Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Lord deliver us from our local philistine Conservatives

I despair, I truly despair. Just before Christmas, I shared a beer with local Mill Hill Conservative John Hart. Of all the councillors in Barnet, John is probably the best to have a conversation with, not least about issues other than politics. John is a retired University lecturer, specialising in foreign languages. He started the Union of Polytechnic lecturers, which probably makes him unique amongst Conservative politicians. John is a man of learning, born in India, married to a Spanish woman for many years, fluent in many languages. We had a fascinating conversation about how learning French properly is about far more than the grammar and the words. He told how he'd explain the social customs of nations to his students. This detail extended to what sort of flowers you would buy the bosses wife if asked to dinner. I find languages fascinating. My wife studied Russian at Manchester University,  including a period in Minsk, the year after the Chernobyl disaster. I visited the USSR with her on several occasions after. She secured a job working at the Anglo Soviet Creative Association, one of her jobs was to organise the Moscow Premiere of Gone with the Wind, as well as filming of TV series such as Sharpes Rifles in the Ukraine.

The only languages I've ever really got anywhere near understanding are Swedish and French. I lived in Stockholm for six months in 1981, and picked it up watching English films with Swedish subtitles. . As for French, I volunteer for a charity that takes people with disabilities to France. Although my French is not great, I can get by. I wish that I had an aptitude for language in the way that Clare and John have. Perhaps my greatest regret is that my particular flavour of dyslexia makes fromally learning any language a total misery. Even English is a challenge, I didn't speak at all until I was four years old. My mother thought I was either deaf or mute. I can still recall being taken to the Audiology clinic in Hartley Avenue for tests as a child. I was told that I had to press a button when I heard a noise and if I didn't when I heard it, they could tell and I'd be in trouble. That concluded that I had no hearing issues. My elective mutism ended when we were at the family dinner table. I shocked everyone by suddenly announcing "I wanna piece of cake". I was amused to read that Albert Einstein, also a dyslexic didn't speak until he was four. His first words were also at the dinner table. When his mother put his lunch in front of him, he announced "I don't like peas". His mother was stunned and said "You can speak, why didn't you speak before". Einstein replied "Everything was alright before". That is probably where the parallels between myself and Albert Einstein end.

Sadly, John is one of the last of the breed of local Conservatives where a proper education is valued. It is interesting to note that the last cabinet job Margaret Thatcher had before becoming  PM was as Education secretary. She was a passionate advocate of Comprehensive education, believing that it would deliver a better, fairer and more equitable education than the previous system of Grammar and Secondary modern schools. I was one of the beneficiaries of this policy. My first secondary school was Finchley Catholic High, an amalgamation of Finchley Grammer and Challoner school (a private boys school for Catholics who failed the eleven plus). When I joined, the Headmaster was still a Priest. We were forced to do Latin as a compulsory subject for three years. Our Latin teacher would explain that an understanding of Latin was the best way to get to grips with modern linguistics and would give us an excellent base for speaking other languages. Whilst I had no aptitude for the language, one of the things he would do was to pick a word and explain the Latin roots of this. Whilst the grammar etc never sunk in, many of these did. It has always been useful and has convinced many people that I am far more intelligent than I really am, when I can throw in some such useless knowledge. One of the words that stuck in my mind was Pragmatic. He explained how historically the Latin usage of the word meant conceited and interfering. This has often been useful when people have suggested a 'pragmatic' approach. Of  course the word has a different current meaning, but you can certainly have some fun armed with this knowledge (to me the probably the best reason for education).

Today, as part of the twitter banter with the local Conservatives that I so enjoy, I was able to deploy this when one of our young local councillors Felix Byers suggested that it was a good thing  that the local Tories were pragmatic.

To my surprise, Felix's response demonstrated perfectly the appalling attitude to education and intelligent conversation that so troubles me about many of the new generation of Tories. To even suggest that you 'Descend into Latin' is the sign of a true philistine. If he was Plato or Socrates (the philosopher, not the Footballer), I could perhaps understand it, as the Greeks viewed the Romans as uneducated, but sadly Felix is neither of these characters. The whole Conservative approach to education is absolutely appalling. It seems that they view it as a transaction. The Conservative philosophy seems to be that the purpose of an education is to get you a job and you should pay for this transaction in the shape of a student loan (or from the bank of mummy and daddy if you are lucky).

Interestingly, this is quite a Roman view of the subject. The Romans would actually keep Greek slaves to do their thinking for them and solve the more complex problems. They saw little value in educating anyone beyond the level of the basic needs to do their jobs. The British  have always taken a rather different view. This is why we have fantastic universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. To get accepted for these colleges, you primarily need to demonstrate that you can think. This is why so many great things have been invented in the UK. We are good at solving problems, which involves thinking about them.

When I was at FCHS,  our Latin teacher was Mr Perdoni. For reasons I don't really understand, he quite liked me, even though I was rubbish at the subject.  I recall one day being sent to him, as he was also our year master, to receive the cane for some trivial transgression. At Finchley Catholic in 1977, this was pretty much a daily occurrence, but on this occasion he seemed rather agitated about the whole thing. He informed me that he was rather busy. He told me to wait outside and think about what had happened. He then said if I could think of a good reason why I should not get the cane, when he had finished what he was doing, he'd let me off. I sat there for about five minutes. As I wasn't overly keen on being beaten with a cat o' nine tails, my brain went into overdrive. Appealing to his better nature would fail. Claiming it wasn't me would fail. Eventually, I thought 'This is a Catholic school and as I am truly contrite, mercy and forgiveness is at the heart of our ethos I should be forgiven'. When I was called in, he said "Well, what have you come up with?" So I explained. He looked slightly shocked and said "How long have you been here, that isn't really how this school works, is it?".  I responded by saying "At mass, the Gospel was all about casting the first stone and forgiveness. Did Jesus not say 'go and sin no more'." At this Mr Perdoni said, "are you saying you won't sin anymore if I let you off?" . I responded that I'd try my hardest. He said "Ok, I'll give you a chance, but if you come back here, you will be caned twice".  He then said "That was a very good defence, I wasn't expecting something so well thought out". My classmates referred to Mr Perdoni as Spiny, and when I returned, they were all keen to know what the punishment was. When I explained that I'd persuaded him that forgiving sinners was a more suitable solution they were amazed, and thought I was winding them up. It was a lesson that I never forgot. It made me realise that you can change outcomes if you think about things intelligently.

Sadly, it rather seems to me that Felix did not have the benefit of an education involving Luigi Perdoni. It's not Felix's fault, he's a young man who has come through a very different system. It has made me realise just how badly we are treating our young people, in making them see education through a transactional viewpoint. It is no surprise that young men such as Felix, who is a nice, amiable chap and I actually quite like, can make such throwaway comments about perhaps our greatest asset as a species, language. I think it would be a good thing if John Hart took him under his wing and made him realise that there really is more to the world than Facebook, Twitter and social media and if you can understand languages such as Latin, your life will be immeasurably richer.


A Classicist said...

I am a classics graduate, fluent in Greek and Latin who studied both languages since he was fourteen. Albeit in renaissance Latin pragmatic ce to mean interfering, the word derives from the Greek root of prattein (to do), praxis (practice), pragma (fact). The pragmatic is the one concerned with facts rather than ideology. Moreover, an important aspect of Greek thinking was the shape of discourse. The ancients thought that an educated man was not simply a learned man but also someone able to deploy knowledge at the opportune moment. The use of erudition for the sake of it would have been considered Asian (as belonging to a way of writing speeches popular in the east of the Hellenistic world. It was centred on surprise, emotion, and erudition) as opposed to an Attic style (favoured by Cicero among others) a style centred on logic and precision. Now, I would say that Felix, in pointing the irrelevance of your comment when talking of green bins, behaved according to the best attic tradition, whereas you made show of what a classical author would have considered a lack of education (proper paideia).

Rog T said...

Yep, uneducated pleb, thats me!