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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Teach them Betjeman, not Bebo

A friend has just come back from Costa Rica and tells me that if you climb the highest mountain you can see the Pacific in one direction and the Atlantic in the other. That stirring thought stirred something in me; dim memories of the line "upon a peak in Darien" and reading some history about one of the great European explorers who, I learn from a Colombian I recently had dinner with, are known locally as "pirates". When I got home I settled it with the help of Google. The line is Keats:
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien

Further reading indicates that it was Balboa, not Cortes, who climbed the peak and first caught sight of the Pacific, a moment in the history of exploration which is staggering and kind of funny at the same time. The poem is "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" which is inspired by a literary experience of looking at the world through fresh eyes.
Nuggets like this, from which the implications glint in lots of different directions, are the things I remember most fondly from my school days when we would get the teacher off the point and it didn't matter whether we were doing history, geography, literature, politics or philosophy. I learned more in those interludes than I did in the regular lessons. It also instilled the only valuable thing an education can instill - curiosity.
My teacher friends all agree that the National Curriculum has made tangents like this impossible. I'm not encouraged by today's announcement that the primary curriculum is to be revised to make pupils familiar with internet tools like Google and Twitter. I have a feeling that tools like these are at their most effective when they're filling the gaps left by traditional education and I find it hard to imagine primary teachers showing an eight-year-old how to use Facebook (which by then will have been supplanted.) Maybe they should take the time they're planning to devote to Twitter and use it to read a poem to them.