Friday, 3 January 2014

The Boy in the Bubble

The Boy in the Bubble – Education as Personal Relationship. Mark Patrick Hederman, Veritas, 2012. pp201.

This review was written on February 27th 2013

This is the eleventh book published by Mark Patrick Hederman since Kissing the Dark was published by Veritas in 1999. He was co-author of the Splintered Heart in 1998. His productivity, knowledge and wide interests are evidence of his wide academic training and his spiritual vocation. His knowledge appears to be encyclopaedic and his writings, particularly over the past 15 years, cover from the distant Greek enlightenment right up to the present day (and the latest five star film!). He can write about current and popular affairs with the same authority and familiarity as he devotes to the more profound subjects of spirituality, philosophy, history, education and human behaviour. 

This book is a plea to reject the traditional rigid three R system of education and instead adopt an educational policy based on a wider syllabus for the child and a different relationship between teacher and pupil. The child should be allowed greater freedom of initiatives and better opportunities to exercise his or her imagination and interests; the teacher needs to be a guide to the child, providing support to him or her in the areas of freedom of thought, expression and initiatives. And the teacher too can be a learner.

For the teacher, the current ‘’oppressor and oppressed’’ syndrome currently perceived by Hederman in our educational system needs to be replaced by a closer, warmer  and more equal relationship between teacher and child, and by encouraging  the child in a wider syllabus than the current three Rs.

I found the first chapter heavy going because of the author’s recourse to the spiritual and to mythology, metaphysics, the unconscious and Jungian psychology and by his long metaphor of Rowling’s Harry Potter and the latter’s influence in stirring the imagination of the young.

The author’s proposals in later chapters were stimulating and radical but perhaps largely unrealistic in the context of the problems facing this country with a high proportion of children, with limited financial resources, with compulsory education up to 16 years and with the conservative attitudes of our teaching profession, politicians and Church, and particularly with the problem of dealing with incompetent and uninspired teachers.  Of course,  some have had the good fortune to meet and be taught by an inspired teacher who conforms closely to Mark’s concept of  what teachers should be like in a perfect world and these fortunate people will always remember the  debt they owe to their mentor.

The methodology Mark Hederman suggests for an educational system would eliminate the “oppressor and oppressed” image of the present system.  He quotes three important sources that support his contention that we urgently need a change in our education system where the teacher adopts a sympathetic and loving approach to the young person as well as maintaining his role as a teacher, while the young person should have a greater degree of freedom in his or her own development.  At least this is what my interpretation is of the three quoted experts I note in Chapter 5 Pat Clarke and Paulo Freire.

Glenstal Abbey
I think the closest one can find to the perfect system can be found in Glenstal and perhaps in Glenstal only. Their curriculum includes not only sport but an emphasis in such areas as natural history, the environment, hobbies, music, art, drama and organised productions by the boys, I suppose they are also encouraged to respond to natural curiosity.

The Glenstal system is possible because of the vocation of the monks and the teaching staff, and their interest and commitment to the welfare of the boys. As far as I can judge from reading  chapter 5, the concept of the educational system put forward by the author  and those  he quotes would be virtually impossible in this globalised world and possibly the type of freedom that he envisages for the children might lead to more frequent aberrant behaviour than is currently the situation.  Whatever about the other chapters, this chapter 5 makes essential reading if we are to understand the thesis put forward by the author..

If the Glenstal school measures up to some of the criteria favoured by Hederman, it is because of  the policies enunciated at its foundation 90 years ago and perhaps too to the example set by the Benedictine monk, Father John F. Sweetman, who came from Downside Abbey to  found Mount St. Benedicts close to Gorey in Co. Wexford. His approach to the students and teachers conformed to the liberal approach advocated by Hederman. It was before the foundation of Glenstal and was quite revolutionary at that time. The first mention of it was in 1905 but it is not clear when the school was established. It may have preceded St. Enda’s, established by Patrick Pearse, whose radical educational policies were similar to those of Sweetman and not different from some of the ideas put forward by Hederman in this book. Was it a coincidence that both Sweetman and Pearse were also extreme in their political views and both had English blood in their veins? Added to Griffith, Casement, Childers, Brugha and others, there appears to have been no shortage of English blood among our revolutionaries! Sweetman’s initiative was to lead to considerable controversy among his brethren, including the allegation that he housed Sinn  Féin activists during the troubles.

In Glenstal the pupils are privileged in the sense that most of their fees can only be afforded by the better off. They are the children of the more affluent. They are expected to spend a short time in the monastery during the summer before their first term to assess their suitability for a boarding school and for the ambience of the monastery.  If such an education system were to exist nationwide it would achieve much of what is in the mind of Mark Hederman, but would it be feasible for the State’s budget and would we need to have suitable teachers to fulfil the criteria of those who will replace the oppressor? Would it be possible to dismiss teachers who do not measure up to the author’s ideals? And would it be possible to create an organisation of retired people, suitably qualified and with the necessary vocational spirit, who could contribute to a wider education that would partly replace the current big classes and the restricted imagination of our average pupil not to mention the restrictive policies of the teaching profession?

Even within the current system, would it not be possible to use the transition year as a means of encouraging more imaginative and uninhibited opportunities for the pupil? Perhaps this is tending more to be a feature of the transition year in recent times. Also the first post-schooling year might be sponsored by a state supported system of special studies, occupation, travel or training along the lines of the compulsory army training which prevailed at such junctures in some countries in the past. In peacetime at least the army could have a major role in training on many aspects of life and future development of potential, including physical training, assessment of suitability for future  careers, the value of hobbies, interests and sports outside the limitations  of a suitable career and the preparation of young people to become part of a modern democratic society and to join a population devoted to the protection of the environment, the need for population control and the elimination of poverty.

Reading his later chapters first might be recommended as I fear some of the opacity in the early chapter may discourage the less patient reader to continue. His final conclusion of nine pages I found a useful summary of his thoughts. Reading the first chapter at the end, preferably at leisure, will help to broaden our insights into the more arcane thoughts of the author before returning the book to the library or, for the teacher and the politician, retaining it as a bedside book.  His conclusions contained in the last chapter are inspirational and idealistic although perhaps a little unreal in to-day’s world.

I next read chapter 8, Alexander Pushkin in Ireland. Sacha Duchess of Abercorn of Baronscourt in Co. Fermanagh close to the Donegal border in the Republic initiated this system of education 25 year ago. It has had some success in schools on both side of the border. The movement was principally inspired by her to heal the political and religious divisions which were so prominent in her part of Ireland. It fulfils some of the changes in education proposed by Mark Hederman. For children it is stated

There has to be the possibility to tap back into the sources of inspiration again and again. Every child has a wealth of imagination which comes naturally and is expressed in games and behaviour patterns usually ignored by the adult world.------ We don’t have to promote it; we only have to remove the obstacles ------.

The Pushkin philosophy is based on the imagination as its key and ‘’promotes creativity as the greatest asset of our people’’. More thoughts about the failure of Sacha Abercorn’s initiative to spread to a wider area of education in the island of Ireland might be worth adding.

Chapter 7 Music in Numbers is part scientific, part philosophical, part allegorical. He talks about the three parts of the brain, the neocortex, the limbic and the serpentine. His allusions and explanations may puzzle some readers. The reader may require more concentration and good insights to absorb all of its content

Mark Hederman is undoubtedly very stimulating in his writing and in his concepts but his book requires close attention and very stern concentration if one is to read the text without too much fatigue. In Music in Numbers  he pleads for much more attention to the unconscious, to what he calls “our inner snake” and for the ordinary mortal he may become a little too subtle and remote. I suspect that only a minority of people could read his 200 pages with ease and without returning frequently to reread sentences and paragraphs to be sure of full understanding. However, the Boy in the Bubble should be read by our politicians, our education authorities and all those who are interested in the welfare of our children. The message to all will be clear even if the best solutions are not always easy to attain.

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