Romanticism, Star Trek and the Prog/Trad Debate

The power to change men’s common way of thinking.

-Diderot

I’ve recently been teaching my Year 10 students the content of the poetry anthology for GCSE English Literature. In order to develop the pupils’ contextual understanding, and their understanding of what some of these poems are doing, we’ve been discussing Romanticism. As part of this, I found a BBC documentary about The Romantics over four episodes. The first episode explores the influence upon Romanticism of the French Revolution, and appears to present a juxtaposition between two friends: Rousseau and Diderot. The former, seeing feeling and emotion as offering a future of freedom for man who is “born free, and everywhere he is in chains” is played by a floppy haired David Tennant wondering around the wilds of nature. Meanwhile, Diderot is presented as seeing reason as being the means by which man will be set free and is played by a besuited and straight faced Jason Watkins.

Now, I don’t actually know very much about these two men, but a brief glance at Wikipedia reveals that this presentation is, of course, far too simplistic. Neither man really sought to promote either reason or emotion over the other, but argued for a recognition of the value of both.

But while I was watching the programme I was reminded of another documentary I had seen recently. I finally subscribed to Netflix and have been thoroughly enjoying the original series of Star Trek. I began with the pilot episode, with the Enterprise under the command of Captain Pike, and have been going through quite systematically. I’m now half way through the second series, and the portrayal of the characters is well defined and developed. Netflix recommended for me a documentary made by the son of Leonard Nimoy, reflecting on the life and work of his father. At one point in the programme, some talking head or other made the case that Mr Spock and Dr McCoy represent a kind of devil/angel duo, sitting on the shoulders of Kirk. Spock, of course, with his Vulcan logic and reasoned arguments is placed in contrast with the emotional McCoy. Between them, Spock and McCoy combine to make the ideal human being: Kirk.

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I can’t help to see some echoes of all these ideas in the discourse on #EduTwitter, with the juxtaposition of progressive and traditionalist ideas about education. Frankly, I don’t like either of these terms. Progressive ideas have been around since the dawn of mass schooling; indeed even before, with Romantic poets rejecting the schoolroom. But the divisive nature of the discourse is getting frustrating. As a number of writers have pointed out, there has been a dominant orthodoxy in schools for decades, with progressive ideas grounded in social constructivism being pushed by ITT providers, Ofsted and SLT. Now, over the last few years, a rising number of voices online have been arguing the case for “traditionalist” methods or/and a “traditionalist” methodology. The swing of the pendulum in policy reflects both the influence of the argument, and perhaps the co-opting of the argument by those who some have labelled as neoliberal forces. Whilst these concerns may be valid, the nature the rhetoric is bizarre.

Inevitably, these voices of traditionalism are being challenged less and less by rational, reasoned argument or even calls to philosophical emotion, but more and more irrational, abusive versions of emotional outburst. For evidence, one need only look at the abuse hurled at #Michaela, or the kind of language used when people are gossiping about @oldandrewuk. I have read a couple of blogs lately that have sought to position the rise of traditionalist teaching on the same political line as the far right, where traditionalist are compared to Farage, Trump, nazis and fascists. Such blogs spectacularly fail to understand traditionalist teaching, nazism and fascism. But more fundamentally they fail to see that preference for teaching methodologies has very little to do with party political preferences or left/right wing thinking.

And there are those who prefer to deny the debate, or use one term whilst refusing to accept the other. The #nobestway chat is illustrative of an attempt to close the debate rather than to contribute to it.

But perhaps the most obvious sign of the decline in the standard of debate must be the emergence of parody Twitter accounts whose sole intent is abuse.

So, here’s my call to the new New Romantics, the NeoRomantics: come forward with your impassioned but well reasoned arguments. Let’s have our Spocks and our McCoys hammering it out so that the Kirks can get on with making informed decisions; and let’s ignore the troublesome tribbles.

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#EduSonnet On Discourse

Perhaps this conversation is misplaced,
And words are squandered, twisted out of shape.
Progressive and tradition now disgraced;
A dance macabre from which they can’t escape.
These tortured yin and yang both rooted in
The same historic fractured, tainted ground,
Where myths of freedom, myths of discipline
Become the prattling, clanking background sound.
And all are blind and deaf amidst the din,
Unwilling or unable to discern,
The biggest, darkest, clearest stubborn sin
Is when debating has no place to turn.
The greatest strength that one can ever find,
Must be to welcome challenges of mind.