Notes from the Jungle is an engagingly provocative book from a working international headteacher. Quirky and irreverent, it reads like lectures between cafe conversations. It begins with a range of salubrious anecdotes about feckless and petty teachers getting up to mischief. Considering the ambition and reputation of his school, these are frankly sharp and admittedly compelling.
The meat of contention evident in other reviews tackles how Price discusses the nature of teaching in a British school. He uses the word ‘comprehensive’ frequently and derisively. While comprehensive schools suffered (and still do) from intractable social issues (a lack of Northern jobs thwarting ambition, for example), there is some truth in what he says. Still, Price is evidently ambitious for himself and his students, and seems aware of how he comes across:
No other profession allows you to rehearse your private views on any subject under the sun and scarcely ever be challenged. The best teaching is really just a long conversation.
Some of the very best literature teachers I worked occasionally had an underdeveloped range of pedagogy and rather weak organisation. They were difficult to classify in observations (and rightly so). However, their warmth and passion and supreme knowledge made them better teachers than most. They weren’t great teachers because of their lack of organisation – they were tremendous educators despite that. The ‘long conversation’ that Sharp mentions here really is the act of traversing cultural valleys, and in ways that perhaps cannot really be planned or legislated in literature the way that they might do in the sciences. I think we all want that kind of experience with our teachers.
Alas, despite accepted conventions of cultural capital and the dangers of voice discourse (see my essays on sociology and education for more on that), teaching literature is a contentious issue. Price seems to revel in this, stating that literature is ‘not for everyone’. He does track back on this view later, but you can read the glint in his eyes through his words.
Despite this focus on the failings of British schooling, he situates his knowledge and writes with pleasing ambition. He is right when he asserts that:
Most of the literature studied in school is hardly conducive to building anything resembling a civil society. Clever pupils of course have the good sense to ignore most of what their teachers tell them and work out their ideas for themselves.
Such statements may seem like bluster to some. Price often uses words that I have not only never encountered but are also not in my Kindle dictionary. This competitive academic writing may turn some people away. I think it reflects the kind of atmosphere that nurtured him, and the kind of environment he wants to establish in his school. It is no more pretentious than Amis who spaces such language with purposeful clarity.
Like all good thinkers he moves beyond brute intellectualisation and wonders what it means to live a good life. While he is a busy headteacher, he has made time to write these notes, appealing to Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness:
The purpose of school is to educate us for the productive use of our leisure time. He argues that working hours are too long and that the world of work should be organised differently.
This is a class issue as much as a leisure issue. I would agree that it is expensive to be uneducated. Being able to read and think and be allows for a life beyond the demands of credit. Of course, he lives a rich and interesting life in Brunei beyond that imaginable by many. But ultimately he writes of a brave and ambitious approach to education that is expressed in different, more utilitarian ways. I agree with him when he declares that ‘the essence of the human experience lies in subtlety and complexity, not in the simplistic dogma of extremists. Many people like simple messages because they give meaning to their lives.’ Of course, he writes a few things with provocative certainty (International Mindedness is wooly…literature shouldn’t be taught to most people), but the book overall demonstrates a more hedged view of leading a school whilst asserting academic ambitions.