My English teacher in 1965, C.A. (‘Dinger’) Bell, was a man of few words, and I remember only four of them being addressed to me.
“Not without merit, Shann,” he said one day as he handed back a piece of writing I’d done on one of Milton’s poems. That’s all. No explanation of what was good about it, no indication about how it might have received higher praise.
He must have said other things on other occasions, but they’re the only four words I remember.
They made an impact, though, those four words. I remember feeling I’d made a step through what had up until then been an impenetrable barrier. Dinger might not have said much to me directly, but he had written pithy reports that made me wonder if I’d ever succeed as an English student. “He has much to learn about keeping ‘on the beam’ and making effective use of his points,” he’d written in the first one. “He is not in danger of over-confidence,” he said in another. And then, half way through my second year with him: “Carrying on steadily from last year, without showing yet the rigour born of confidence.”
So, ‘not without merit’ sounded promising, especially given the hint of surprise in his voice, as if I’d unsettled a few of his doubts. I looked forward to what he might write in the end-of-year report.
This is what he wrote at the end of my two years in his class:
His sincerity and good sense are more than adequate compensation for any lack of facility. He does not have easy successes; but application, honesty and good taste are a very effective combination.
Digger’s words were uncomfortable. They had a penetrating quality. I thought about them a lot.
Dinger was in his sixties when he taught me, and died in 1988 aged 81.
Last week my cousin sent me a copy of a new book about Dinger Bell. (Remembering C.A.Bell, by Michael Dan, Ian Rutherford and David Castle). As I’ve been reading it I’ve been asking myself a number of related questions:
- Why did Dinger’s words penetrate? Was it because he was good with words? Was it because they came out of a penetrating gaze?
- How did someone so immersed in the world of literature, who seemed only aware of my presence on the periphery of his awareness, come to perceive certain things about my ability and my character?
- Dinger was an authentic personality; we all knew this. I’m at present discussing ‘the ethics of authenticity’ with Michael Umphrey and others in an online discussion. What was it about Dinger that was patently authentic?
It turns out (I’ve discovered, from reading this book) that Dinger thought a lot about education, and in particular about the importance of English Literature. I don’t remember him talking about this; in fact, he said very little in class. He would make a few comments about our work, he would ask some questions after we’d read something and make terse and mildly discouraging comments about the superficiality or slickness of our responses, and he would read out loud poems and passages and grunt and chuckle and leave significant pauses at various places, as if to ask, “Well, what do you say to that? Is that not wonderful! Does that not make you stop and examine the nature of things! No? Nothing? All the worse for you then!”
He didn’t talk much about these things, but it turns out he wrote about them. Reading literature had, for him, a moral purpose. The books we read in our final year were chosen to
add to their (the students’) experience some knowledge of an Englishman of the sixteenth century who was forced to choose between principle and expediency (Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons); an Englishman of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who had to try to reconcile the two sides of his own nature (David Cecil Lord M); a black man of our own century who failed to understand the ‘civilization’ of white men (Joyce Cary Mr Johnson); a group of French Algerians exhibiting th tension between religious faith and materialism or skepticism (Camus The Plague). We are human beings first, revealing, some believe, a touch of the divine; after that we are permitted to be scientists or humanists. (quoted p202)
The English course needed to be a course of substance:
English has the right and the obligation to draw for its content upon the best writing in the history of man and in the history of science. In exercising this right and duty, it at the same time offers, like the classics of old, a context, a synthesizing, and a background, which, however blurred or inadequate, is better than vacuity. Some progressives, the fun-and-games school, will deplore this obsession with the past, even though the past may include the recent past … Our experts in English have been extraordinarily fearful of putting too great a strain on reading from the past with children whose minds are dominated by the present and the immediate future, obsessed by the apparently useful and profitable. Some experts seem to have been afraid that the children would take it as an affront to be asked to read anything better than ephemeral and tabloid stuff. In the natural reaction from the dreariness of imposing classics on the unwilling, the unready and the unable, we are apt to lose sight of the fact that intelligent and interested senior students can have their development starved by lack of nutriment as surely as their less literary fellows can be sickened by surfeit. (quoted p204)
The study of literature was, for Dinger, a way to understand better “human nature, human aspirations, and human achievements in contexts richer and more ennobling than those of party politics and of ‘business’” (quoted p201), and he valued above all things honesty and a seeking after the truth, both in what we read and in what we wrote. In some notes distributed to us boys he wrote:
Try to tell what seems to you to be the truth. (There is truth even in fiction.) Do not pretend to know: you are not likely to be convincing. Say what you have to say as clearly, economically, and effectively as you can. Spare occasional thoughts fo the person to whom or for whom you are writing. Look for the word which may penetrate to him. Let ‘style’ look after itself.
This attitude towards literature determined his views about essay writing. He detested the formulaic or the flash.
The word ‘essay’ was appropriately applied in the first place to literary exercises written in meditative or philosophical moods by people who chose topics on which they felt impelled or qualified to write. Many of the essays written in schools and examinations on casually set topics are word-spinning without motive. (quoted p202)
In children’s eyes, it is sensible to explain why they are being called upon to write on a topic; and it is sometimes politic to suggest ways – not the way – in which a topic may be handled. I am glad to state again my prejudice against the accidental essay. If the writers know that they are working in an actual field of experience and that they are practising a particular kind of writing for a particular kind of public, they are less likely to disintegrate as writers into aimless nonentities. If also they are told that there is not set formula requiring an ‘introductory’ paragraph and a ‘concluding’ paragraph, that there are several points at which the may break into the topic, that it is their privilege to choose their own point of penetration, then they may writing as self-respecting people who assume responsibility for their thoughts. (quoted p206)
It is important for the teacher to realize that the use of the sentence as a unit of expression is conditioned to no small degree by intelligence and maturity. Sentence patterns represent ways of thinking, not merely ways of writing and speaking. (quoted p212)
Dinger’s commitment to the moral purpose of the English discipline shaped his views on the teaching of vocabulary, grammar and assessment:
… the young writer should fairly soon become aware that the meanings of a surprising number of works are tinged with emotional colours and that these colours are often fast colours which defy the efforts to remove them of bleaching ‘clear thinkers’. There is rich wisdom in that knowledge. (quoted p207)
Grammar should not be taught merely as a pedantic exercise or as an end in itself. We should be trying to induce, for example, a respect for the really effective adjective or adverb, a consistency in construction and in the use of tense, an awareness that phrases and clauses can be moved about inside a sentence with varying results; and, above all, we should be trying to kill invertebrate jumbles of words. (quoted p216)
If short-answer ticking and crossing becomes the dominant practice in English examinations, then short-answer ticking and crossing will also become the standard practice in English teaching … The supreme form of creation will be the making of convulsive jabs at little squares with ball-point pens….
There is no need for defeatism. Even modern children do not resent writing if they are allowed to preserve their integrity and are not called upon to perform tricks (quoted p209)
I suppose what I loved about reading this book on Dinger Bell was the revelation that what we experienced as authentic, impressive, slightly fearsome and full of authority came from a deeply held philosophy about the nature of the subject. He thought deeply and had deep convictions. He had no need to talk about these convictions in the classroom: they seeped out of him in his grunts and silences and questions and asides. He was a senior teacher at our school not because he knew how to play the political game, but because he was a master teacher who knew his discipline.
I have this sense, looking back, that there is a connection between his deep knowledge of the discipline and his penetrating comments about his students. He saw us as apprentices, struggling with what many of us yearned to, but did not yet, understand. He knew us not because he took time out from his disciplinary business to ‘get to know us’: he knew something significant about us because he watched as we struggled to become more adept in his discipline.