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(Apparently) Inappropriate quotations

25 Aug

Last week I was asked (i.e. told) to write a piece for the local paper, Gulf News.  The topic? Choose a suitably motivating educational quotation and write 400-500 words about it. 

Off I set, rummaging through my notebook of favourite quotations that I keep (don’t ask why) and came up with a few that I thought would be great.  And… they were all rejected.  Shocking, I know.  Judge for yourself:


Here is a lesson in creative writing.  First rule: Do not use semicolons.  They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. (Vonnegut)


You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts.  I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabrics, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt.  Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position. (Davies)


You can read subtexts even in a traffic sign that says ‘No littering’.  “Of course.  Catharist moralism.  The horror of fornication.” (Eco)


“What am I doing? I am raising my arm.  What is he doing? He is raising his arm…” It was like being a champion at tennis, and condemned to play with rabbits, as well as having always to get their wretched balls out of the net for them. (Fowles)


Human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when what we want is to move the stars to pity. (Flaubert)


A failure to attend to the qualitative semantics of a preposition can have tragic consequences.


Her younger self, disrespectful of books, had made a number of marks: underlinings, ticks in the margins, exclamations, multiple queries. (Rushdie)


He may have been equally surprised to know that he was speaking ‘grammar’, for example, or that he was pronouncing ‘phonemes’, of that he was producing ‘discourse’. (Thornbury)


So, in the end, I settled for a simpler little literary nugget from Frank O’Connor.  Below is the piece, mostly about my reservations with technology and learner autonomy.  I could easily argue against my own case, but I’ll leave that for another day (or for other people)


They were the type I had looked up to for years and I like looking up to people; it gives me a sense of direction.

 Frank O’Connor 1961, ‘An Only Child’


As sometimes (ok, quite often) happens to me, I giggled involuntarily on the metro while reading my kindle.  The reason?  The line above from Frank O’Connor’s excellent autobiography.  However, unlike most of the reading material which makes me laugh inappropriately in public, this one line stuck with me.  I’ll admit that I like a good pun, but what really got me thinking was the inherent truth in his statement and how it applies to what I do.

As an EFL teacher (English as a Foreign Language) who is reasonably active in my professional community, I am constantly being exposed to different ideas, beliefs, and methodologies regarding education.  One common trend these days seems to be to encourage learner autonomy; that is, the ability for learners to take control and responsibility of their own learning.  A noble goal indeed, but what does this mean for the teacher?  Skimming through conference schedules, this principle is most commonly embodied in terms of new technologies: “1001 ways for students use an iPad!”, “E-learning in the 23rd century!”, or “Flipping the classroom – let the students take control!”  Now, although I might sound like a grumpy old man, I’m actually a big fan of technology, especially when used judiciously in the classroom.  What does concern me though is one often ignored repercussion of maximum technological learner autonomy: the lack of educational role-models.

I may have been exaggerating, but some of my clearest memories from school are tied directly to inspirational teachers.  It’s not a stretch to say that my career choices stem directly from my interactions with my high school English and Music teachers.  I looked up to them, and greatly admired their passion, knowledge and work.  Because of them, I was exposed to a wealth of music and literature which profoundly changed my life for the better.  In a very real sense, I was dependent on them for input and guidance (the opposite of an autonomous learner), and as a result, I would argue, the narrowed focus of my studies greatly deepened my appreciation and knowledge of the subject matter.

Clearly, autonomous learning and amazing, influential teachers are not mutually exclusive, with young learners everywhere continuing to be inspired by their professors.  But perhaps in our zeal for all things new and shiny, we are neglecting a valuable human resource – the teacher as teacher.   Perhaps I’m just out of touch, but without teachers to provide O’Connor’s “sense of direction” in education, who will?  The internet? The media? You tube?  I would say, let’s keep promoting learner autonomy, but without forgetting to also provide figures to look up to.