The common pursuit

It seems to me that the great characters of the classroom are a dying breed. By that, I do not mean that teaching does not now, as it always has done, attract men and women of conspicuous ability and inspire in them remarkable service. But the culture of teaching has changed. That change was in process before my time, but took a significant step forward while I myself was at school, spurred by the Thatcherite ethos, and had gathered pace under Tony Blair when I came to teach in my twenties and thirties. Now the process appears largely complete.

The detailed examination of the roots of that change can be left for another time, but its manifestations are easily noted; the micro-management of the classroom, the increase in bureaucracy, the demand for uniformity (dare one say, blandness), and the reductive nature of the examination system. As backdrop, we might cite both the loss of our civil religion – Christianity not so much as a system of religious observance, but as the warp and weft of our national life – and the vaunting of low culture at the expense of high. We might also cite the way in which our universities have turned away from scholarship for its own sake, and from an emphasis on their life as a community of scholars, to one of narrower specialisms, more circumscribed intellectual enquiry, an emphasis on quantitative output, and the imposition of scientific method and peer review upon the arts and humanities. It is a form of commodification; a set of values that a generation ago would have been dismissed as inappropriate for an academic setting because their commercialism cheapens and ultimately debases scholarship.

The foundation of most learning is curiosity, and the effective teacher builds on this curiosity to foster enthusiasm and knowledge. Boundaries are inimical to such an approach. It can be summed up as “scholarship for its own sake”, or the traditional phrase “a liberal education”.

This attitude was once the dominant paradigm in our education system, both at secondary and postsecondary levels. The quality of donnishness – not so much “teaching” as instruction, but more akin to the shared exploration of a subject – was born in the universities but also could be applied to many schoolteachers who saw in their work a particular scholarly vocation both to their pupils and to their subjects, and who continued to make a significant wider contribution to those subjects through creative work, books and research papers.

Intellectually-rounded people were seen as the product of a rounded education; the idea that a detailed knowledge of other subjects informed one’s own specialisms. This perhaps found its greatest expression in the view expressed to me in former years that if one had obtained a good degree from a good university, one could then master and teach any subject within reason. This was reflected in a number of eminent university scholars whose degree was not in the subject they taught (or, in rare cases, who had not earned a degree at all), and many more schoolteachers who were in the same position. Education did not merely teach a given set of facts and precepts, it taught its subjects how to learn, how to conduct research, how to apply critical (and self-critical) faculties, and moreover imparted the development of an aesthetic sense – a sense of discrimination between qualities that led to an appreciation of why some things were superior to others. A more nebulous expression of the same concept came in the form of the role of sport in the liberal education; I must say that this was largely lost on me at school, but in subsequent years I have come to appreciate that there are aspects of character and strategy that are perhaps better expressed in Test cricket than anywhere else.

These values are, I would argue, essentially anti-capitalist and anti-materialist, and do not sit well with reductive models of output and assessment. They are values that precede and supersede those of the computer age, and in which, certainly in the arts and humanities, the love of books is foremost. They give vigour to the learner rather than encouraging passivity. And lastly, they mark out, through merit, those who are capable of insight, even of originality, from those who are merely capable of following instructions. They are values that lend themselves to competition, and that produce an inequality of outcome. Lastly, they are values that have been under threat during much of the past century, and that will survive only with cultivation and determined effort.

The deaths of two of my own teachers at The Latymer School, Edmonton, prompts some reflection on these matters. Brian Binding, who taught me English and was my form tutor in my fourth year, died recently as a result of complications from COVID-19 at the age of 85. Andrew Granath, who taught me History, died last year of COVID-19 at the early age of 68.

The Latymer School, Edmonton (©Google)

Brian Binding read English at Downing College, Cambridge, under F.R. Leavis (whose wife, Queenie (Q.R.) Leavis, a distinguished critic in her own right, was an Old Latymerian). He taught at another of the three schools founded by Edward Latymer, Latymer Upper in Hammersmith (then a direct-grant boys’ grammar school), where his pupils included the late Alan Rickman, before arriving as Head of English at Latymer in Edmonton (also a grammar school, though this one mixed) in the year of my birth, 1972. One of his pupils at Latymer Upper captured something of his essence,

“He had the power of turning an English class into a kind of shared meditation. He could sit perched on a radiator in silence while we watched him think. The most important thing I learned from him was disrespect for the canon, since if he did not like the set text (in our case Much Ado About Nothing) that he was supposed to be teaching he spent the minimum time on it and used the lessons to read Lawrence stories or analyse passages of James.”

Neil Roberts, “Leavisite Cambridge in the 1960s” in F.R. Leavis; Essays and Documents, ed. McKillop and Storer, Sheffield Academic Press, 2011, pp. 14-15.

That freedom of approach was born of intellectual confidence. Leavis is not so much in fashion these days, being very much contrary to the mores of our age. He stood for a certain sort of uncompromising rigour that was unashamedly that of an intellectual elite. In his essays in “Education and the University” (1943), Leavis proposes the university as a “focus for the finer life of cultural tradition” and draws attention to the disappearance of the traditional liberal education in favour of increasing specialisation. He writes “if something is not done…this country will not long retain, and will not deserve to retain, any of the influence belonging to the culturally senior partner.” Essential to Leavis’s argument, too, is a confidence in the qualitative pre-eminence of English literature over its foreign counterparts, not from crude jingoism, nor from innate superiority, but rather that “greater maturity means – or should mean – greater vitality.”

Although there were certainly those who studied with Leavis and reacted against his approach, those who were sympathetic to his ideas formed a kind of scholarly disciplehood, gathered among the university faculties and the better schools, which was designed to perpetuate the values that Leavis and his followers held dear. It was to their numbers, presumably, that Leavis (echoing Matthew Arnold) addressed his words “in any period it is upon a very small minority that the discerning appreciation of art and literature depends: it is (apart from cases of the simple and the familiar) only a few who are capable of unprompted, first-hand judgment. They are still a small minority, though a larger one, who are capable of endorsing such first-hand judgment by genuine personal response.”

In his essay quoted above, Neil Roberts speaks of the network of which Brian Binding was a part, and the way in which informal contacts directed able school-leavers to sympathetic dons as they became the next generation to carry the torch. He says of the influence of Leavis that this persuaded him that “the study of literature is a compellingly serious matter”. This was also something that I understood both from Brian Binding’s teaching and from his example, and not merely literature but culture more generally. I thought it significant that in the mid-1980s, he did not own a television, nor attached any importance to that medium. What I also remember were his many enthusiasms in literature, and his dry, unstuffy sense of humour allied to a quick wit. He was also a notable pipe-smoker, a pursuit impossible without a modicum of patience and a ruminative desire to sit, think and talk while enveloped in an aromatic, even ethereal, cloud.

But above all, the Leavisite legacy was that of literary criticism. Literary criticism has now been largely replaced by literary theory and its associated cant of postmodernism, post-colonialism, gender and identity politics. Both Leavises would have had none of that, and Q.D. Leavis was a particularly mordant critic of feminism. Some certainly found the Leavis approach forbidding, holding up a standard so high that it would inhibit any but the most confident from thinking they had something worthwhile to say. But that was not my impression. When I came to read the work of both Leavises – some years after Brian Binding had retired from teaching – what struck me was its abundance of sense, its communicative and persuasive qualities, and the confidence of judgment which, even if one sometimes disagreed profoundly with it, was reasoned and not infrequently hit the mark. Enthusiasm and condemnation alike were the consequence of a developed taste; it was inevitable that if one’s attachment was to values and qualities, then one would then discriminate based on them. As I.A. Richards rightly put it in a passage quoted by Leavis, “to set up as a critic is to set up as a judge of values.”

Critical theory never produces the same reactions. Firstly, it is impenetrable, being addressed entirely inward to the academic establishment, and not aiming at a wider audience. Secondly, it is inherently political, framing itself in the language and ideas of post-war Marxism and being inseparable from that creed. Of course that is not to suggest that Leavis was apolitical, or that his disciples did not include those who embraced socialism, but their version of socialism was (and I shall return to this shortly) quite different from that which would take over academia during the first decades of the present century. In particular, it was a socialism whose dialectic of class was not accompanied by a similar dialectic of intellect, and indeed that appealed to a certain kind of social conservatism. It was common in the grammar schools to encounter the view that intellectual merit was to be celebrated and encouraged, and that high culture was an end to which all might aspire irrespective of class – if not as creators or critics, then at least as an appreciative and informed audience. The best things in life were for everyone, and the good teacher would lead his pupils up the foothills of Parnassus, even if not all would make it to the top.

At a selective grammar school, there was an expectation that we pupils would form an intellectual elite – it was certainly the norm there that the majority of school-leavers would go on to the more selective universities. Certainly it was an atmosphere in which scholarship was given primacy and a remarkably free rein, and the values which this produced contributed to the overall humane and civilised ethos of the school. I do not think this had changed too much since the post-war era in which the universities were suddenly opened up to the new influx of working-class students from the grammar schools. That generation certainly proved itself worthy. Unfortunately it would later also show a remarkable propensity for pulling up the ladder behind it, as the selective principle in education came under sustained attack from the establishment and many grammar schools found themselves forced to choose between charging fees or becoming comprehensives.

Another idea of Leavis’s that remains significant to me is that of the “organic community”. In this, he calls upon England’s pre-industrial heritage to recall lives whose rhythms are those of traditional rural life; folk tradition and folk song. This is in essence an anti-modern concept, but one that found much resonance and active revival in the England of Leavis’s time. One might reflect on the utopian socialism of Eric Gill’s community at Ditchling, or the revival of folk traditions in John Hargrave’s Kibbo Kift, or in the economics of Social Credit and Distributism, or in the Guild Socialism that developed out of William Morris’s ideas. Indeed, this was also an era when English music emerged from Continental influence to rediscover its national roots through the folk song revival of Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The Romanticism of these currents was always tempered by a strong measure of practical idealism, and by another English characteristic, the distrust of sentimentality. The appeal, as with Leavis, was to vigour rather than to comfort.

Andrew Granath arrived at Latymer in my fourth year there, and made an immediate impression on our class of GCSE historians. Visually, he was extremely tall and striking in appearance, with features that suggested that he had been hewn out of stone. But it was also obvious from the start that he was the “real thing” academically, with an authority and intensity that made you feel that what was being taught really mattered, and we soon became accustomed to working hard and at a high level. The syllabus in those very early days of GCSE was far fuller than it became when I taught GCSE History a little over a decade later. Andrew brought it all alive. But more than that, he was a remarkably interesting person with an unusually wide range of interests. He was passionate about boxing, and saw in that noble art far more than mere sport. He rode classic motorcycles (as had Brian Binding before him). And he was from Basildon.

Basildon is an unremarkable suburban town in Essex, not a vast distance from Latymer in Edmonton. It is the ostensible subject of Andrew Granath’s only book, Searching for the Promised Land, which he wrote at the age of fifty. This, however, is to underplay its hand. Searching for the Promised Land is a meditation – even in places a Brian Binding-esque meditation – on the essence of Basildon as a metaphor for the changes in the post-war working-class. It is a consciously unruly book; not conventional history, but rather a personal and subjective narrative. At times it is extremely funny, and at others sad, touching and thought-provoking. There is a tone of lamentation for the deliberate destruction of the working-class community that once formed Basildon. One passage emphasises the optimism of the post-war vision, and the way in which it, as with so many visions, came to be corrupted,

“Fifty years ago, in the stasis of the post-war years, it was assumed that the working class was not meant to be aspirational. Give them a watertight house, and elementary education, free health care and a modestly-paid job and the world could carry on indefinitely as if 1955 represented the end of history. Today, in the new, thrusting post-Thatcher Britain where we are all bewildered by the pace of change, it has become a way of life. It is difficult to overstate the optimism that was left at the time for those who had escaped the grim cramped life of inner London. Within the authoritarianism imposed by a lack of choice, a whole new vista opened up to us. It was a grand view of gardens, parks, countryside, neat brick-built houses, open airy schools, bright modern shops and willing citizens revelling in the munificence of government – ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.’ In 2003 it all looks rather different. Talking to the elderly of the town – those who arrived as young adults in the 1950s – there is now a pervasive sense of disillusionment that the dream failed to live up to their expectations. The promises of the good life have not been kept. As Nigel Birch put it to Harold Macmillan at the time of Profumo crisis: “Never glad confident morning again.” It is now impossible to imagine that the state would ever again have the confidence and self-belief to create such a community in the hope that it could transform the quality of peoples’ lives. We truly believed, fifty years ago, that it would be possible to build that shining city on the hill if we all pulled in the same direction.”

That optimism is also seen in a number of his other topics. Inevitably, he discusses socialism, but with a scepticism born of experience of the failures of central planning. As a former member of the Woodcraft Folk (which had grown out of a rift in the Kibbo Kift), he knew utopian socialism at first hand,

“By the 1930s, Letchworth, in particular, had acquired a reputation for what George Orwell rather contemptuously called ‘sandal and nuts’ socialism. It was the Letchworth ILP Summer Schools, with their espousal of progressive utopian ideas, that goaded Orwell into his famous denunciation (in The Road to Wigan Pier) of ‘every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, Nature Cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England’. For Orwell, the Letchworth middle class socialist was summed up by the two men who got on his bus while riding through the town. ‘They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top the bus. The man next to me murmured, “Socialists” as who should say “Red Indians”. Every generation has its discontented minority looking for a different way of life. In the 1930s, they flocked to Letchworth, particularly those who had tired of the tyranny of the ‘meat and two veg’ diet of the inter war years. By 1935 the town boasted seven vegetarian restaurants at a time when the whole of London could barely muster the same number. For the ‘simple lifers’ who flocked there, the principle was even more simple – ‘more air, less alcohol’. For Orwell, a meat-eating, chain-smoking, beer-swilling despiser of the middle-class socialists, the lure of Catalonia must have seemed irresistible.”

He might have gone on to add that the rather wonderful bastion of vegetarianism, teetotalism, Theosophy and free-thinking, the Liberal Catholic Church, had been established in Letchworth in 1923 and remains active there today.

This was socialism as a middle-class lifestyle choice, not the struggle of the working-class to overcome very real disadvantages. Among the faddishness, however, there was a genuine energy and some idealism that had more to it than the humbug that Orwell rejected. What Andrew Granath saw was the arc of that idealism; rising in the working-class London-exiled community that formed in the “plotlands” of Basildon where many families built their own homes during the 1930s, only to see them flattened by central planning bulldozers twenty years later. He visited as the last of these awaited demolition, “As I wandered past the neat little houses, I realised for the first time that, although the men and women that comprise government may be perfectly decent people individually, they are, collectively, given some sort of rationale, capable of acting in a grossly unjust manner. And here was the result of this misguided ‘we know best’ attitude.”

The central planning that Andrew Granath decried in Basildon is exactly the same malaise that has affected the teaching profession. All of the changes that have affected teaching in the last twenty years have been imposed from the top down, by governments and others who “know best”. They have, in my view, had the effect (and often deliberately) of vastly reducing the autonomy of the teacher in the classroom. In the early 1970s, Dr Robert Leoline James, who was regarded as one of the great headmasters of Harrow, gave his headmaster protégés the advice, “Appoint the best and leave them alone.” Few schools are always in the position of being able to appoint the best, but it seems to me that one rarely attracts the best with the prospect of endless circumscription and micromanagement.

At the point when I left school teaching in 2005, we had even reached the point where certain established styles of teaching, most notably “chalk and talk” had become officially deprecated. A lesson with Andrew Granath not infrequently consisted entirely of his exposition of a topic followed by dictated notes and the occasional question. Nothing was deemed to be learned until it had been codified. Of course he knew what I later discovered myself as a teacher; making the pupil do something active with the knowledge at hand, such as writing it down for themselves, is usually the best way to get them to remember it. There was nothing stale or passive about those lessons, but they reflected a scholarly approach that, despite its considerable effectiveness, has now become manifestly unfashionable.

Teaching has been diminished by the imposition of a quantifiable matrix that prizes assessment, value for money and accountability ahead of more subjective qualities. Inevitably, in the name of uniformity, much of humanity has found itself squeezed out just as the central planners imposed their stultifying vision on the sprawling individuality of Basildon’s plotlands. And it must also be questioned whether the reductive world of league tables is really cognisant of the true meaning of “accountability” and “value for money”, which have a much wider context than might at first glance be imagined. The aim of liberal education – to produce rounded individuals capable of fulfilling their potential and contributing in full measure to society – has been forgotten because it is by nature not easily quantifiable; it asks too many difficult and subjective questions and those answers that are available do not lend themselves to statistical analysis or computer processing.

I am not a revenant, and have, if memory serves, only returned to my old school on two occasions after leaving, those being both over twenty years ago now. There were, however, two encounters later in life with the teachers I have written about. Brian Binding surprised me one day in my early twenties when I was reading a book outside a café on Hampstead High Street. He told me that he had taken up a second career as a translator in retirement, and was greatly enjoying it, and we shared some memories of Latymer as it had been.

Andrew Granath wrote to me out of the blue in 2012, having found my website. Returning to his words after his death, I am struck both by his kindness and his intellectual curiosity.

“I hope you don’t mind me writing to you like this. It simply occurred to me just a few days ago I wonder what happened to John Kersey, I googled you and was both surprised and delighted to be see how brilliantly prolific and committed you are.

I hardly dare try to understand the sort of issues and beliefs that you are part of but it does seem to be an extraordinary and fascinating world that you have made.  You would have liked my Aunt who died a few years ago. She was a quiet disciple of Joseph de Maistre and Rene Guenon and had an extraordinary collection of early mystical books (hermetic, Rosicrucian and alchemical including first editions of John Dee and Michael Maier) that, to my irritation, were donated to the Warburg Institute. She was a friend of Frances Yates who you may be familiar with.

For Murray Rothbard and Joachim Raff to be admired and appreciated by the same person is a great feat and for that I congratulate you.

Latymer is a very different place from the one that you left I suspect more than twenty years ago. Neither better nor worse but different. For myself I think that I will do one more year after this and will then retire or rather do something else. I hope that you do not mind me sending you this message. Looking at the picture on the your website I can still see very clearly the 16 year old you.”

Of course I replied to him. But how do you say thank you to your teachers and give some idea of what their example has meant to you without lapsing into embarrassing sentimentality? It seems an impossible task. Perhaps there is something less direct that can be done, though. Alan Bennett, himself a grammar school pupil, gave us the definitive study of grammar school life in the early 1980s in The History Boys, which captures the intensity and the intellectual excitement of that experience together with the inevitable emotional complexities of teenage years. The final scene is visited by the spirit of the inspirational Hector, the general studies teacher, who directs his charges to “pass it on, boys”. And that. surely, is what it is all about.

Further reading:

Granath, Magnus C., Searching for the Promised Land: Basildon and the Pursuit of Happiness, London, GoldStar Books, 2004.