Sunday, February 20, 2011

Allan Peachey: The Joy of Reading

I have just had a splendid summer reading. In fact for me being in Wellington for so much of the year is only made bearable by the access that I have, as an MP, to the General Assembly Library. It is my favourite place in the parliamentary complex. I doubt that any MP makes more use of it than I do, not only for research, but also for access to all of the books that I want to read in a year. I have already compiled the list of books that I want to read this year and the Library has already begun to source them for me. After all, a bloke has to keep his mind alert during those long dreary hours that a MP is required to sit in the Chamber while socialist drivel fills the air. And a cynic might say “and not from just one party either!”

To lose oneself in a well-researched, intelligently written book can be like an escape to heaven. Many a night I reflect on what Winston Churchill said:

“Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance and the gospel of envy. Its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.”

Thank you to my parents for teaching me to read. Thank you to those school teachers who set me interesting books to read, who challenged me on what I was reading, who discussed my reading with me, and who aroused my interest in all sorts of topics. Thank you for saving me from death by boredom on the floor of the Chamber of the House of Representatives.

Let me warm to my theme by quoting from my 2005 book “What’s up with our Schools?”

“Mr McConnell taught me English for three years in a row. (He was also my French teacher.) When I took English at school the subject hadn’t been ripped apart by the introduction of the thematic study — feminism, racism or whatever other -ism comes to mind - that is so prevalent today. We studied the great literary works in their entirety: that meant things like plot, structure, setting and, above all else (for me anyway), character. In my seventh-form year, while studying Shakespeare’s Othello, I was required to study the character of Iago. If I recall correctly the essay was titled ‘lago: A Study in Motiveless Malignancy’. The topic fascinated me as I delved deeper and deeper into lago and the other characters in the play. Even today I have no idea how that would fit into ‘themes’ but I learned a huge amount about character. I am very keen to see a major revision of the English curriculum to give much greater emphasis to great literary traditions and to the basics of expression, including grammar and spelling — fewer of the -isms, apart from realism, which could do with a boost.

There is something else that Mr McConnell did for me; something that all good English teachers do. He encouraged reading. One holiday I received a parcel in the mail from Mr McConnell. It was a copy of the Leon Uris book, Exodus, with the instruction that I read it over the holidays. I did and loved every page of it but, more importantly, it opened up a whole new world of books and reading to me. That has stayed with me ever since.

Mr McConnell could never have guessed that 30 years after he first taught me he would still be influencing me in the way I appoint teachers to Rangitoto College. Every applicant that I interview for an English-teaching position has to be able to talk about Shakespeare’s plays and satisfy me that they have a passion for literature. And they have to be able to tell me how they will encourage boys and girls to read. The best English teachers read a lot; they also share their reading and their books with their colleagues and their students. The advice that I give to any student who wants to be a teacher of English is that they go away and get a decent university degree in English literature. Too many teacher trainees wanting to teach English no longer have sufficient depth in their study of the subject.”

I wrote that in 2004 and Random House published it in 2005. In the six years since then I have not changed my view in any way. Incidentally, I last saw Mr McConnell (and notice I still call him Mr O’Connell) on my last day of school at the end of 1967 until.... a year or so ago. I was the guest of Middleton Grange School in Christchurch, from which it had transpired that Mr McConnell had recently retired after years of teaching at the school. I gave an address to the school community, from memory on schooling, and values, and Mr McConnell was in the audience. To be able to shake his hand and acknowledge to his own community how as a school teacher and as a person of character he had influenced my life is one of my treasured memories of being an MP. Great school teachers leave their mark in so many ways that they never imagine, and for much longer than they ever imagine.

But back to Parliament and to what I see is one of the great weaknesses of how we have governed our country in recent years. The Debating Chamber is no longer a debating chamber. Too few MPs today genuinely debate. I love high level debate, where you listen to what the other side are saying, think about the philosophy that lies behind what is being said and then when your turn comes to speak to rebut that philosophy and put up your own. That sort of debate is to me at the very essence of the battle of ideas in a democratic society and a key to the protection and indeed the advance of freedom. And that is the sort of debater that I try to be. There are too few of us left in the House of Representatives. Too few of us who can get on our feet, debate without reading a written speech and do it confidently (and sometimes with a bit of humour) because we have an underlying philosophy and underlying values and beliefs that we adhere to consistently and to which we can link the great and not so great issues of the day.

For too many MPs the Debating Chamber is somewhere to deliver a pre-prepared speech, read word by word from notes and often written by researchers. A couple of the minor parties in particular are notorious for this. It makes for boredom and avoids engaging one’s opponents on the differences that exist between the ways that various political parties think about New Zealand. And then there are those MPs who have little knowledge, less wisdom and hide it with personal abuse. Such members make no contribution at all to the exchanges of ideas that are necessary for a free society. If anything, of course, they are a threat to free thinking.

And how have we reached this state in our governance? I would suggest that in part it is because we have moved away from the type of schooling system and curriculum that I have described above in the quoted section from “What’s up with our Schools”? MPs who were in the House in pre-MMP days tell me that the Chamber has become much less a forum for debate and much more a place in which to read a written speech since the introduction of MMP. And they particularly blame the small parties for that. I see nothing that would lead me to disagree with that observation.

And where did I learn to debate? From a committed school teacher of course. Indeed, do they still teach debating in schools? I am sure they do but it must be very difficult with so much political sensitivity imposed to restrict independent thought and deny the application of reason and evidence to the decision-making process. How many of you saw Deborah Coddington in the “Sunday Herald” quoting Mike Moore:

“If you control the vocabulary, you control the debate. Control the debate and you control the outcome.”

Thank heavens for books, libraries and for the ability to read!


Anonymous said...

Yes Allan, the joy of reading is surely something which we should try to develop in every child. As a former primary teacher I tried to develop this in my pupils.

It was a disappointment to me that successive governments did not provide proper staffing for
primary school libraries. In two schools I was
the teacher librarian but the care of the library had to take second place to my full time class teaching job. No one in the school had a proper knowledge of just what the library contained and often we would be told to make hasty decisions of new purchases only to find later that we already has copies of the new books.

I share your reservations about the "new" approaches to teaching Reading and Language.
This could be partly remedied by letting parents who favour a more focused and traditional approach run their own schools.
Frankly, the bureaucrats are most of the problem. A group of them actually criticised a teaching colleague for teaching elements of grammar to his pupils. When he protested he was told, "That's not the way it's done!"
As if they knew!

I used to tell my pupils,"Books are your friends. In your sad and your happy times they will be your companions." I could have added,
"In your long airport waits and plane journeys you will go nuts without them."

Oh well...certain groups are claiming the foreshore and seabed but as long as they leave the libraries alone......

Anonymous said...

Don't forget history. If a few more of our politicians had studied world history, they wouldn't keep making the same blind mistakes. When it comes to human behaviour, there is nothing new under the sun.

Blair said...

I have the privilege of being both a pupil of Mr McConnell and, in my seventh form year, of having you as my principal. It was an honour on both occasions.

I hope you continue to be a positive voice in the National Caucus for a freer education system and a more capitalist economy.