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Congratulations SHS

am 0301 That is, to Sydney Boys Highs School and Sydney Girls High School, side by side since 1927-8, and this year celebrating 150 years service to education in NSW. Yes, I have a stake, as I went to Sydney High — there’s the evidence on the left — and indeed saw the 75th anniversary! I have also taught in both schools, though mainly at SBHS.

mine 009

 

See also My English teachers 1.

I should also mention that in another life this site was the Sydney Boys High School English and ESL Site. That does not mean the school endorses everything on it, of course, but I did begin this to support the English/ESL students I worked with from 2001 to 2005. I taught (on and off) at SBHS from 1985 to 2005.

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2008 in 1950s, boys education, nostalgia, reminiscences

 

My English teachers 5: Bill Maidment

I am not a great fan of the right-wing magazine Quadrant, particularly in recent years, but there are good things in it — the poetry, for example, and most things written by Neil McDonald, so it is frustrating to find the Quadrant site seems to have been hacked just as I tried to track down what Neil McDonald said about Bill Maidment in the March 2005 issue. All I have is this fragment on eNotes:

ON APRIL 4, 2005, the former Associate Professor of English at the University of Sydney, W.M. Maidment, died shortly after receiving chemotherapy. Bill was a major influence on nearly four generations of students, scholars, teachers, historians, writers and artists of all kinds. His special areas of research and teaching were eighteenth-century literature, seventeenth-century poetry and the early twentieth-century novel. But Maidment never wrote a line of film criticism–so why am I beginning a film column with a tribute to his life and achievements?

His wide-ranging…

If I were a student still or a full-time teacher, by the way, I would subscribe to eNotes; it looks very useful.

So I was sad to read of Bill Maidment’s passing. We have already seen how, according to Michael Wilding, Maidment was “one of the old guard, the unreconstructed” in the eyes of Professor Sam Goldberg back in the early 1960s, and he was indeed in that position during my Honours year in 1964.

Bill Maidment was an Andersonian:

Anderson retired from the Challis Chair [of Philosophy] in 1958 having educated some of the most influential philosophers of the second half of the 20th century. He died in July 1962.

“Anderson stood for everything to which the Christian Idealists had been opposed. That he was prepared to describe himself as a materialist, a positivist, an empiricist, a realist, was sufficiently startling, for in Australian academic philosophy these had been terms of abuse. But even more disconcerting was the fact that he did not fit into the picture which Australian Idealists had constructed of their opponents – as in the fortress at Singapore, their guns were pointing in the wrong direction.”…

Studying philosophy under John Anderson inspired many students to become professional philosophers. Although the most famous of these were John Passmore, David Armstrong, John Mackie and Eugene Kamenka there were many who were less well known. These include Perce Partridge, Jim Baker, Ruth Walker, Tom Rose, George Molnar, etc. Apart from these professional philosophers, there were many who took a major degree in philosophy under Anderson and went on to pursue careers in the academic and non academic workplace. These include Frank Fowler, Harry Eddy, Bill Morison, Harry Nicolson, Bill Maidment, Margaret Mackie and many others. A full list of the `Andersonians’ would run to several hundred.

See also John Anderson remembered by Emeritus Professor David Armstrong (2005):

He is, arguably, the most important philosopher who has worked in Australia. Certainly he was the most important in both the breadth and depth of influence. Among the philosophers who got their original intellectual formation from Anderson are John Passmore, John Mackie, A.J. (‘Jim’) Baker, David Stove and myself. There are lots more. But for every student who became a philosopher there were far, far, more in the law, in medicine, in journalism, in other academic disciplines, that were profoundly influenced by him. I am inclined to think that, especially in the thirties and forties of the last century, Anderson was the person who set the agenda, and set the tone, for intellectual discussion in Sydney.

Anderson had philosophical views on almost everything. He tried to carry through his realist and empiricist views through metaphysics (the general nature of what there is), logic, epistemology, morality, political philosophy, theory of culture, aesthetics: there hardly seemed any serious intellectual topic on which he did not have a ‘line’.

The line always involved a great deal of debunking, the critique of illusions was central to it. In this he resembled what have been called the ‘masters of suspicion’: Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. One interesting thing about his thought, though, was that, while arguing that these thinkers had important points to make, he argued that they were themselves to be suspected. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that there was only one thinker that he did not treat with much suspicion: himself. That was a weakness.

He found it hard to come to terms with what most philosophers learn to live with: that other philosophers do not wholly agree with them. In a subject where decision procedures are so difficult to find and agree upon, living with disagreement seems the only rational course.

But this critique of illusions, always based on the same realist and empiricist principles, applied over a very wide field, and, it has to said, by an extremely intelligent thinker, was very attractive to intelligent students (compare Socrates’ following among the youth of Athens.) Sydney was a provincial town then (perhaps still is?) and you could learn from him a critique that would carry you through a wide range of topics and give you an education of quite a wide sort. It was a wonderful way to be introduced to philosophy. It gave many, including myself, their intellectual formation…

In keeping with that, I remember being bemused in 1962, I think it was, when our Distinction group had a session we thought quite odd on “Theory of Criticism” — or that may have been 1964 in my Honours Year! (Senior moment!) What I do know is that no-one had ever asked us before if a literary work was in the same order of reality as a packet of cornflakes! It isn’t such a damned fool question as we first thought either.

He also questioned, with some irony at the time, the idea we rather hugged to our bosoms that students of English were bearers of civilisation. That of course correctly challenged the whole Matthew Arnold tradition, and even more pertinently Leavisism.  Was he himself not a fake, he asked, since he had never read Shakespeare’s King John? And didn’t the fact that there were all those engineering students out there who couldn’t care less about what the English Department was up to make you wonder whether they might have a point? (A touch unfair to some engineers I have met, but we knew what he meant.) He never told us THE answers either… But he did make us think.

Yes, he had a dry sense of humour too, and many a tale of the Sydney Push.

In my early years of English he lectured us on the eighteenth century novel, around 500 of us packed into the Wallace Theatre. One of Bill’s difficulties was a dreadful stammer which stress made worse. One lecture he just could not get the next word out, flushing and stressing for all to see. The audience broke into spontaneous applause. Thanking us for the vote of confidence he carried on at last, finishing the lecture without another stammer. This was one of the most moving moments I ever had at Sydney University, and I am sure Bill would have remembered it too.

Back to Goldberg as well as Maidment: there is a review in Australian Humanities Review of Andrew Riemer’s memoir Sandstone Gothic, which I read with interest, by Stephen Knight (1998).

Andrew Riemer relates how a clever young man from Budapest strolled slowly into the monstrous cave of the Sydney University English Department, to emerge some forty years later with his body bruised by Leavisites, hair singed by the breath of theorists, clothing ripped by urgent feminists.

The faith that sustained him was learnt on the hard benches of the old quad from donnish men and one prima donna, Thelma Herring. They instructed him in the dates, biographies, sources and rhyme schemes of the major English authors, a litany of fetishised fact which amounted, they thought, and Andrew was persuaded, to civilisation…

The Leavisite brigades from Melbourne moved in, but were driven off after a few year’s academic trench warfare. Then came more assaults on civilised scholarship, from Australian Literature led by the charming menace of Countess Kramer; other figures move in the gathering gloom of Andrew’s nightmare — theorists with cries far from wordless, feminists imposing rights (and a few lefts), the politically correct with their always incorrect demands, and worst of all those who insist on giving students wide choice, and so weaken the defences of Castle Canonical, that bastion of the best that was ever thought and footnoted.

It’s a sad story in that Andrew really felt and lived this melodramatic misery. The witty and cultivated man who joined the department six months ahead of me did indeed like others grow psychic scar tissue from the antics of clever, intelligent, but rarely sensible man Sam Goldberg. Sadder yet is that the Sydney department’s only response to the Leavisite assault was to recoil into unargued faith in the old scholarship school of civilisation, a system actually out of date even at Oxford by the mid 1930s, as Brian Doyle (of Cardiff) outlines in his excellent book English and Englishness.

Not only a curriculum turned to stone. This book is the longest complaint I’ve read since Piers Plowman, and not as well written: Andrew’s usually rather elegant footwork often becomes a shuffle of semi-cliché. The Latinate old dons would have called this a liber querulus; they weren’t always wrong.

But the book also suffers from what is left out. Andrew’s account of thirty teaching years at Sydney lacks almost all the colour and vigour, indeed the contribution to civilisation, made by that members of that department. Staff and student involvement in the Vietnam debates, the Women’s Course strike, the bustling development of new local voices in poetry and prose. Charismatic — and sometimes eccentric — teachers were at work like Bill Maidment, Bernard Martin, Terry Sturm, Terry Threadgold, Jim Tulip.

True, some of the department’s electricity was somewhat negative, and lively people could be repelled into other more positive spheres like David Malouf, Nick Enright, David Marr, Dorothy Porter. But publishing, reviewing and a whole range of cultural carry-on was enlivened by campus identities like Michael Wilding, Don Anderson, Rosemary Creswell, Judy Barbour. From Vadims to the Hotel London, English staff helped cultures grow, subsidised Frank Moorhouse’s champagne, foresaw the future over flounder sandwiches at the Forest Lodge…

Ah, the Forest Lodge! I lived next door to it for a year in 1987! Saw a bit of it too a decade earlier when I was working at Sydney U myself…

Update

The problem with the Quadrant site being fixed, I have published more details about Bill Maidment taken from Neil McDonald’s essay.

 

To Sir, With Love

This was YouTubed by Canadian Barbara Gilmour.

Well that takes me back.

 

Recycle 4: from March 2006

I have been rereading Wuthering Heights in the excellent revised Penguin Classics edition of 2003. What a pleasure it is! My rereading has been prompted by my little bit of private tuition, a girl doing the HSC Advanced English course. It so happens, as I told her much to her amazement, that I first read Wuthering Heights for my Leaving Certificate in 1959 where, though I am not knocking “Rockjaw” Smith our excellent English teacher, the interpretive skills required were minimal really: basically just the oversimplified schematic interpretation by Lord David Cecil in Early Victorian Novelists plus a smidgin of Arnold Kettle’s somewhat Marxist, and very boring, analysis, plus whatever crib one could lay one’s hands on. Much more is expected of my current HSC student, in fact I would say perhaps too much.

Back in 1959 our ENTIRE course was: 1) Wuthering Heights; 2) Julius Caesar; 3) a handful of poems from a standard anthology; 4) a handful of essays from Bacon to Edwardian times, some of them splendid, many of them pointless; 5) Douglas Stewart’s The Fire on the Snow, a radio play about Scott of the Antarctic. Good too, that play, I still think.

Contrast 2006: Coleridge; Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; Wuthering Heights; Frontline. But that’s not all, as the Coleridge is matched with study of a range of set and student-selected texts; similarly Frontline is not the sole study there, but the student must also find other texts that explore truth and representation in some way or another.

Dumbed down? Pull the other one! In fact I think my student has to work much harder than we did in 1959. I hope she ends up being as glad to have studied Wuthering Heights as I have been.**

Note too that when comparing present and past courses, the best comparison is between the Advanced course and the older course, as retention rates become very significant. “The student retention rate has increased from around 35 per cent in the early 1980s to over 70 per cent today.” In 1959 it was probably below 30% — we were elite students doing an elite course with university — and there were only three of them in NSW — very much in mind. The nearest I could get to a retention rate for 1959 was a 1960 figure for all of Australia on this PDF file — 12% of 17-year-olds* were in school in Australia in 1960.

* See comments. It is true that in 1959 NSW had five-year high schools. In my own cohort we ranged from 15 (Ted Oliver: brilliant!) to 19 when we sat for the leaving. I was 16; maybe half were 17. Now the HSC is usually done at 17-18, with most being 18.

2 Responses to “Penguin Classics: Wuthering Heights”

  1. 1 Marcel Proust May 5th, 2006 at 11:48 pm

    Haloscan 16 March 2006

    That’s a good attempt to obtain a retention figure, but as NSW in those days only had 5 years of secondary education, the “standard” age for the final year must have been 16. Presumably the introduction of the Wyndham scheme (1967 was the first year of six-year secondary education) accounts for a large part of the jump in the percentage between 1966 and 1968 shown in your source.

  2. 2 Owner May 5th, 2006 at 11:50 pm

    Haloscan 16 March 2006

    I wish I had kept my copy of the Wyndham Report; I think it was all in there. I agree about the five-year high school; I was 16 myself when I did the Leaving. I seem to remember the retention rate was somewhere around 25%. Even at Sydney Boys High where it is now close to 100% (actually more like 110% due to add-ons in Year 11) we went from 206 in 1955 to 143 in that cohort’s final year of 1959.

 

 

** NOTE October 2007. She did end up loving Wuthering Heights and got a good result in the HSC.

 

Another Groundhog Day moment

Listening to much that passes for bright ideas in education today — our Prime Minister in the Election Debate being but the most recent example — one could be forgiven for thinking that we are in a time warp. Here is a 1940s view:

My grandfather was on top of these debates from 1906 on. He favoured and practised an eclectic, undogmatic approach. Most good teachers do. Education ministers and bureaucrats are rarely so wise, especially when an election is in the wind. Right-wing talkback hosts and newspaper columnists are often even less wise.

Groundhog Day!

NOTE

Colour changes here are in response to the eyesight problems of a regular reader. 🙂

 
1 Comment

Posted by on October 24, 2007 in curriculum, nostalgia, teaching

 

My English teachers 1

Fifty years ago my English teacher was a Mr Harrison. He could claim just enough eccentricity, often a quality in an inspiring teacher, as he was famous for weaving and making his own suits. What he was especially good at was reading aloud. I still remember his reading of The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico as particularly magic. In my own teaching career there have been times, I like to think, when inspired by Mr Harrison’s memory I too have held a class captive by reading something or other. This has been especially valuable with classes who are not all that good at reading. I can remember doing things like serialising novels: Robbery Under Arms and Kidnapped come to mind, not to mention a Macbeth where I took all the parts for a scene or two, and it was only when in a Wollongong HSC class I began to read parts of Patrick White’s The Tree of Man aloud that I saw for myself how good it in fact is! I would urge all English teachers to develop this old-fashioned skill.

In senior years my teacher was Mr Smith, or “Rockjaw”. Younger than Mr Harrison, and of the belief that Rugby Union is “poetry in motion”, he did manage to stimulate much interest in the texts we had to study even if his dramatic skills were not as good as Mr Harrison’s. He did give us a good grounding, for those times, in critical reading; he rubbished me at one time for suggesting that film might be worth studying! Called me “Wordy Whitfield” too on occasion. I wonder why?

 

How to maintain classroom discipline (1947)

Not all of it is irrelevant sixty years later… Groundhog Day! Really! To be honest, I have been Mr Grimes I as well as Mr Grimes II — but never in Maths, of course.