Drawing on Previous Learning by Mike Ferguson (Wrecking Ball Press)
I have known Mike Ferguson as a friend and colleague for years, and have admired the clarity and integrity of his thinking about education in general and English education in particular. His occasional blog rants and regular Xmas Stocking Filler pamphlets have been a welcome blast against fatuous and bigoted Tory views of education, small bright beacons in an increasingly bleak landscape of politicised interference in the potential magic of English in the classroom. Those beacons draw their energy from a lifetime’s immersion in the craft of English teaching, and in experience as an examiner in various versions of GCSE over the years.
Mike has put together a collection that celebrates and scathes, with honours and horrors put on the page in poems, prose poems and monologues. Many of these skewer the way in which the cultural capitalist model of curriculum and assessment has increasingly rewarded the labelling of devices as a substitute for real engagement with thought and feeling in literature. He voices many examiners’ frustration with foreshadowing, caesura, enjambement and the fronted adverbial offered as the assessment tokens of learning in the reduced repertoire of reading for the test.
In A Bold Cold Autumn, Mike writes:
rules the forward thrust of negativity, and seasonal
expectation is painted with the red grimace of falling
leaves, even when that metaphor has been sucked dry
by a taught language so keen to explain away surprise.
In National Curriculum at Sea Life, he observes the way his daughter’s encounter with a SATs reading test yields surprise and delights in her comments that ‘the o flying away from didn’t is an apostrophe’ and her misreading of ‘the astonishing angels’ from which objects at Sea Life can be seen. Mike’s wryly forlorn comment on such assessable incorrectness is memorable:
Most noticeable angles are actually hard
As she’ll learn and tell
herself when discovering what might have been.
Throughout this volume, there is a call for the humane and creative tradition in English teaching to oppose the reductive barbarism of the Govian inheritance, vociferously promoted by the favoured orthodoxies of Direct Instruction and so-called ‘knowledge-rich’ Tory favourites who adopt the Hirschian model of culture as a means to social mobility to justify a model of education that values what you know over why it’s worth knowing, receiving wisdom over questioning it and, consequently, privileging compliance over agency. As Mike says in Crushed Stetson:
…In a room where someone is preaching,
better lessons are taught and learnt when chanced upon.
Oddly enough, or perhaps not, it’s in his piece on Art Teachers that Mike articulates those energies that should fuel good English teaching, because they are Art teachers who:
…abhor black and white in education / use a palette for being mixed-up /
know Dali should design the curriculum / brushstroke their lives.
As may be expected from a writer immersed in poetry, there is wit and warmth in his homage to Coleridge in Aeolian Harping On, to Jonson in On My First Job and in his self-study based on Larkin’s Mr Bleaney. My favourite of these is his reflection on Hughes and creativity in Who Killed the Thought-Fox, in which he considers the ‘freedom to roam…curtailed by trips and traps set by new hunters who know no better’. He ends:
…and the murderers can come
running with their measuring tapes
sizing up this final kill.
Drawing on Previous Learning is available here: