I’m not a big fan of Georg Friedrich Handel’s operas. For those who aren’t familiar with his favoured genre, baroque opera, the music contained therein usually has two modes: recitativo and aria. Arias are the actual “songs”, while recitativo is dialogue which is sung in a somewhat staccato manner. The latter, particularly if it’s in a language I don’t speak (usually Italian), gets somewhat irritating after a while.
That said, I recently encountered a piece which was an exception to the rule. BBC Radio 3 has been running a season of Handel’s works, and in order to fill the schedule, they have had to dig deep into the archive. The process of excavation led to the discovery of a gem: “Admeto, re di Tessaglia”. I switched on about halfway through; listening to Radio 3 is part of my homeward bound routine and the opera kept me company in the car. In Act 2, Scene 6, there was an aria entitled “Da tanti affanni oppressa”, sung by the soprano Jill Gomez, which is a little over seven minutes of musical ecstasy: the instrumental portions and the Ms. Gomez’s voice combined to create an emotional churn which almost moved me to tears. It also nearly made me drive into the divide in the middle of the dual carriageway.
Fortunately, I arrived safely at home. However, I have since reflected on why the aria was able to move me so deeply. After all, it was first performed in January 1727, and thus was about as far removed from my cultural milieu as it could possibly be. But the same could be said about much of the music I admire: if asked to name what’s on my iTunes playlist, I would generally indicate classical composers, ranging from Beethoven to Bruckner. This appreciation has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
Slavoj Zizek reminded us in his documentary, “A Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema” that desire isn’t natural, it’s taught: I only know what I want because I have learned to want it. But from where did this education come? Surely it wasn’t just my parents, although my father has a love of classical music, his focus has generally been the works of Verdi and Puccini. My mother too likes the genre, but her interest is mostly limited to the works of Edvard Grieg.
Upon reflection, I owe much of my passion for music to my piano teacher, an elderly nun who went by the name of Sister Jeanne d’Arc. I was very young when I was introduced to her: however I still recall going to a piano room in a nunnery next to my old school which was painted grey and had the odd scent of baked bread and old pages. Sister Jeanne d’Arc was grey haired and wore gold wire-rimmed spectacles, a white cardigan and a dark blue headscarf. Every week, I sat at the keys of a slightly out of tune piano, with its massive yellowing keys barely responding to the touch of my small fingers. Admittedly, I was a mediocre student and I didn’t enjoy practising. At the same time, she instilled in me a love of Beethoven, Scott Joplin and Brahms which unlocked the door to further musical explorations. Shortly after CDs hit the shelves for the first time, I used my youthful pocket money to buy a box set of “Carmen” which starred a young Jose Carreras and Agnes Baltsa; I still have this set, and now an accompanying collection of albums that fills several rooms.
I have developed other appetites. I likely would not have gained my insatiable love of history if I didn’t study with Mr. Harper, a kind Jamaican gentleman who taught me American history. He encouraged me to read outside the texts I had been given. I would not have had the ambition to be a writer without Mrs. Lee, who taught my first Creative Writing class, and was receptive to my youthful, halting experiments with prose. I would not have gained a new passion for studying Islamic philosophy was it not for the advice and support of my PhD supervisor, Aamer Hussein. The colour, flavour, texture and joy in my life are in part due to the teachers that have crossed my path, who influenced me, and who are with me still.
To be a teacher, then, is to be in receipt of a remarkable gift: we not only have the power to help young minds prepare for the world after school, but we can assist in the process of appreciating life’s pleasures and passions. We can expand horizons. We can help potential emerge from the shell of hesitation. It is a profession which changes the world by simple, everyday steps.
However, as cliched as it may sound, it is a trade that is not fully appreciated. I am involved with my local union and thus get a ringside seat to the conflicts between academics and management; recently, staff were offered a laughable .4% pay rise by university managers. While negotiations are proceeding, it seems unlikely that this deal will change substantially.
Because of my position, I also often hear about teaching standards and how they’re skewed. I recently was at a dinner in celebration of Norwegian Independence Day, as my grandfather would have done were he still alive. I sat next to a grey haired gentleman from Yorkshire and his Norwegian wife; as soon as I mentioned my profession, he informed me of the experience of his teenage daughters. Their education had been far too focused on passing multiple choice exams, in his view, rather than gaining knowledge or understanding. I can’t disagree: it’s another piece of evidence of how the government has consistently failed to understand the difference between must and should. They must adhere to the rules, but they should have a moral understanding, for example. Similarly, they feel they must test, but they don’t realise they should create an environment where students learn to think. The problem with this, however, is that “should” doesn’t fit Labour’s “ticking of boxes” management style: emphasis on “should” is far fuzzier, more artistic, however it is the only means by which thoughtful individuals are produced.
I am concerned that because of the targets, the lack of funding, and the strict application of central government control, that teachers themselves sometimes lose the plot. I got a good dose of this fear recently in discussion with one of my students. At the end of term, I am obliged to make myself available for consultation. While this sounds ponderous, it is often the most fulfilling part of teaching, because I can give feedback on a one to one level. In turn, I learn from my students what precisely is going on with their work.
However, I also learn things which make me despair. For example, a young female student of mine told me that a teacher of hers in secondary school had said that “women authors don’t write epic novels”.
“I beg your pardon?” I asked.
She said it again.
I wasn’t sure whether my head was going to explode or if I was going to yield to the swear words welling up in my throat. I settled for taking a deep breath.
I then informed her that her teacher was wrong; I told her the first example that popped into my head, namely that of Lebanese author Hanan al-Shakyh, who wrote a novel entitled “Beirut Blues”. While this novel reduces the war in Lebanon to a personal level, it is no less “epic” for that; indeed, it is all the more powerful because it brings the horror of war to a level which can be related to on an individual level. My student smiled in a reassuring way, but I wasn’t certain if that was for my benefit or due to her actual belief. But just as Mrs. Lee had encouraged me to open up my writing and Sister Jeanne d’Arc had given me a love of music, here was an example of teaching’s remarkable power being used for ill ends: who was that teacher to say that women can’t write epic novels? Who was he to say that my student couldn’t write one? Surely if such a barrier existed, it was his duty rather to say that it needed to be obliterated, not endured. Surely this is the point of all education: to eliminate barriers of ignorance and let the light of understanding and potential flood in.
Soon, Britain will have a change of government. I am extremely sceptical that the new lot (unless we get a Green government) will make academic pay any better. I don’t believe that they will fund the humanities properly. I certainly don’t believe they will make more places available. But what they can do, at no cost, is perhaps change the emphasis. The United States, bound as it is to standardised exams, needs this as well. The change begins with understanding that the teacher’s role is far more than helping students to become literate and numerate: those are important, but without the capacity to think, appreciate, and yes, enjoy, culture is lost, and the goal of achieving a society of self-actualised, responsible individuals stretches out of reach. I would like to be optimistic that such a shift is fated, and that sunshine is right around the corner; I don’t think so, not yet. Until then, I hope that my colleagues and I will do enough to keep the dream alive.