". Mark Twain, in his autobiography, relates how he was made to go outside and find a cane, so he could be beaten with it: "She called me by my whole name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens I I was to learn later that when a teacher calls a boy by his entire name it means trouble." Twain fetches a rotten stick he knows will break, so the teacher recruits another pupil to bring a better one:

"When he returned with the switch of his choice I recognised he was an expert."

Many adults reminiscing about school recall negative experiences. The 18th-century poet William Cowper has grim memories that stain his view of schooling: "Would you your son should be a sot or a dunce, Lascivious, headstrong, or all these at once; ITrain him in public with a mob of boys, Childish in mischief only and in noise." William Blake was equally dismissive: "But to go to school in a summer morn O! it drives all joy away."

A book of snapshots of education like this is appealing, because it brings together a diverse collection of perspectives on a timeless process, but it is also frustrating. Most of the extracts are short, so it is often at the most interesting point that the story breaks off. Some pieces are so short as to be epigrammatic, like Miss Prism telling her pupil in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest: "Cecily, you will read your Political Economy in my absence. The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit.

It is somewhat too sensational. Even these metallic problems have their melodramatic side." Nonetheless, perhaps readers of this fascinating and well assembled collection will be stimulated to consult the originals.

Ted Wragg is emeritus professor of education at Exeter University

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