Custom Disqus identifier:
Early in my teaching career, I had a poster on the wall of my classroom. In an unconscious echo of the popular children’s TV programme of the time, it asked, HOW?
The reasoning behind this was to remind my English students that, when discussing the literature we were studying, it was important that they ask themselves not only WHAT was happening in the novel or play but HOW the author manipulated our responses as readers -- the evidence for his skills as a writer.
This device ultimately struggled -- and, ironically, all because of language.
In those far off days, long before our young people adopted the strangely upward inflections of Australia in ‘Neighbours’ or New York in ‘Friends’, local accents and usage played a big part in classroom learning. In the contemporary Edinburgh patois, the question ‘How?’ was often used when the speaker actually meant ‘Why?’
“Could you open the window please?”
To which the correct answer would be ‘Because it’s warm in here’, rather than ‘By releasing the catch’.
You can imagine, then, the confusion caused by my poster.
“How did the poet create the atmosphere?” would elicit not a comment on rhythm or rhyme but ‘Because he wanted the reader to imagine the scene.’ We lurched into the world of philosophy rather than literary analysis.
I eventually ironed out the misunderstandings, but not before we had enjoyed a few excursions into the land of ‘why’ rather than ‘how’.
Today, whether we use ‘how’ or ‘why’ for the purpose, it’s about time we started asking some big philosophical questions about the education our country provides, especially at post 16 level . Of course, in the current economic climate, education is regularly discussed, but the usual question is ‘How much?’
Thanks to recent decisions we are all well aware of the cost of accessing a Scottish university course for those who stay outside our borders; indeed, there are rumblings that one answer to this expense might be to reduce the ‘Scottish degree’ from 4 to 3 years.
There’s a financial answer to the question ‘Why?’ here, but there are a whole load of other ‘Why? questions we should be asking, lest we end up knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
To make decisions without asking the right questions is a risk we should not be taking with the future of our young people and their country. Poor architecture and traffic choked streets give us a clear illustration of what happens when expediency rather than reflection and vision informs our decision making.
Why do students go to university? Why is the Scots degree 4 years long? Why do we value not only depth but also breadth in our curriculum? Why should we not continue to build on tradition and have a higher education system which is the natural pathway from the approach in our schools? Is it possible that education should be an end in itself -- to inspire, challenge, and develop - rather than solely a means of achieving qualifications for employment?
Asking why we educate helps us understand how we must approach our planning, but there can often be an absence of intellectual involvement in the way we discuss our major decisions.
To return to language, and at the risk of an awful pun, it is all about the wise and the wherefores.