Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The Tyranny of Relevance

The reason I stayed in Sheffield was because of the Leeds Salon continuing debate on the subject of this post. Leeds was coming to Sheffield on Monday night. The discussion was strongly led by David Bowden of The Institute of Ideas, the speakers being Michael Schmidt, Michele Ledda and myself, each of us speaking for some 7 minutes, then launching out on a discussion.

The relevance to what? might be the first question, though by this time I had understood that the subject was really education and the place within it of the arts, particularly poetry. But MS started by talking about the relevance of poetry to public affairs and, inevitably, Auden's line in his In Memoriam W B Yeats poem about poetry making nothing happen, the suggestion being that poetry's relevance was not quite in the public field: the poet does not have a message as such.

My first task then was to be relevant to MS's statement with which I was broadly in agreement while pointing out instances where poetry did make things happen - the revolutionary poets of the nineteenth century, particularly in Europe, and my part of Europe above all. I also mentioned that while Auden said that poetry makes nothing happen, he qualified it by saying it was a way of happening.

Michele kicked us off into the proper subject with a properly considered set of points, chiefly reflecting on various government statements - in fact rather more the last government then this one - on the importance of all school subjects being relevant to jobs, economics, and the needs of industry (citing Estelle Morris, among others. And indeed it is Michael Gove who recently used the term 'the tyranny of relevance' to suggest the importance of traditional subjects, including Latin and so forth. John Carey might have been the very first, thoughy Michael had a claim on it too.

I think Michele is probably regretting some of the same losses as Gove, though possibly for different reasons. It is not because he wants any specific form of school revived, but that the importance of the humanities and of the difficult arts should be at the core of our values. But if he reads this he might correct me.

The discussion then responded to Michele, which was as it should have been. I wish Michele had started so as to focus us earlier. MS has what I imagine is an Arnoldian view. He is looking for a broad education in which the arts have no special place but are part of a good overarching culture. I have a more redemptionist view of the arts, if only because I myself was redeemed by art and poetry so, as James Brown cries, I have seen the light. My approach is less institutional than MS's probably is. I like the idea of appealing to the poetic instinct over and above the institution, perhaps even counter to it. I suspect MS believes in the higher possibilities of the institution.

Much of this is instinctive and we can both quote good back up sources. Michele is looking to fix this properly in educational philosophy and theory, an I imagine he'll keep beating at those doors. There are libertarian principles there, and he is keen on Füredi.

The audience grew into the debate with some passion. One young man told us how too early contact with Macbeth ruined his life. Another woman talked of educating her own children, and how one of them, twelve year old, adored Dryden. Yet another spoke of having taught in schools for several years and of the loss she felt in terms of language and literature in her last years of teaching. Someone referred to Oakeshott and tried to keep us on the straight and narrow. There is nothing particularly straight or narrow to be had here, I suspect

Then off to the Showroom for a drink and a bite, and more talk with Anne and Peter Sansom and MS and Michele. Then I walk home to the hotel up a fairly straight and narrow road as it happens.


Winger said...

"One young man told us how too early contact with Macbeth ruined his life."

Is this a comedy or a tragedy?

But really though, how did he explain that: it sounds possibly over-dramatic to me...

George S said...

It may be the way I am putting it, Winger. I think he meant that it put him off Shakespeare and stuff for a good few years. That is a ruined (part of a) life.

Michele Ledda said...

I know these debates lack focus sometimes, but I think the problem of poetry’s relevance in an instrumentalist world is such a big subject, closely connected as it is to the problem of the humanities’ relevance (The Two Cultures debate), of education, and of the role of consciousness, free will and the human subject in the modern world, that it is difficult to keep the discussion strictly focused on one aspect only.
I also find it unhelpful, even impossible, to restrict the field of inquiry, as I feel that in order to get to grips with this problem, which does not originate in poetry or in education themselves but affects them from the outside, we need to look at the wider picture. I meant to do more of that but realised I did not have enough time and only referred explicitly to modern instrumentalism at the end, in reply to a question from the audience.
I was glad both you and Michael mentioned In Memory of W.B. Yeats in your intro as I also meant to quote from Auden’s poem - two lines, repeated in the poem, that point us towards the origin of modern instrumentalism in the lack of faith in the human capacity to perceive the truth directly, without the apparatus of modern science: What instruments we have agree / The day of his death was a dark cold day - as if the truth that it was a cold day, obvious to our senses, could not be trusted without being validated by the thermometer and thus becoming objective, scientific truth.
And then of course the connection between instrumentalism and the Death of the Author, the problem of meaning and authorial control / intention ... There is enough for a few debates ... But it was a great to be able to reflect on these matters with you, Michael and the Sheffield audience.
I think your distrust of institutions is understandable – it reminds me of Daniel Pennac’s, Comme un roman / The Rights of the Reader - and institutions should be criticised and improved, sometimes revolutionised. But ultimately, unless we want to get rid of compulsory, universal education, we have to accept the fact that, no matter how humane the teaching methods or inspiring the teachers, children will be forced to study what the adults say it’s good for them, and they will have to do it at a particular time of the day, day after day, not just when they feel inspired – which teaches them a bit of self-discipline and is not necessarily a bad thing, even if they will sometimes hate studying Macbeth.