Tag Archives: Evans-Pritchard

The death of the Mockingbird (or ‘The best laid plans…’)

I dislike Michael Gove for a number of reasons. For one, he is a Tory. Also, as a member of staff in a secondary school, I can see first-hand just what an adverse effect some of his ideas and policies are having on the school, the teachers’ moral, and the students’ stress levels. However, as has been widely reported in the media over the last few days, he’s now decided that English Literature should be buggered about with. However, as with his views on the History syllabus several months back that got the country seething, this worries me due to its narrow, blinkered, and agenda-laden undercurrents.

It has long been part of the English GCSE syllabus taught in many English (state) schools that literature from other cultures and societies is compared and contrasted with that from our own. For example, when I was dong my GCSE’s, I studied a cluster of poems called ‘Poems from other Cultures’, which included works written by English speakers round the globe, and focussed upon issues that affected the society in which they wrote, such as apartheid, the Vietnam War (and its effects upon the Vietnamese people), superstition in an Indian village and homesickness when moving from the Caribbean. I also studied both modern and classic English/Irish poetry, John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, J.B.Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ and R.L.Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. It is perhaps clear from this little list that the focus of these texts was upon those written by English writers. Having just assisted several Y10 students through their GCSE English Literature papers, I can attest to the even greater focus upon English writers now, with the poetry not taking the form of two clusters, with one being foreign, but one cluster with predominantly English writers in it. The books studied are the same as those I studied, but again here the weighting is clearly 2:1 in favour of British writers (Stevenson being Scottish- he may class as foreign soon, I don’t know). However, Gove in his wisdom has decided that there is too much focus upon American texts such as ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘The Crucible’, and these should be taken off the paper in favour of all English texts. Now- okay, I can sort of see his point: not enough students are interested in or know much about the English ‘greats’ such as Austen and Dickens, and they should learn about our own cultural heritage before concerning themselves with other people’s. However, this falls down for me in several ways. From the practical point of view, Dickens is loooonnnnngggggggg. Apart from the Christmas stories, Dickens wasn’t really known for writing concise works, due in part to their initial publication in serial form. This means that it would be impossible to study an entire text of Dickens at GCSE due to the other constraints of the course and the teaching schedules of schools, meaning that students would need to be taught key passages of chapters and have to fill in the blanks with brief summaries, or read the text in their own time (which many students wouldn’t bother doing). As such, it would not be possible for the overall feel of the text to be gleaned, or for themes, images and ideas to be traced effectively through the course of the text. ‘Of Mice and Men’, on the other hand, is a short text. It is easy enough to read in class, with a plot that can be held in the head amongst the million and one other exam topics that students have to memorise, and enough themes and literary devices to fill several exercise book of essays. It is a good text that easily grabs students attention, proves popular, and is a jewel to write about. However classic they may be, Dickens and Austen are not quite as student (and more importantly teen) friendly- pick the wrong text, and you could nurture a hatred of literature that could last a lifetime, rather than inspiring a love that lasts a lifetime.

However, the thing that bothers me more is the problems that such Anglo-centric teaching could cause. I also hold this view on the focusing of the History syllabus on the ‘Great’ in Great Britain, which brings this in nicely. It is a plain fact that Britain is a multi-cultural nation. There is no getting away from this, and is indeed something to be celebrated rather than derided, as some political parties seem to think. As a result, many children in our schools do not come from British backgrounds, and so by focussing the curriculum solely upon the British Isles, there is the very strong possibility of isolating a very big part of the school community. Do students whose families have come over to Britain following the outbreak of war in Afghanistan and Iraq wish to sit through a History lesson where theory hear how ‘Great’ Britain was when it had an Empire and ruled their homelands? Or would people wish to study world history that focusses upon the positives and negatives of a nation, period or event, rather than a biased victors tale? They say that history is written by those who win, but that does not mean to say that we should take this a Gospel. Good history involves the criticism of evidence and the balancing of facts. That is what history does. It is unbiased, and does not plug an agenda. If teachers now are unlikely to praise the leaders of Britain in the World Wars, it is not due to a lack of pride in the nation, but rather down to their ability to understand that what these great people may have done in the past was no always right. We can learn from the past and our mistakes. Should we teach that Hague was a good general who won the Battle of the Somme, and cover up the thousands of Allied and German dead, or should we assess how well he did his job, looking at both the positives and the negatives in order to make an informed decision? By removing this option from students through the glorification of our national past, we are doing our young people a disservice, and taking away from them an important life skill, of being able to critically interpret evidence and information to make their own interpretations and conclusions rather than blindly following one course and one message. Or is that what the Government want?

In Gove’s manifesto on History, he also claimed that we as a nation should be proud of the Empire that we once owned an the position that we held on the world stage. Well- I’m sure that UKIP and the BNP would love that view of our past, but it is incredibly naïve and somewhat foolish. It is difficult to read an anthropological ethnography such as Evans-Pritchard or Malinowski without finding the shadow of Colonialism looming omnipresent and yet unmentioned over the texts. Much 20th century anthropology is tinted with its effects or after-effects, and indeed many of the world problems are due to the repercussions independence has had on these countries. We would be blind to try and pretend that the time of Empire was one of fearless explorers claiming savage lands for Queen and country, rather than seeing it for the danger, violence, barbarity (on our part as colonial overlords) and cultural repression that it was. Read ‘Heart of Darkness’, ffs.

Another thing that Anthropology teaches us is that to understand ourselves as people and as a society, we need to first understand the world. This is where Gove and his removal of American literature from the syllabus falls flat. Yes, we need to learn about our own culture in order to appreciate it, of course we do- but we also need to understand and appreciate other cultures in a reciprocal manner, to learn and grow as people. We can learn lesson from American and German, Chinese and African literature that we never could from our own. We use the Greek and Roman Classics as the foundation stones to much or our culture an society- should we dispense with these too? The key thing that Gove seems to be missing out, is that English Literature is not the study of Literature that is English (if it was, then we couldn’t study Yeats, or Heaney, or Stevenson), but the study of Literature written or translated into English. We should embrace and value the diversity and colour of language and the written word, and foster this passion and love in our pupils and students and children, not whitewash it.

Just one last point. Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is set after a global economic recession, and focusses upon two itinerant farm workers on what are effectively zero-hour contracts, unable to move socially and unable to reach their goal and dream of owning their own property. The work suggests that dreams and ambitions are useless and futile, with circumstance being the cause of people’s misfortune rather than the desire and perseverance of the individual. Gove wants to drop this. Go figure.

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

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2013- Electric Puppet’s first 5 months in review

2014

Well- it’s New Year’s Eve, and time to reflect on what has gone on over the past year. For my family, this has been a big year, as we left the comfort and splendour of Oxford to return to our home city of Stoke-on-Trent; I graduated from university; I got my first job; we decided where we want to go with our life in the near and more distant future, thanks to an American man and his family on YouTube; I completed my first book of poetry, which had been languishing prior to this summer; I took the plunge and begun this blog, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a while; and have got back in contact with several family members that I haven’t seen for the best part of a decade thanks to Facebook. It has been eventful, and had also been emotional and tiring for all of us. Also, with any luck, next year should be just as eventful- beginning work; trying to get my book published; endeavouring to write the novel and short story collection that I’ve been planning for a month or so; and getting married. Yes: my partner and I are getting married next year!

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In terms of this blog, I will be getting up several ‘Thoughts on…’ posts for the books I have read recently- the first two Adrian Mole books, Penelope Lively’s ‘Heat Wave’, Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, and Tove Jansson’s ‘Finn Family Moomintroll’- in the new year, and hopefully will get the first few up on New Year’s Day. For now, though, I thought that I would highlight a selection of posts from this blog that have proved popular, may have been overlooked, or are of relative interest for me.

I think that’s enough links to my other posts to be getting on with for now. Anyway- check some of these out if you haven’t already, or have a browse of the blog and see what you come across. Also, you can follow Electric Puppet on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/electricpuppetblog

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Lastly, here are a few fellow bloggers that I’ve come across in the past few months that you may find of interest:

Don’t Bend, Ascend

These Bones of Mine

Bones Don’t Lie

A Corner Of Tenth-Century Europe (written by one of my Anglo-Saxon lecturers from Oxford; he has since moved on to work at Birmingham University)

Museum Postcard

Prehistories

Interesting Literature

I hope you have a very happy New Year, and that 2014 will be good for you.

Image: The Telegraph

Image: The Telegraph

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Thoughts on Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

HofD

At the age of 11, I was quite an avid stamp collector, and through the beneficence of several family friends, I was able to amass a fairly sizable collection. I was particularly proud of a medium-sized green album that I put together of stamps from the British Empire, representing countries such as Tanganyika, Rhodesia, and the Malay States that no longer exist. This interest in the might of British Imperial power made me see the time of the Raj in India and the years up to the 1960s through somewhat tinted lenses, and it was only by studying anthropology at university that I saw that my previous adoration had perhaps been somewhat misplaced. Now, I can see that the British Empire had detrimental effects on almost all of the nations that it subsumed, and that these effects are being felt even now across the world. By imposing our way of life onto other cultures, we successfully eradicated much indigenous culture and society, cloaking it and choking it in the smog of so-called ‘modernity’ and suggesting that the British people were a chosen people placed on the highest level of the Chain of Being above all others. It was with this personal and intellectual background that I approached Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.

I will begin by saying that I disagree somewhat with Chinua Achebe’s view that ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a racist text that portrays the people of Africa as savages, and the continent itself as one of uncivilised, brutish violence. I don’t want to play the cultural-relativist card, as this seems a clichéd and somewhat lame excuse, and also because I think that Conrad’s text is much more than that. It is true that his use of the word “nigger” sits uncomfortably with today’s readers, and this is perhaps a sign of the times in which it was written and nothing more. However, I think that Achebe misses the central crux of the tale that Marlow tells, as rather than promoting imperialism, the subjugation of the African individual and Africa as a continent, and extolling the virtues of romantic exploration- as personified in Henry Morton Stanley and his search for Dr Livingstone- he presents the stark reality of attempting to voyage into the heart of a continent that is ‘dark’ not due to the colour of its inhabitants or the nature of their un-Christian souls, but simply because it represents a void in the knowledge of the rest of the world. The ‘darkness’ is present in the fear that the unknown presented to the people of the late 19th century, and is therefore only culturally relative in as much as the text documents the beliefs and thoughts of people at a given period in history; it does not hide behind this as a justification for the thoughts. 

The theme of ‘darkness’ is perhaps an obvious one in the text due to the clue given in the title, but I was genuinely surprised by just how many times the word ‘dark’ or ‘darkness’ is actually employed within the text. (Upon a further reading, I may endeavour to note each of these occasions, but it will come as a shock that I haven’t yet attempted this.) Not only is it used to describe the physical appearance of the Congo jungle, but also the Thames on which the story is narrated, and the character of the enigmatic Kurtz. In doing this, Conrad manages to make a connection between the unknown and unexplored, potentially dangerous African continent and the lifeblood of the English capital, suggesting a similar unfamiliar side to the river and at a further level the country as a whole. Due to the manner of its colonising, Britain could be said to have had a ‘Heart of Darkness’, and as such be just as dangerous and savage as the unexplored land is perceived to be. Similarly, the ‘darkness’ of Kurtz is suggested firstly in the way that he too- like the interior of Africa- is unknown and a mystery to Marlow (he is literally in the dark about the character, piecing together his own ideas about the man from the scraps he is told), and also in the way that Kurtz recognises his own ‘darkness’ and through his exploitation of the native people, and the ‘darkness’ of his actions as a part of the colonial machine in his final words: “The horror! The horror!” Kurtz further represents a ‘darkness’ in the way that he takes advantage of the veneration shown to him by the locals due to his position as an outsider, and highlights the ‘darkness’ that these people were in when it came to the Europeans; they were ‘in the dark’ about the true intent of many colonisers, and were unaware of the way in which they were having their way of life slowly removed (or at least altered).

Upon reading ‘Heart of Darkness’, I was struck by Conrad’s exquisite prose, and pleasantly surprised at just how many passages gave me cause to refer to a dictionary. For a writer who was writing in his third language, I think that the text is a stupendous achievement, and am enamoured by it also due to its dual nature as a piece of fiction but also as an anthropological text, revealing much to us about the colonial apparatus and the way in which such explorations effected all parties concerned. Often, this is overlooked in even the best ethnographies. For example, Mead excludes mention of the US influence upon those she studied in Samoa, as well as the bias behind her research, and Evans-Pritchard in his three celebrated studies of the Sudanese Nuer fails to mention the fact that he was employed as an anthropologist by the British to report on these communities could best be brought under colonial control, and also fails to show the ways in which the British-imposed culture had manages to impact upon their laws, economy, religion and general way of life. Instead, we are presented with a false image of the Nuer as a people untouched by the ‘modern’ world, when in actuality, the ‘facts’ recorded are all as they stand post-contact.

I believe that ‘Heart of Darkness’ should be read by anthropologists as well as lovers of fine literature, and would recommend it as essential reading for everyone. The technique of a ‘story-in-a-story’ narration is slightly jarring (as I found it to also be in ‘Frankenstein’) in the way that one character recounts a book-long story recounted by another character, but i was not put off by this and hope to revisit the text again, armed on this occasion with a pencil ready to annotate and to count up the repetition. And when it comes to the stamp collection, I think that it will provide me with a fresh perspective on this too.

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