Light a fire: The teachers who inspired me

I’ve always been an awkward learner. As a kid, when others blazed a trail I’d always hold back, a little uncertain, looking around for a bit of encouragement. I was never really sure of what I could do, never confident of my grasp of anything. Even now, I’m an unconfident learner. That’s why, I think, I’ve always needed good teachers – and I’ve been lucky, I’ve had a few, as an adult at least. I’ve always found that while those who can, do, not many of those who can are also able to teach it – and those who can teach what they know, and do it really well (the ones that connect with and inspire you), are pretty special.

I had a fairly bad time of it at school, partly because of my school (which was at the crappy end of bloody awful), partly because of persistent bullying, which went on unchecked for years, and which led to me dedicating the final years of my compulsory education to the less-than-noble art of bunking off. I didn’t get any qualifications because I decided not to sit any exams. I left school at 16 and went straight on the dole. I didn’t think much of myself, didn’t think I could do anything, but I did love reading and knew the books I read were different to the ones everyone else I knew read (if, indeed, they did read, which generally they didn’t). I had a vague idea that I might want to study English, or write, or do something literary, maybe become a poet.

The government didn’t want me to stay on the dole (the thought of it made them – and the Daily Mail – very angry) and I was soon on a YTS (Youth Training Scheme, for younger readers) – a sort of government-subsidised child labour scheme, which, as it turned out, involved a lot of sitting around, a bit of making the tea and the occasional visit to a classroom (more sitting around but in a different room). And, because there were no real jobs to be had, as soon as the scheme finished we were all back on the dole.

It was around that time I decided I wanted to be a journalist (I still do). I enrolled at my local technical college (now St Helens College), taking the courses I needed to get onto a training course at Preston Poly (now the University of Central Lancashire) – four GCSEs, two A-levels, including one in English Language, taken over the course of a year. It was on that English course that I encountered – or, at least, noticed – good teaching for the first time. The tutor – her name was Carol Urbanowicz – made a huge impression on me. She dressed differently to most of the people I knew – she made me think of the people in the books I liked (I had set myself a challenge of reading one Penguin Modern Classic – those beautiful orange-spined little books – each week) – and she thought and talked differently too. She was interested in what the students had to say and made a real effort to engage us. She asked me what I thought about this or that and listened while I answered. She liked my writing (there was a lot of course work), encouraged me to do more. I started to think there was something I might be good at. And I worked hard, really hard, on that course. I got an A (the only student that year who did). I never really told Carol but that course changed things for me. I realised that if I concentrated, if I was passionate about something, I could do things, I could get good at something.

I got on my course and I got my start in journalism (this was back in the day when working-class kids could still access a profession and the Guardian still occasionally employed journalists who hadn’t been to public school and Oxbridge). I worked for a couple of papers and really liked it but I always had university at the back of my mind. I thought it was something I could have a good go at. I didn’t have the best qualifications though. My grades at college were a bit mixed. But I applied through UCAS to a few places, really picked at random (I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to study or where). All but one turned me down. The one that didn’t was Cardiff University, where I’d applied to do philosophy. I was asked down for an interview and it was there I met Barry Wilkins. I was incredibly nervous. No-one in my family had been to university and it was my first time on a university campus. I was struck by his little room, crammed with books and papers, not only on the shelves, but piled on the floor. I loved the disorderliness of it, the wonderful musty smell. I had no idea what the interview would consist in. He asked me what I liked to read and we talked about Milan Kundera. He asked me what I thought of ‘the idea of the unconscious’ and we talked about Freud and Bruno Bettleheim. I felt an immediate affinity, and when I was offered a place I jumped at it.

Barry was my tutor. He taught the history of political philosophy, Marx especially. But it was Barry’s pastoral care that was the most remarkable part of his work as a teacher. He took real interest in his students, in their wider lives as well as their academic lives. He inspired and encouraged. He resisted the treadmill. He made sure he saw all of his students, really saw them, and engaged with them too. He made you feel he was really interested in what you were doing. And it wasn’t just me; other former students of Barry’s have told me the same thing. His commitment to his students and to the principle of pastoral care was remarkable. He was invigilator of one of my finals exams. I was answering a question about Machiavelli, speedily regurgitating an essay I’d written some months before. ‘You’re off to a good start, Paul,’ he said, as he passed. I laughed. And straight away I calmed down, got a bit of perspective, and thought about the question. It made a difference.

Both Barry and Carol, in their different ways, inspired me and made me see the world, and myself, differently. I’m sure I am not alone. Many of us, at some stage in our life, have met someone who inspired us, challenged us to do better or made us look at the world in a different way. I guess what they had in common was an ability to listen, to appreciate. They both took their students seriously; both saw education as a shared endeavour, a joint venture in which student and teacher met as equals. Encountering that for the first time, as a young adult, was really remarkable and inspiring. But that’s just what teachers do, isn’t it? They light a fire.

‘We mustn’t assume people aren’t interested in politics’

As Tony Benn publishes the final instalment of his diaries, I thought I would republish this interview, which I did with Benn for Adults Learning in autumn 2007, some six years after he left parliament ‘to devote more time to politics’. We met, over a flask of tea, in the basement of his house, a spartan space crammed with papers and cassette tapes. He told me that he now saw himself as a sort of ‘untrained classroom assistant to the nation’, encouraging people to take charge of their own political destinies, and talked about his appreciation of the value of adult eductaion and its role in empowering communities and supporting democracy

When he speaks at public meetings Tony Benn likes to leave plenty of time for discussion. ‘I have heard myself speak before,’ he tells audiences. It is a typical remark from a man who believes he has something to learn from everybody he meets. Little wonder then that the political idea he considers most revolutionary is not socialism but democracy. Democracy, he says, ‘transfers power from the market place to the polling station, from the wallet to the ballot, from the king to the subjects’, which is why, of course, nobody in power much cares for it. Benn is deeply sceptical of talk about public apathy and the so-called ‘democratic deficit’. For him, democracy is not only, or even principally, about what happens in polling stations every four or five years. It is about what people do and say where they live and work. ‘We mustn’t assume that people who do these things locally aren’t interested in politics because politics is about that,’ Benn says. ‘Have you got a house? Have you got a job? Have you got a good income? Have you got a good education? Have you got good health? Am I employed? If I’m old am I treated with dignity? That’s what communities are interested in.’ Six years after leaving the House of Commons ‘to devote more time to politics’, Benn’s faith in people’s capacity to think for and govern themselves is as strong as ever. Education, whether it takes place in the classroom, at public meetings or on demonstrations, is ‘fundamental’ in helping people turn their ideas and passions into change, and, for Benn, a ‘broadly based lifelong educational system is the main life-force of a working democracy’. The loss of one million adults from publicly funded provision over the past two years suggests, he says, ‘a total misunderstanding of the function of education in the world in which we live’.

Benn’s appreciation of the value of adult education has roots in two places: in the ‘dissenting tradition’ in which his parents raised him and in the work of his late wife, Caroline, who taught in further education until she was 70 and campaigned actively and effectively in the cause of comprehensive education. Adult education was her ‘great passion’, he says. ‘She taught at the Open University and then at the local college. Even when she was very ill, she wouldn’t give up. I go to some of the classes she used to teach because they ask me to come back. And to go to a class with an age range of 80 to 18, people doing courses quite unrelated to the way they earn their living, it’s just so exciting.’ Education for older learners is a particular passion. ‘I suppose it must have always been true that old people got a bit out of date, but this is the first generation where the young know more than their parents and grandparents.’ Learning, he believes, is becoming obsolete at a far greater rate than ever before. But adult education is not just about learning how to use a mobile phone. ‘It’s essential to thinking things out and understanding them. The turning point in my life was when I realised this extremely simple fact: I get up at seven o’clock each morning and I go to bed about midnight and I learn something new every day. And every day two billion people in the world learn something new, so when I go to bed at night I know less of what there is to be known than when I got up that morning. When I go to universities I always say, “When you leave here you’ll be relatively more ignorant than when you came”. The teachers look horrified but it’s true. The purpose of education is to allow you to discover what is known and then to think about it. And that’s the role of adult education.’

Benn shows me a quote from Gerard Winstanley, the seventeenth century activist and leading light of the Diggers movement, which laid claim to common land in pursuit of the ‘levelling of all estates’:

In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Bird, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation: for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another. Every single man, Male and Female, is a perfect Creature of himself; and the same Spirit that made the Globe, dwells in man to govern the Globe; so that the flesh of man being subject to Reason, his Maker, hath him to be his Teacher and Ruler with himself, therefore needs not run abroad after any Teacher and Ruler without him, for he needs not that any man should teach him.

This, says Benn, is a secular statement of the religious philosophy imparted to him by his mother, Margaret, a Congregationalist who rejected the Church of England because she believed it discriminated against women. ‘I was brought up on the Bible by my mother who said something I’ve never forgotten, and it’s more meaningful as I get older: “The Bible is the story of the conflict between the kings who had power and the prophets who preached righteousness”. She taught me to support the prophets against the kings. It’s got me into a lot of trouble.’ Benn’s father too was a Congregationalist, and his grandfather a Congregationalist minister. It left its mark. ‘The principle of Congregationalism, as I understand it, is very simple. It’s that everyone has a hotline to the almighty. You do not need a bishop or a priest to help you. It’s what they call the “priesthood of all believers”. It’s a religious idea but it built in the idea that, actually, everyone is quite capable of reaching their own view. It was combined with other ideas which I learned from my dad. “Dare to be a Daniel”, he said. “Dare to stand alone/Dare to have a purpose firm/Dare to make it known”. Independence of thought and independence of speech.’

The ‘revolutionary idea’ at the heart of his parents’ beliefs was that ‘people have a capacity within themselves to reach their own view’. It is, says Benn, ‘a very dangerous idea’, because ‘it undermines authority and challenges everything. It is the basis of a dissenting tradition but also it’s the whole basis of the idea that we are geniuses in ourselves and the purpose of education is to develop it, not just at the beginning of life but throughout life.’ The idea continues to inform his work. In his recent tour of public meetings – he has attended 1,200 since ‘retiring’ from politics – he encouraged audience members to consider five questions which should be put to any powerful person: ‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?’ But he isn’t interested in lecturing people. It is the interaction of public meetings, so removed from modern politics’ obsession with presentation, which interests him. The events are educational, not only for the many thousands who turn out – the meetings are invariably sold out – but for Benn himself. In fact, every meeting or demonstration, every train or cab journey, is an opportunity to learn something new. ‘I learn almost everything by listening,’ Benn says. ‘I listen to everybody because I find what they say is interesting, and what is confirmed – and I’ve suspected it for a long time – is that most people are more interesting than important people. I think of all the cab drivers I talk to, people I meet on the train, people I meet in the street, people who put a question, with tremendous imagination and knowledge behind it. I don’t always agree with it but I think the whole political class, the media, do underestimate everybody’s intelligence. I think the spin-doctors underestimate it. All that talent is there and you wonder why it can’t be encouraged and helped to form and develop through adult education, even if it is only for human satisfaction, because that’s not a bad objective.’

What about the people who say ‘Why should we pay for someone to do gardening classes or flower arranging?’ Benn has a ready answer: ‘What if you don’t have children, why should you pay for education? If you’ve never had a fire, why should you pay for the fire brigade? If you’ve never had a burglary why should you pay for the police? If you oppose the war why do you have to pay for the bloody thing? That argument is a very, very narrow one. We are a community and just as the community benefits from people’s health being kept at a high level so we all benefit from the educational level of people being high.’ That means doing more than training young people for work. ‘The idea that it is also about the discovery of talent in people that has been missed when they were young is something that seems to be ignored,’ Benn says. ‘I remember once making a joke, a very dangerous thing to do in politics. I went to Exeter University and I said: “I’m going to introduce an education discrimination bill. At the age of 30 a policeman will come to your house and remove all your qualifications, and it will be a criminal offence to disclose them to anybody, on the ground that if you haven’t learned something new by 30 the diploma on the wall will be of no use to you anyway”. They were terrified. They thought I was serious but the point I was making was that some people can get a degree and make very little contribution later in life, whereas many people are natural long learners.’ Benn is a believer in the old adage: ‘knowledge is power’. ‘If you know more, you’re in a better position than somebody who doesn’t. Whereas other people were taught to obey the king and the landlord and the priest, people in the dissenting tradition would feel much more confident and that makes them very difficult to deal with. That’s why I don’t think really the establishment has every wanted, really, an educated population.’

What might give embattled adult educators some hope is the ‘long and sometimes bloody’ progress of revolutionary ideas that have ‘got through in the end’. It is, says Benn, a question of government priorities. ‘How did women get the vote? They locked up the suffragettes. They went on hunger strike. They were forcibly fed. The Prime Minister said in 1911, 14 years before I was born, that if women get the vote it will undermine parliamentary democracy. How did Apartheid end? How did anything happen? Swampy used to be arrested for causing trouble and now the Prime Minister talks like Swampy. Education and campaigning does change things. Once you believe that you won’t change anything then you don’t try and it doesn’t change.’ Those in power, Benn believes, have an interest in spreading apathy. ‘If people really were apathetic there would be no challenges to what they do,’ he says. ‘They do spread pessimism. It’s very easy if you allow them to do it to you to get discouraged and you mustn’t get discouraged. Hope is the fuel of progress and fear and pessimism are a prison in which you confine yourself.’ Benn’s impression from talking to ‘ordinary’ people is that they are angry and mistrustful, both highly political things to feel, but with no obvious purchase in what he sees as an emerging one-party state ‘where everybody agrees’.

‘Nobody in power likes democracy,’ Benn says. ‘The Pope doesn’t allow Catholics to elect the pope, Stalin didn’t allow the Communist Party to elect the leader, the Prime Minister appoints the Archbishop of Canterbury. What democracy does is to create circumstances in which poorer people who don’t have resources can buy with their vote schools, hospitals, universities and so on. The whole welfare state is a product of democracy. The establishment doesn’t like it but rather than have bloodshed they will concede it. Then, when the pressure is off, they will try to recapture the territory they have lost.’ Every generation, Benn thinks, is obliged to fight the same battles ‘again and again’. ‘There is no victory and no defeat. This idea that peace, justice and socialism are a railway station and if you catch a train driven by the right driver you’ll get there, it’s a complete illusion. We all live in a sliver of a sliver of a sliver of time but because of language we have the opportunity of learning from the past. You have to struggle for everything because there will always be people who want to take it away for their own reasons, because it makes them money or it gives them power or domination. And I think that is the thing that I’ve really learned from it all, that what happens depends on what you do. If you don’t do anything nothing will happen, if you do, something will.’

Teachers, Benn believes, have a key role to play in creating conditions for change. ‘When I look back on history, kings, emperors, dictators, prime ministers and presidents come and go; the people you remember are the people who left a legacy of teaching: Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Galileo, Freud, Darwin, Marx. Whereas a leader has a torch and points it down and says “Follow me”, a teacher fires a pyrotechnic into the sky, like fireworks, and all of a sudden you can see for a second where you are, where you’ve come from, what the dangers are. That’s another reason why teaching is so important because the only real legacy is not “my great achievements”, it is what, if anything, you have done in your life that helps people to deal with their problems and you hear about later. That’s why we remember all the great religious leaders. And they all said the same thing anyway: treat other people as you’d like to be treated yourself.’ Teachers, Benn argues, pose a threat to the dictatorships of the world. ‘Education challenges authority. Authority says, “Do what I say”. The educated man says: “Half a minute, why? Why not do this?”’ Once we have learned what needs to be done, he says, we should set about doing it ourselves and not wait for ‘a leader on a white horse’ to gallop onto stage and solve our problems.

Democracy, according to Benn, demands not only freedom of information and the knowledge of how to access it, but also that people’s talents and capacities are recognised. But a frightened, demoralised populace is easier to control, he argues, and that is why adult education is unlikely ever to win the support of the powerful. ‘They like to divide us – men, women, black, white, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, clever, not clever – and to demoralise us: “You failed the 11-plus and that’s really the end for you”. You’ve been told at 11 you’re a failure. And they make us cynical: “Oh, they’re all the same”. Therefore, if you are going to make progress you have to not be frightened, not be demoralised, not be divided, not be cynical. And, on the whole, education, where you meet with different backgrounds and you argue things out, is a way of giving all those qualities.’ The purpose of education, Benn argues, should be ‘to discover the genius that is in everybody’, not just when they are young but later on too. ‘If you do that people will enjoy it because they are appreciated. The greatest quality of all – and teachers can excel in it – is encouragement. If somebody tells you that you are doing a brilliant job you walk ten feet tall, and it’s the same with me. The purpose of life, particularly among older people, is to encourage, and I like to think of myself as an untrained classroom assistant to the nation about what’s going on, why and what they can do about it.’


‘The important thing is to keep the tradition going’

I keep returning to a book I first read a couple of years ago after coming across this recommendation by Stephen Elliott.

The book is Stoner by John Williams. It tells the outwardly uneventful story of the life of a not particularly distinguished tutor at an American university. William Stoner, the novel tells us, was raised by poor parents on a small farm in Missouri in the early 1890s. Aged 19 he is sent away to university to study agriculture and while there discovers a love of literature, in pursuit of which he writes a book and becomes an assistant professor. Williams tells us at the start of the book that:

during the height of World War I [Stoner] received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness…

In the course of his (we are forewarned) unexceptional life, Stoner marries – unhappily – and brings into the world a beloved daughter whose childhood becomes a casualty of the warring disintegration of his marriage. A bitter common room dispute prevents him from rising higher in his career and, while an affair with a doctoral student brings him joy, it is not allowed to last.

It will be obvious from this that Stoner is not a particularly happy book. But the outward facts do not convey the power of a novel that manages, in a really profound way, to be a story of hope and transformation. It is a brilliant book, utterly compelling and written with an astonishing delicacy and intensity. Not surprisingly, it has won a small but passionate band of champions whose enthusiasm has kept a neglected work in print. Lately, the book has been getting something like the critical attention it deserves, and quite a few words of appreciation have been written about it (a few excellent pieces are available online and are well worth searching out – this is one of the best). I won’t presume to add too many more words to this list but I would like to draw out a couple of aspects of the novel which, for me, as someone working in the field of education, are particularly meaningful.

The first is the vision of the university conveyed by Williams. For all of the in-fighting and small-mindedness of campus life described (not inaccurately) by Williams, Stoner remains steadfastly committed to the idea of the university as a disinterested, safe space, free from utilitarian pressures, in which one can pursue one’s interests and curiosities and, indeed, discover what those interests and curiosities might be. This is the experience of Stoner whose life is transformed by his exposure to English literature – he experiences ‘an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put into words’ – and by what he finds to be the first stirrings of a lifelong love of learning. People come by their sense of who they are and what they want to do gradually and at different points in their lives. Like many of us, Stoner’s sense of identity emerges slowly. Without the space offered by university life he would never have found his vocation, and he is prepared to defend it, refusing to compromise his academic standards and allow a lazy, pretentious student to graduate his course, despite pressure from his head of department and despite knowing that his refusal will cost him his career.

Stoner sees the university as a place of ‘security and serenity’ which has to be protected against the forces which drive change through the rest of the world. He would not have understood today’s attempts to appraise what universities do in economic terms, less still the wisdom of introducing a ‘market’ in higher education. But he would, I imagine, have been sympathetic to the sort of vision set out in the Robbins Report of 1963. Universities, Robbins argued, must not simply be about ‘instruction in skills’ but must also promote the ‘general powers of the mind’ in order to produce ‘not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women’. Stoner’s transformation could not have taken place in an institution dedicated to ‘mere’ specialism (where he would have had little choice but to follow the narrow and well-trodden path working-class youngsters continue to tread, denied the sort of rounded, general education their wealthier peers take for granted). With the notion of a liberal arts education, empowering individuals with broad knowledge and understanding as well as job-ready skills, under threat in institutions around the world, it is worth reminding ourselves of its power to transform lives – as well as of how diminished we would be without it. It should not be the preserve of the already privileged.

The second aspect of the novel I wish to mention concerns Stoner’s vocation as a teacher. In the course of the novel, Stoner comes to realise that his work, his life, for all its apparent frustration and seeming futility, has meaning and value, and that this meaning and value reside in his contribution to the civilising tradition of liberal education. The passages in which Williams describes this realisation are among the most luminous in the book. Stoner comes to love what he does, to define himself by it, and through the patient, modest application of his skill as a teacher, comes to understand both it and himself. Through his devotion to his work he finds a way of putting himself ‘into a kind of order’, of appreciating not only the significance of his work but also its place in a larger tradition, held together, Williams (in a later interview) suggests, by love:

It’s the love of the thing that’s essential. And if you love something, you’re going to understand it. And if you understand it, you’re going to learn a lot … you never know all the results of what you do. I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You’ve got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilisation.

Stoner is, perhaps above all, about a man’s love of his work, and the importance of keeping faith in that work, and the tradition of which it is a part, even when other things fall apart and the world sees no value in what you do. Though the many blows borne by Stoner in the course of the book make it, in places, a difficult read (the passages which describe the disintegration of his relationship with his daughter are terribly painful), Williams succeeds brilliantly in conveying the worth of a life lived honestly and with conviction, though, to others, it seemed a life of little or no account. In the end, Stoner emerges triumphant – though it is not a triumph everyone will recognise – his quiet integrity intact, his care for and dedication to his work vindicated.

There is much to love and admire in John Williams’ book, not least its expression of solidarity with those stoic folk who work quietly and with integrity at their jobs in spite of the indifference, even hostility, of the world. It is arguable how well the novel would work had Stoner been, say, a librarian, a nurse or a youth worker, but the choice of teacher as his profession is interesting and resonates strongly with me. Perhaps this is because many of those who now teach in higher education feel the values they bring to their work are under threat. Williams’ message, however, is broader. He tells us that, whatever the view of the wider world, by keeping on and resisting the desire to compromise or to devalue the standards of one’s profession, it’s possible to find dignity, satisfaction and meaning in one’s work. Stoner, Williams considers, is a ‘real hero’ because while his defence of the values he believes in does not make him happy, and, indeed, brings him into conflict with the world, he continues to defend them because he believes they are right.