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April 13, 2012

You Don't Remember Anything You Learn at School, Do You? - Lincoln Allison remembers lessons at Lancaster Royal Grammar School and University College, Oxford

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The tall Polish shop assistant is talking to the short English one. They are bored as shop assistants often are and the Polish lady is recounting her date of the previous evening. Her complaint is that the gentleman in question did not seem to know as much about maths and physics as she would have expected for one who worked in aeronautics and on braking systems. Her companion is understandably disconcerted as this is not a complaint about a male companion she would herself make and she remarks, in a strong East Lancs accent, "Well, you don't remember anything you learn at school, do you?"

At first this unpremeditated piece of eavesdropping merely amused me. Then it set me thinking. Presumably the girl who said this could read and write and knew that Paris was the capital of France. The osmosis of the schooling process must have got something through: she didn't mean that one didn't learn anything.

But remembering - that was different. Suppose you set a test of two conditions: you must remember the occasion of learning and you must remember the content. This would, for example, disqualify Colonel Arthur Huck, chemistry teacher. I remember quite vividly the absolute silence which fell as he conducted an experiment which, if it went wrong, would (so he said) blow the building sky high and like as not subject us to death by falling masonry. But I have no idea what the experiment was about and I can hardly recall any chemistry.

My wife, herself a former head teacher, said she had nothing which passed this test. She went to a convent and it's all a blur, she says, of nuns reading out of textbooks and passing out warnings of what was going to have to be mastered for O level and then A level. I calculate that most people receive something of the order of five thousand hours of instruction if they go the distance through secondary school and perhaps another five hundred if they go on to university and it seems a pity if there is nothing really memorable in all this. Well, I was much luckier in my time at Lancaster Royal Grammar School and University College, Oxford and on sitting down to reflect I could come up with several memorable lessons which passed both tests:

The English Civil War: Mr Eric Andrews - A level history
Ema, as he was known because of his initials, wrote on the board: WHIG. TORY. MARXIST. HUGH TREVOR-ROPER and then proceeded to explain that the war looked quite different from different angles, depending on what you were looking at and for. It was not an event, but a huge number of events, the relative importance of which depended on your point of view. Of course it was really a lesson in the nature of history rather than about seventeenth century England. I was dead jealous of Hugh Trevor-Roper having his own theory rather than having to be part of an ism.

Gregor Mendel's Garden: Mr Robinson - first name forgotten - science component of A level General Studies
This was simultaneously science and the history of science. Through the story of the monk Mendel and his experiments with peas and fruitflies I/we understood dominant and recessive genes and got some basis for the complicated game of genetics. One can move on from this and it helps one to understand whole chunks of life, from gardening to modern history. It was particularly good for those of us who had opted out of science, however reluctantly.

French Drinking Habits: Mr Michael Moffat - A level geography
Moff drew a very passable outline of France on the board and then, like Caesar before him, distinguished between three parts, labelling them Bière, Cidre, Vin. It was the beginning of an explanation of terroir and region in France. He explained that it was good policy when travelling through France (which he did on his motor scooter) to eat and drink in the local style. Hardly original, but it was new to me and I still think of him when I'm cruising down the soixante quinze.

Orwell, Camus and Indifference Curves: Mr Michael Hansen - A level economics
This is a bit of a cheat because it compounds a whole system of lessons. Mr Hansen (no nickname, strangely) reckoned that of the seven periods a week allocated for A level economics we only needed two to cover the syllabus. The rest were devoted to some of the better known critics and advocates of capitalism and to consideration of current affairs as represented in the Economist and the Financial Times. He also welcomed interrogation and disagreement: all in all an excellent preparation for university.

Pseudo-Morality: Alasdair MacIntyre - lecture, Oxford ethics course
MacIntyre sought to deal with the standard disagreement between those who thought that moral statements could be true or false like other statements and those who (variously) thought they couldn't because they were emotive or value judgements by saying that they could be true or false in some forms of society, but not in others. This was a kind of meta-relativism and he illustrated his argument by reference to examples ranging from the Icelandic Sagas to contemporary England. Pseudo-Morality occurred where you claimed a kind of moral objectivity that was not possible in your society. (These lectures became the basis of his books, A Short History of Ethics and After Virtue.) The lecture ended with MacIntyre rising to a crescendo and saying, "And that is why so much nonsense is talked in places like Oxford and New York" and storming out of the room. I apologise for the cliché, but he did storm out, failing to notice the standing ovation which occurred, the only one for a routine lecture I ever saw in fifty years.

Causation: How the Universe Works: Rom Harrétutorial - tutorial, philosophy of science
Rom wrote well about science, but he talked even better - in a rather hoarse voice in a New Zealand accent. This was a conversation which followed the logic of what happened if you kept on asking "Why?" as children and theoretical physicists do. You end with the absolute necessity of assuming and seeking an underlying system of regularity to the whole thing - even if you never find it, a conclusion roughly equivalent to Immanuel Kant's "synthetic a priori". This was actually a two-person tutorial, the other person being a South African Davis Cup tennis player who didn't say very much. It left me with the feeling that I may not understand much science, but I understand what science is.

Probability: (Sir) Peter Strawson - Tutorial, philosophical logic
We talked about statistical and inductive conceptions of probability and also about how we can deal with probability hypothetically and counter-factually, all largely with reference to my experiences as a card player. What was notable was that a world famous philosopher responded in detail to my essay rather than resorting to the sort of lecturette that university teachers so often come up with in tutorials and seminars. At one point he even admitted that I may have been right and himself wrong about something. The understanding of probability I gained then has informed me ever since when dealing with diverse matters such as travel routes, weather forecasts and horse races.

The most obvious thing that all of these teachers had in common was a real urge to get things across and a pleasure in doing so. This may be less true of Sir Peter who was probably happier reading, thinking and writing than he was teaching, but he was certainly prepared to engage with those who wanted to take his ideas seriously. The two institutions involved were, of course, elite institutions with a strong esprit de corps and high morale.

On reflection, I can't think of any lessons up to O level which passed my test and I have a suspicion that the school concentrated its brightest and best at the sixth form level. They did not then have to contend with league tables and Oxbridge entry was probably the statistic which most interested the authorities. But the whole question of marks and grades was totally peripheral to the educational mission. For the most part we were off-piste, trying to understand the world rather than pass exams. Sir Peter, especially, would not have ranked highly when it came to covering the syllabus.

Which raises the question of whether this kind of teaching is still possible in the much more bureaucratised and prescribed schools of half a century later. Since two of my sons teach the equivalent of sixth form I had a ready source of information and opinion. What I got back from them shows a remarkable degree of consensus, given two very different people in quite different schools:

The official orthodoxy is entirely friendly to the sort of teaching I have praised. It says that pupils must be taught to learn for themselves and not just to regurgitate material. That is how you are taught to teach and that is what OFSTED are looking for. But the actual system of education militates against its own expressed beliefs because the exams do not really reward anything other than playing safe and good grades are a norm and a necessity rather than something you aspire to.

The greatest obstacles to real learning and teaching have been internalised by the pupils themselves. The first is the instrumentality they have absorbed from parents and careers officers which says that education is entirely about getting good marks in order to get good jobs. It is all too easy to say that instrumentality of that kind is irrational, that the learning process is both more effective and more enjoyable if you treat it as an end-in-itself – but saying doesn't change anything. And the second problem is that there is no reading habit; apparently, no seventeen-year-olds sit contentedly reading through the whole of a serious book these days as I did simply because it was one of the many things I enjoyed.

Even so, the consensus is that imaginative and effective teaching can be done. The International Baccalaureate offers more scope than A level, not least because it has no equivalent of A/S level. (This comes as rather a shock to someone of my generation, brought up to regard the French style of education as more prescribed and bureaucratised than our own!) But there was no shortage of examples of teaching which sounded interesting.

The Spanish teacher reported showing his pupils a video of a football fan ranting as River Plate crashed to defeat; the words were written down and translated - a translation involving lots of new words - and a discussion followed of why it is in Buenos Aires that insulting a man's sister is so much more telling than insulting the man himself.

The teacher of religion and philosophy reported getting students to talk about the nature of organised religion by asking them to devise an advertisement for church attendance. In both cases even the mere reporting of the idea started me thinking and I would like to believe that they are the sort of experiences which will be remembered in fifty years' time. But perhaps I'm just being a proud father?

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is My Father's Bookcase: A Version of the History of Ideas, also available as a Kindle download from and from

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