The past is a foreign country

27th January 2012 at 00:00

Teacher Jake Epping may have taken up time travelling and cold-blooded killing but we can still identify with him. In Stephen King's latest novel, our hero from the English department discovers that whenever he drops down a dark hole at the back of his friend's diner, he travels back in time to the same moment in the New England of September 1958. Every time he falls through the hole, he can tweak history from that point onwards. He comes back to the present each time via a rabbit hole. Despite this exceptional development in his teaching career (including killing a future wife-and-child murderer), Jake's first concern upon his return to the present is to get his marking done before meeting his students the next day.

We have all been there. We may never have popped back to 1958, but we are familiar with the escapist short break away - a weekend in the Welsh mountains or break-dancing until dawn on a Prague stag weekend with some merry Ofsted inspectors. As with Jake, our wild adventure comes to a rather dreary end on a Sunday evening when we finally address the pile of unmarked books we left behind. Tales of time travel, climbing or cavorting make little impression on our students. They just want their work back.

As King's story about the English teacher developed, I found myself relating to him in another way, too. Jake assumes a fake persona in 1958 and makes it his ultimate mission to prepare the ground for meeting Lee Harvey Oswald, with the plan of preventing him from assassinating JFK. The presumption is that American and world history would have taken a happier and more peaceful course if Kennedy had lived.

It made me wonder what good deed a teacher in this country should do if he or she fell down a similar hole. Suppose I carelessly took a wrong turn, say, in the toilet at our local Burger King and found myself dropping undercover into the Britain of 1958. Let's assume I then decide to do something that would improve the state of education today. What should I best do or undo?

Should I try to set fire to the Plowden Report before they make copies - or do we consider Plowden to have been overall a good thing? Or should I spend my time urging 1960s Labour ministers to be more forceful towards local authorities resistant to comprehensive education? Is and was comprehensive always the best option for all children? Or should I best try in 1958 to persuade young Margaret Thatcher to stay in the legal profession rather than stand as the new Conservative candidate for Finchley the following year?

Others will say no to all of those options. Even with the benefit of hindsight, does anyone really know how they would try to steer the educational ship on a better course than the one taken? Or are we all, as I suspect, still finding our way through the darkness? Despite all the research and years of confident posturing from teachers, politicians and pundits, we are still chipping at the surface on the matter of brain development and of making optimum use of human potential. The course is further fogged up by political prejudices and vested interests. None of us quite knows the right way. So an alternative visit to a more enlightened future would probably be more helpful. I hope so.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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