First a picture of James Rebanks, and a passage from his recent book The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District.
Apparently the Bedouin can navigate the Sahara because they have an extensive knowledge of the dunes and sandy ridges, and even though they move slowly over time, they can count the ridges and know with a degree of accuracy where they are and how to get to where they are going. Our cultural navigation, our placing of ourselves and other people, works on a similar structural basis–if you understand the bones of it, you can navigate the detail.
My grandfather and father could go just about anywhere in northern England and they’d usually know who farmed the land and often who had been there previously, or who farmed next door. The whole landscape here is a complex web of relationships between farms, flocks and families. My old man can hardly spell common words, but has an encyclopaedic knowledge of landscape. I think it makes a mockery of conventional ideas about who is and isn’t ‘intelligent’. Some of the smartest people I have ever known are semi-literate. (22)
Mastery, knowledge, insight and appreciation of context–that’s what I admire in this passage. Knowing the bones of a place makes navigation possible. I wish this for my students. At least, I want to help them build foundations for such navigational skills, especially in their reading and writing. I understand Rebanks’ criticisms of conventional ideas about intelligence. At the same time, as I consider my particular hopes as a teacher in a more-or-less conventional classroom, I remember my earlier post on a related topic: What I Wish For, What I work For. As I review that post, several sentences stick out because they echo my response to the Rebanks passage: “He knows his subject because he has made the commitment to inhabit the place. As transplanted correspondent, he has credibility. In a sense, he has done his homework.” These sentences describe a former student turned international journalist, someone who lives with his family in Cairo. The idea corresponds to the Bedouins and Lake District farmers because in all three cases these people know their workplace and its surroundings more thoroughly than any outsider to the terrain. They can navigate the details because they know the bones. This is one of the beauties of the human mind, that it can create a framework into which it places the particulars. Think Plato’s idea of forms, for example. Think mathematical theorems, for another.
Rebanks describes the landscape as a “complex web of relationships”–the fell’s (hill’s) relationship to the valley, his own relationship to the curves of the land, the family’s relationship to neighboring farms, and many other such connections. Thinking of these relationships in terms of students, especially for them as writers, I ask them as they start any written piece: What and for whom are you writing? What is the central purpose? How can you best shape the writing for this audience and this purpose? If they can some day walk their own farm of written works and ask themselves these basic questions, out of habit and without my walking alongside them, I have prepared them well. Keeping in mind that they study with other teachers, too–not me alone. Through multiple influences they develop as writers, and as human beings. At schools, at home and elsewhere, young people find or encounter influences from various people and life experiences. To paraphrase a friend and mentor who recently died, I hope to be one link in a chain of people who help build confidence and skills.
And these two qualities, confidence and skills are related. I wish for and work for young people to find clear expression of their ideas–in writing and speaking. Strong skills breed confidence. Writing skills close the gap between a student’s perceived and actual thoughts. As C. D. Lewis says at the end of his poem, “Sheepdog Trials in Hyde Park,” writing is a kind of “controlled woolgathering.”
photo credit: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03282/Shepherding_3282255b.jpg