Instructions to educators

A useful tip for improving educational standards I will take from the great chef and nutritionist, Édouard de Pomiane. (It was in one of his recipe collections.) Under surname Pozerski, he had been a Polish refugee in France, age five or six. He remembered being always hungry. Life was hard, and the school to which he was sent bestowed no luxuries. The teachers were doing their best, however, and at the start of drawing class each child was provided with a stick of charcoal, and a morsel of stale bread for rubbing out. But the boys would all eat the bread, immediately.

According to Pomiane, having no erasers, they became excellent little draughtsmen.

The exercise would be good preparation for watercolour, or stonecarving for that matter. Every stroke right, or everything is ruined. The Chinese drawing masters were very strict (in the days before the destruction of their civilization). Any sign of an attempt to “fix” would be punished, audibly. Mistakes were punished, too; but trying to conceal them was understood to be the worse evil.

We have a fine principle, here, with many applications. Gentle reader will surely be imagining some. I tell my own “lit” students, when I have any, not to bring laptops or any other modern gizmos into class. They should make notes, even copious notes, by legible hand in bound cahiers instead (not loose-leaf). They must fight each temptation to replace, revise, amend. Leave margins for later comments. For the first thing is to think and write, without error, in the classical, linear way (staying “inside the box,” never straying). Later they may look back, and see all their stupidities clearly. This will make them less inclined to repeat them. Perhaps they might even discern some improvement, having become a little more coherent by the end of the year, than they were at the start.

(Often I wish that I would follow my own advice.)

We have become a society of oil-painters, laying everything on thick, assuming each mistake can be corrected, overlaid. That each of our crimes may somehow be covered. But God is in the details, as my father often said.

Recently I noticed, in a 12th-century book of Treasury instructions (the Dialogus de Scaccario, by Richard, Son of Nigel), the same principle, raised to law. The young accountant must enter all figures carefully, on the wrong side of the sheepskin. This will make any attempt at erasure obvious; and as we ought to know, dishonesty loves to hide. Should a mistake be made, it must be flagged, then corrected in the margin, in plain view. No tricks.

If a moment of nostalgia will not be condemned, I have my own memory of being five or six, and in Mrs Abassi’s kindergarten at Lahore. It is a two-fold echo of Pomiane’s. In the first fold, there is being hungry. We were issued a single biscuit at recess, by when we truly longed for it. (We would also steal fresh peas and beans from an adjoining market garden; they were delicious.)

The second fold contains the learning of the Persian alphabet: how to reproduce it in brush or feather pen from chalk models drawn on a slate board. (Right to left, which makes more sense for right-handed persons, who would otherwise block the light with their hands.) Mrs Abassi did not tolerate fussing or hesitation: every writing stroke rhythmic and whole. “Purity” was her word. A boy could repeat the exercise all afternoon, until he got the hang, or rather the sweep of each precious letter.

So to review: the pedagogical practices that simply must be restored. One, keep the children hungry. Two, detain them until they get it right.