Saturday, March 12, 2011

Learning English Prose and Poetry in School.

After a gut wrenching week of arguing with a cousin over Indian politics I needed to relax. In some used book store I had bought Jerome K Jerome’s “Three men in a boat”. I had read an excerpt of “Three men in a boat” in my school English textbook. As I was enjoying the fine humor of Jerome I thought about how lucky I was to have studied in a Matriculation school. When I had to go to high school, Don Bosco, a Matriculation school, had just opened in Tanjore. Though I had secured admission in a school that subscribed to “State Board Syllabus” I went to the latter as Don Bosco, run by the Salesian Brothers had a reputation. It is not without reason the entire political class (Karunanidhi, Ramadoss etc) put their children in such schools while mouthing platitudes about virtues of studying in mother-tongue. When I look back at the curriculum I enjoyed in Matriculation school I am very happy about what I had a privilege to study. Matriculation syllabi struck a fine balance between crappy State Board syllabi and the much more demanding CBSE syllabi. That needs a separate blog by itself.
We had a wonderful book of poems. The “non-detailed” texts were so wonderfully interesting classics. The textbooks, especially my 10th grade textbook edited by R.S.Macnicol an English teacher at Madras Christian school (alma mater of M.K.Stalin) was a gem. I hope I got the name right. Just as I typed the sentence I thought why not google him. Boy am I not surprised. Yes I got it right. He is the one. Google yielded a fine article  [“A. J. Boyd, J. R. Macphail, R. S. Macnicol and G. C. Martin were the four pillars of the English Department at MCC in the early 1930s.”]. Reading that I am reminded of how my dad used to speak fondly of one Relton who taught English at St.Peters School in Tanjore. St.Peter’s school was the first to teach English to Asians, a 300+ year old school (older than America !!!!). The quality of English teachers took a nose dive in the 80’s chiefly due to the domination of Dravidian parties that promoted linguistic chauvinism and many other reasons.
I think it was in 7th grade that we studied “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe. Very coincidentally we also had to study William Cowper's  wonderful poem “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk”. I still remember the lines, not verbatim, “I am lord of the fowl and the brute alike, from the center all round to the sea, I am monarch of all I survey”. Little did we know that Alexander Selkirk was a true story and Defoe wrote his story based on Selkirk. 
Another non-detailed text was an abridged version of Baroness Orczy’s “Scarlet Pimpernel”. It centered around the French Revolution and the attempts of a British aristocrat to rescue his compatriots from the guillotine in France. Percy Blakeney conducted himself as a rich dilettante hiding his identity as the daring Scarlet Pimpernel. Yet again very unfortunately our English teacher, Maria Francis, did not give us some interesting sidelights on French revolution. Coming to think of it, we just studied it like we read Tamil potboilers. While our syllabi was rich our teachers lacked the ability to go beyond rote teaching. This is why studying in Don Bosco vs Antony’s mattered little in real terms when it came to how the students turned out.  While we read Scarlet Pimpernel our seniors had “Tale of Two cities”. I still remember Brother Lawrence (Brother is how those who were yet to be ordained priests were referred as) imitating Sydney Carter in a courtroom. Madam Defarge’s knitting, storming of the Bastille, Dickens’ own era in Britain etc were not even touched upon.
Poetry textbook was a real gem. Other than the complimentary nod to Sarojini Naidu in a horribly mediocre poem on secularism all the rest were gems from the finest literary traditions of English poetry. This textbook served us for 8th and 9th grade. Our principal Fr Joseph Fernandez, formerly principal of St.Bedes, had a pretty good command of the language but as poetry teacher he was not great. We were made to recite hundreds of lines without any appreciation of the poetry, the meanings were taught to us in a sundry manner. Poetry recitation was fun to see who went to detention class. I had a friend who would recite it flawlessly but so complete devoid of passion and at a speed that was so difficult to follow. The poems I still remember from those classes are “Daffodils” by Wordsworth, ‘solitude of Alexander selkirk’. Rudyard Kipling's immortal "if". Much later I was sad to learn how imperialist Kipling was. Kipling raised money for General Dyer (Jallianwala Bagh). Learning to recite Tennyson's lengthy "Brook" was a chore that made us lose sight of the immense beauty of that poem.How can I forget Sir Walter Scott's rousing nationalist poem "breathes there the man, with soul so dead" 
MacNicols textbook for 10th grade was a literary feast by itself. The choice of prose and poetry were just classy. The only Indian writer was Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru’s description of Gandhi’s emergence on the scene of India from his book ‘Discovery of India’ was an apt inclusion along with Rudyard Kipling, G.K.Chesteron’s letters to a son, Hilaire Belloc, Kenneth Graham etc. The first lesson was about Ulysses escaping from Cyclops’ cave. The poetry selection included Shelley’s “La Belle Dame sans merci”, Robert Browning’s poem with Napoleon as central character "Incident of the French Camp", James Shirley's "death the leveller"

Just as I hunted the online verses for the poems I paused for a moment on Browning's "Incident of the French Camp". The last lines really jolt me today. A wounded soldier comes to Napoleon. Napoleon says "you are wounded". Browning continues "
"Nay," the soldier's pride
Touched to the quick, he said:
"I'm killed, Sire!" And his chief beside,
Smiling the boy fell dead. "

One could analyze this richly with Tamil's "Purananooru". Ah if only our teachers were so good.

Above all the poems we learnt in 10th grade what can supersede John Milton's "On his Blindness". A poem that is considered a crowning jewel amongst sonnets was taught in the most pedestrian manner. What a sonnet? What profundity of Christian theology and personal faith, yet all was reduced to learning the lines so we could score in E.R.C (Explain with reference to context).

My 11th and 12th grade was in State board syllabus. The textbook was pure crap. Even the quality of what we were examined upon and the quality of questions posed in tests were a new benchmark for mediocrity.

When Karunanidhi single handedly destroyed the Matriculation stream under the guise of "equitable education" I mourned the loss of quality education. However let me state that today's NCERT textbooks (available online) also are mediocre. Men like Macnicol do not exist in syllabus committees in India. Not every student who passed through Don Bosco spoke good English or learned to enjoy poetry. I dont want to blame our teachers exceedingly. Teachers themselves are not trained properly to teach. When I was at McGraw Hill I used to browse their school textbooks that were kept of display in the conference rooms. Once I saw their teacher guide for 4th grade English. The teacher guide gives wonderful ideas on how to teach to children the accompanying textbook. With all the shortcomings at least the rigor of the curriculum gave those who wished to hone their skills a good playground.

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