Friday, January 19, 2007

"Clear Thinking"

The subject of the subject of “Clear Thinking” came up in a few comments on this thread at Larvatus Prodeo. Evidently, anyone who remembers studying “Clear Thinking” at school during the 50s, 60s or 70s went to Victorian high school, because one commenter[link] had never been taught the art of “Clear Thinking” in his high school years. From my memory of the subject, he didn’t miss much.

My first lessons in “Clear Thinking” came in form 5 at Greenfields High School. Our English teacher was one Mr O’Meara and when we saw his name on the timetable as our English teacher, a few of my classmates groaned. When I asked why, I was told that he was probably the most narrow-minded teacher in the school. At the age of seventeen, you’re very worldly wise in these matters but, though I trusted the judgement of my peers, I tried to keep a bit of an open mind and take Mr O’Meara as I found him.

Which wasn’t too bad, considering. Alright, he made no bones about being a Catholic, but so what? Not much at all, until the week of the Easter break, when Mr O’Meara told us (during a lesson on Richard III) that at this time of the year he liked to reflect on the sufferings of our Saviour, which he went on to describe in gory detail (he would have given Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ a big thumbs up for accuracy, if he’d lived long enough to see it) taking evident pleasure in the girls’ gasps of horror and disgust.

Forget that “not too bad considering” – he was a crap teacher. Out of the standard poetry anthology used by all the English teachers, the poets he chose to focus on were Shakespeare’s sonnets, Blake (songs of innocence and experience), Milton, Wordsworth and Gerard Manly Hopkins with heavy emphasis on the religious symbolism. Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress was in the book, but its obvious sexual innuendo was strictly out of bounds.

Worst of all, he very obviously played favourites. I first saw this in one of our “Clear Thinking” classes, where we were set the task of picking apart an old newspaper article on co-education. When he judged we’d had enough picking apart time, he looked around the class and picked out Squizzy Taylor (not his real name) to read out his answer.

Squizzy hadn’t agreed with the article’s argument that boys and girls should be educated in separate schools. He read out his attempt at a refutation, starting with the fact that some schools – like ours – were co-educational with no apparent adverse consequences. Mr O’Meara glared at him, asked: “So this is the Squizzy Taylor theory of education is it?” then proceeded to humiliate him further.

By the time O’Meara had finished demolishing Squizzy, by pointing out that a school is not the whole of society, but only one of its institutions, and that while the wider society might not be sex-segregated there might be jolly good reasons (never entered into, naturally) to have sex-segregated schools, I was thankful that I hadn’t been called on to read out my refutation of the article, because I thought it every bit as "weak" as Squizzy’s.

And that was the pattern in every “Clear Thinking” class for the whole year – a problem would be set up and discussed, or written about, then Mr O’Meara would deliver the definitive position. By the end of the year, I think he had most of the class convinced that they were too vague and muddle-headed to ever make sense of the world around them. He managed to do much the same with a lot of the literary texts too – don’t ever ask me to write any lit-crit on Catcher in the Rye – it will be hopelessly tainted with the definitive O’Meara reading which I learnt more or less by rote and paraphrased in the exam.

Still, if Mr O’Meara did nothing to build my capacity for independent thinking, he taught me a lot about spotting arseholes.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bantick of the Overwrought

And a column came directed from a viewpoint unexpected,
(And I think the same was written with a thumb-nail dipped in tar)