CLASSICS OF EDUCATION No. 1: A survey of the work of Professor nigel molesworth PhD (hem hem) by Sir Timothy Peason Q.C. …
Cap. III div. 4 (g)
in the Regulations for Conduct of BfK (1897) states that this ultimate page is to be devoted to a brief assessment of a classick. [Voices off, somewhere beyond the Editor’s cell: Eheu, eheu! Bebop, bebop.]
we have recently had a communication from Sir Timothy Peason Q.C. who is anxious that we find space for a tribute to his late (very late) friend, nigel molesworth, whose pioneering studies in the social history of education are on the brink of their fiftieth anniversary. His suggestion is particularly timely, coming as it does at the end of another school year which has seen unparalleled progress in Education (as cubed by the P.M.). [Offstage cheers: Wow! Wizz! Super! No more lat, no more fr. ect, ect.]
were first published in the education section of that hebdomadal The London Charivari, well-known for never being as good as it used to be. Such was his incisive analysis of almost every facet of educational practice, ruthlessly revealing facts that pedagogic crammers and theorists had sought to hide, that he was easily persuaded [crinkle, crinkle: a crisp fiver, mr. m.?] to formalize it in his first training manual Down With Skool! (Max Parrish, 1953), soon to be followed by How to be Topp (1954), Whizz for Atomms (1956) and Back in the Jug Agane (1959).
clearly played a central part in his own thinking, as evidenced by the foregoing book titles. Opinions differ as to how far he was motivated by the prospect of rewards from the ‘alfabet trusts’ envisaged in the will of G. B. Shaw, or by a lucrative collaboration with Isaac Pitman over ita. Without doubt though, his own legacy has come down to us through the manufacturers of spell-checkers and other members of the Society for the Eradication of Human Intelligence.
The honourable calling
of schoolmastering was assessed in terms more sceptical than fellow analysts, such as Professor Buckeridge in his longitudinal studies at Linbury Court School. molesworth’s theory that the subject makyth the Beak led him to some penetrating observations on those conducting lessons in English, French, Botany ect, ect alongside their less formal behaviour outside the classroom [Quote: ‘English masters hav long hair red ties and weeds like wordsworth throw them into exstatsies.’ Another quote: ‘Charge ta-ranta-rah for the masters comon room … such a pong poo-gosh of pipes and cig ends you would almost think they all go around picking up ours …’]. Subsequent efforts by the profession to free themselves from the public opprobrium occasioned by these reports have so far had little effect as witness such things as Blunkett’s Ball-and-Chain edict which, it is believed, was based on molesworthian theory.
was seen in its traditional and somewhat moribund form, and one regrets that molesworth has not been around to assess the impact of what he would have called post-modernist thort on current practice. He clear-sightedly developed a critique of the approach to pedagogy that has tended to undermine everything from the days of the quadrivium onwards: ‘I have been here thirty years. I have always said that and do not intend to change now…’ and he was no less pragmatic in advising on the social life of students: ‘Every skool hav a resident buly who is fat and roll about the place clouting everybode. This is nesessessery so that we can all hav a sermon from time to time chiz …’
On the other hand
he is constructive in dealing with less-formal aspects of in-school learning, advancing programmes that were revolutionary for their date eg the design of an Atommic Pile (in which I was honoured to render assistance) and plans for travel to the moon and beyond [‘Mars would be all right if it wer not for the Martians who are quite beyond the pail.’]. Even more valuable was his recognition of the need to question exactly what the corpore sano was which the mens sana was supposed to inhabit and whether exercises like foopball and criket served any useful purpose. His arguments for the closer study of such subjects as horseflesh were pregnant with practical wisdom and it is no surprise to find his essay ‘A Few Tips from the Coarse’ being included in Sean Magee’s anthology Runners & Riders (Methuen, 1993), a collection acclaimed as the best ever of such things.
molesworth’s associates throughout his research were his amanuensis Geoffrey Willans and his adviser on graphic communication, Ronald Searle, whose brilliance as portraitist, designer of working-diagrams, and narrative scene-setter contributed an essential element to the texts. Unfortunately these friends could not persuade him to abandon the rebarbative chauvinism evident in such essays as ‘Ko-edukation at St Custard’s’ where, neglectful of the sweeping tide of egalitarianism, he sought to defend brave, noble and fearless boys against the imposition of wet girlies. It was his undoing. One dark night he was set upon by the maidens of that neighbouring academy, St Trinian’s, and his broken body was found next day among the rhododendrons. Chiz chiz.
Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle is published by Penguin (0 14 118600 3, £9.99 pbk).
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.