No place for smart Alecs;Talkback;Opinion

15th January 1999 at 00:00
Whenever my mother told me not to be "clever", she meant the word in the sense of facetious or smart, like Alec. Cleverness is a two-edged sword and wielding it is a dodgy business. I remember a Radio 1 DJ pronouncing "cotoneaster" as if it were "cotton" plus "Easter" and I felt as smug as the "Yours in disgust" correspondents who are the true bane of English teachers until I heard a colleague bemoaning the pronunciation of Antigone to rhyme with polygon. (My acquaintance with Antigone is through Jean Anouilh's play of the same name, which is, in French, pronounced to rhyme with polygon.

Being "clever" is far different to being "superior", in the sense of supercilious. Someone said once that she was surprised to learn that "restaurateur" is the proper term, not "restauranteur". "Of course it isn't," I snorted. That moment haunts me still.

Recently I took over a remedial class of Year 9 pupils. One of the boys had spent the weekend with his aunt on her farm. When he told me he had milked a goat, I asked him if he had eaten any goat's cheese. "You don't get milk from a goat. It comes from a cow," snorted Vicki (with an "i" of course). I explained that milk comes from lots of animals, and that cheese can be made from, for instance, ewe's milk. "In fact," I explained, "my favourite cheese is Roquefort, which is blue cheese made from ewe's milk." "Cheese isn't blue, it's yellow!" snorted the all-knowing Vicki.

It's difficult to breach the virtually unassailable defence of ignorance reinforced by prejudice. Even very clever, in the proper sense of bright, pupils are sceptical if the teacher shows know-ledge of what to them are obscure areas. I was explaining once that "paradise" is a Persian word meaning "garden", when an intelligent girl in Year 11, Lynne, said I made up stories when I did not know something. I told them that knowing the etymology of words was my business. Lynne piped up: "Where does 'verandah' come from, then?" "It's Indian," I said. Paradoxically, it was the promptness of my reply which made them sceptical.

I like to think that it is a legitimate teaching method to tell pupils stories that are exaggerated or occasionally false. I don't want to encourage gullibility, so I try to illustrate it. The aim of advertisers and politicians is to exploit the credulity of people. The job of teachers is to provide pupils with the knowledge and experience which enables them to perceive that exploitation and evaluate it. I want a questioning public, not a docile, accepting one.

I once sent a boy to bring an atlas from the library when the pupils would not believe there was a place called Oswaldtwistle. I am happy with that. It adds an element of uncertainty and excitement to our lessons, keeps the pupils interested and gives me the upper hand by establishing my "authority".

However, "cleverness" is not always a blessing. Some years ago I was riding my new Peugeot bicycle to school when I caught up with Mike, a maths teacher who I knew only vaguely. His bike was filthy.

"You look like you've been riding that across a field," I remarked cleverly, proud of my shiny, new machine.

"I have. This is my training bike," he explained.

"Oh, you cycle seriously, do you? Who for?" "Great Britain," he replied.

Kevin Fitzsimons is head of English at a Hull comprehensive

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