It's all about context

21st June 2013 at 01:00

In an English television series called Four Rooms, members of the public try to flog their unusual artefacts (the most outlandish being a dress of human hair) to a panel of dealers. In a recent episode, a sale collapsed because of a lack of provenance. Without an authenticating certificate from the British Museum, the "jewels from the tomb of the Buddha" were no more valuable than gewgaws. And since proof is a precursor to profit, the item was declined.

A detailed understanding of context also affects how we value literary texts. The easiest way to demonstrate this is to give students some of Thomas Hardy's elegies. Written shortly after the death of his first wife, Emma, these poems invariably strike an empathetic chord in students' hearts. "Ahhhh," they murmur, his anguish triggering in them the same emotional reflex as a kitten peeking out of a boot. Then, before they get too teary-eyed, I throw them a line of context. I tell them that despite still sharing the marital home with his wife, Hardy hadn't spoken to her in the years leading up to her death and was in love with another woman 39 years his junior. Not surprisingly, this makes his grief less palatable; cute kittens are less so when they leave you with a boot full of wee.

In life, as well as in art, context conquers all. The loss experienced by the poet Ted Hughes (his first wife Sylvia Plath, his lover Assia Wevill and his eldest son Nicholas all committed suicide) casts a veil over his work. And Wevill's description of his "ferocious love-making", particularly that "in bed he smells like a butcher", prompts further prurient interest in his affairs.

Context often results in the best of our efforts being eclipsed by the worst of our actions. Our skeletons are not only going to find us, but they are going to dance on our reputations, wearing high-visibility jackets and playing the vuvuzela. Take the scandal surrounding disgraced television presenter and charity fundraiser Jimmy Savile. A few months ago, a joke about Savile did the rounds in school: "At least it shows you can be a paedophile and still be a good person." The fact that we translate this as a provocative piece of black humour rather than a statement of truth demonstrates the omnipotent power of context.

But there is one place where context remains hidden. In the world of pedagogical books and teacher blogs, meaningful context is rare. Publishers' blurbs tell us about the writer - that he's a leading innovator, that he's developed a range of easy-to-use teaching resources - but they rarely reveal his students' results.

All that is needed to make me buy The Outstanding Macrame Lesson is statistical evidence that the writer's students sailed through the 2012 exam series, securing more A*s in Making Knotted Friendship Bracelets than anyone else in the country. But this provenance is never given. I suspect it is because such self-help books are about as useful to teachers as dresses made out of hair.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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