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The Mountain of Adventure (more Enid Blyton)

I’ve just reread yet another Enid Blyton story from my childhood. I’d already read The Enid Blyton Story, about her life and work, and reread The Secret of Killimooin (the first Enid Blyton novel I read), and, as I noted there, while there are some children’s books that adults enjoy reading, Enid Blyton’s books are not generally among them.

So should kids read Enid Blyton? I say yes, because her books can encourage a love of reading.

A blogging friend, Clarissa, recently asked about something related to this. She quotes someone as saying:

If I were to stand up in a faculty meeting and say “The really good students are the ones who read Dickens [or the equivalent in whatever language you were educated in] for pleasure when they were young” I’d be called elitist. Maybe even racist.  American anti-intellectualism spans the spectrum from (literal) know-nothing conservatives to touchy-feely egalitarian leftists.

Clarissa goes on to ask if this is true, because she might be inclined to say the same thing.

I’m not sure if it is true that the really good students were the ones who read Dickens as children, but I am fairly sure that the really good students I’ve had to teach were the ones who read books as children, because they were the ones who were able to make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. An important stage in that transition is reading for pleasure.

Our middle child (who is now 30-something) wanted to go to school and learn to read because he desperately wanted to read The Lord of the Rings for himself instead of having it read to him. He was rather disappointed that he wasn’t able to do so after his first day of school.

Some years ago I was responsible for training self-supporting clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. They came to the training centre for one weekend a month, and then for 10 days at the beginning of each year. Their previous education levels varied tremendously — from four years of primary school to university graduates. Because they were part-time students, much of the training was based on reading, and I soon discovered that many had not made the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. About half of them sere school teachers, and their reading skills were the poorest of all the occupations represented. A grade 7 Maths teacher, for example, had a Grade 6 reading level.

We got some reading training equipment and spent part of each training session in trying to improve reading skills, but also moved the emphasis of the training from book study to other forms of instruction, which put them on a more equal footing. Those who could not read well were not stupid. They could talk just as intelligently as the readers. So yes, I could say that thinking that students who read Dickens were the best students could be elitist.

So how would it have helped them if they had all read books like The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield as children? (Both books have donkeys in them).

The Mountain of AdventureThe Mountain of Adventure by Enid Blyton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first book by Enid Blyton that I actually owned. It was given to me as a birthday or Christmas present when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and I loved it. It featured children riding donkeys in the mountains, a mountain with caves and secret passageways, a mad scientist conducting sinister experiments, and a helicopter. I read it several times.

I also read several other books in Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series, but none were as interesting or exciting as this one. The Valley of Adventure came close, but didn’t quite make it, though it did teach me about stalactites and stalagmites and the difference between them.

Now I’ve just reread The Mountain of Adventure as an adult, and several things stand out, including many of the same faults that I had noted in The Secret of Killimooin. There was the over-use of exclamations (What a surprise!) in both the text and the dialogue. The food porn. The constant pointing out of the obvious.

Yet, for all its faults, to my 10-year-old self the story was interesting and exciting.

I notice some other things in reading it as an adult, however. One of its effects on me as a child was that if familiarised me with idioms that could probably be called literary cliches. They are things that people rarely say in real life, but often say in books, and they came with a flash of recognition — so that’s where I learnt that phrase!

Here are some of them:

  • you’ll come to a bad end
  • the coast is clear
  • while the going’s good
  • it will be the worse for you
  • beside himself with rage
  • taste of their own medicine
  • a coward, like all bullies
  • if looks could have killed
  • smell a very large rat
  • spilt the beans

I was aware of all those idioms, but it was in rereading The Mountain of Adventure I became aware of where I had learnt them.

So would the self-supporting ministry trainees have benefited from reading The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield, and would either have made them elitist?


One of the criticisms of Enid Blyton is that she was elitist, and her characters were all middle class.

I think of Wilson Mthembu, one of the Zululand self-supporting ministry trainees. I know nothing of his childhood or where he went to school, but he had got as far as Standard 2 (Grade 4), and he was a shopkeeper. How well could he identify with four middle-class English school children in the book?

Well, the children are not at home in the suburbs, but on holiday at a Welsh mountain farm, where the life is not all that dissimilar to rural Zululand, where there are donkeys, like those the children ride. And having some people speak English and some speak Welsh is not all that different from the English-Zulu divide in Zululand. And, as a shopkeeper, Wilson Mthembu is a member of the bourgeoisie.

The mad scientist might be a bit out of place, but that’s the essence of adventures — strange things happening.

Then there’s the helicopter.

And I recall that around the time that Wilson Mthembu was attending the training course, they were filming Zulu Dawn not far away. One of the stars, Burt Lancaster, broke his arm, and was taken by helicopter to the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital to have it strapped up. He got out of the helicopter and there was a crowd of kids rushing towards the famous film star, but they ran straight past him and went to look at the helicopter.

And David Copperfield? Well he may have ended up as middle class, but he didn’t really start off that way. So I don’t think that is very elitist either.

A friend gave me a copy of David Copperfield for my 12th birthday. I think he’d told his parents that I liked reading, so they thought I’d like that. But I put it on a shelf and carried on reading Biggles (I’d graduated to that from Enid Blyton by then), and only read David Copperfield years later.

What’s the difference between Blyton and Dickens?

Most 10-year-olds can appreciate Enid Blyton because she tells a simple story. But Dickens is more complex, and it is not the books that are difficult so much as the understanding of human nature. Reading Dickens requires children to have an understanding of adult human nature which most children do not have. It is not reading difficulty, but experience of life that makes the difference. Blyton’s adult characters are crude and over-simplified, but they are fairly easy for children to interpret with their experience of adult behaviour. Dickens’s characters are much more complex, even though they do sometimes seem to have exaggerated characteristics, almost like caricatures. But it is easy for children to miss the irony

When I was at university one of our English set works was Northanger Abbey. I had not a clue what it was about, and missed the whole point. I read it again later, after having read a few books in the genre that Jane Austen was satirising, and only then did it make sense. It was like reading it for the first time, because that was after I had read Melmoth the Wanderer.

So no, I don’t really think it’s elitist to think that students who had enjoyed Dickens as children might be better students. But I think they might also be better students if they had read Enid Blyton.

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Sharpeville and Namibia

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre, and the 20th anniversary of Namibian independence.

Someone sent me a newsletter from the Anglican Diocese of Namibia, and here are some excerpts from it

Theological Education

To address the chronic shortage of clergy in the diocese, the diocese has put together a group of 53 candidates to prepare them for ordained ministry. All are registered with Theological Education by Extension College of Southern Africa (TEEC). 6 are registered for Diploma in Theology and Ministry, 6 of them are registered for junior certificate in Theology (called AWARD) and 41 are registered for Certificate of Competency in Theology. This group is under tutorship of The Rt Rev Petrus Hilukiluah, our retired Suffragan bishop, The Very Rev Jeremy Lucas, our Associate Dean and Rector of the Cathedral, and The Ven Lukas K. Katenda, Diocesan Secretary & Treasurer. Progress on this program is recorded for last year with many passed their exams and assignments above average. The assignments and exams are marked in South Africa. This year they are doing their second year and have been dispatched to various parishes for their practical lessons.

Because of the shortage of clergy in the Diocese, we now rely heavily on our retired clergy to run parishes. But age is age. We must make sure that we are not abusing our retired clergy who deserved a restful retirement after decades of service to the church and the community. We owe a big thank you to our retired bishops, The Rt. Rev Shihala Hamupembe who serves as the Director of St Mary’s Center replacing Mrs. Canner Kalimba who retired. He first served as Chaplain to the High school during the first two years of his retirement. He is now looking up to the diocese to find a suitable replacement for him. The Rt. Rev Petrus Hilukiluah served as Diocesan Coordinator for HIV and AIDS and later Director of Theological Education Training Program for the Diocese.

Bishop Shihala has indicated that he would like only to act as Mission Director for St Mary’s Mission Center. He is looking forward to his replacement, during this year. The Cathedral Chapter and the Diocesan Standing Committee appointed Mr. Josef Hanghome to become the new Director of St Mary’s Mission. Doing his Certificate in Theology, he has been registered with University of Management doing Certificate in Administration and Secretarial course, as a preparation the daunting task of managing St Mary’s Mission.

Please pray for this young man to be equipped with commitment, dedication and enthusiasm as well as the divine power to dwell on him. Another landmark appointment is that of Mr Lineekela Daniel, who also is doing his Certificate in Theology. Mr Daniel was appointed to become the Manager of Christ the King Conference and Training Center. The Center is in the dilapidating condition and Mr Daniel will make sure the renovations have taken place and maintenance is carried out on a regular basis. He will be supported by a staff of one clear and temporary cooks.

The report is compiled by the Ven Kaluwapa Lukas Katenda
Diocesan Secretary & Treasurer, 24 Februiary 2010
lkatenda@gmail.com

There was much more, and lots of pictures. One thing that shocked me about it was that the only names of people I recognised were those who are retired. Shihala Hamupembe, the retired bishop, I first met when he stayed overnight with us in Windhoek on the way to a youth leadership course in Mindolo, Zambia, and we had to keep his presence secret because the Security Police were looking for him and trying to prevent him from leaving the country — something we knew from the chance overhearing of a conversation on a police radio in a police station. Later, after I had been deported from Namibia, he stayed with us in Durban while on vacation from the seminary he was attending, and we got him to put his youth leadership training to good use by taking our parish youth group on a camp in Zululand.

Another seminary student, Eradius Mwaetako, stayed with us in one of his vacations, and the report said that he too was retired.

It was also interesting to read that 53 Namibian students were enrolled with the TEE College. When I was in Namibia 40 years ago, I was trying to get Namibian students enrolled in Theological Education by Extension courses, but the only project for such a programme, started by the Christian Institute, went through about four directors in as many months, and seemed in imminent danger iof collapse. I talked to some friends, Rich Kraft in Zululand and John Aitchison in Pietermaritzburg, and we decided that if the Christian Institute could spend half a million Rand and not produce a theological course, we could produce a theological course and not spend half a million Rand. So we started on a shoe string, writing course material that was highly illegal, because John Aitchison was banned and later I was too. We called it the Khanya Theological Correspondence Course, and it later combined with two other schemes to form the Theological Education by Extension College (TEEC), and is it was good to see that 53 Namibian students have enrolled in it. I’ve told more of the story of theological education here: Tales from Dystopia III: Theological education in a totalitarian state: Khanya

One thing that struck me as curious about the report, though, is that Bishop Petrus Hilukiluah, whom I also met as a seminary student, seems to have added an h to his name, as has the diocesan bishop. I knew him as Petrus Hilukilua. Is the extra h a special honorific for Namibian bishops? In which case, why doesn’t Shihala Hamupembe spell his name Hamupembeh? Just wondering.

Bishop Alan’s Blog: Vicarage Allsorts: Clergy Supply

Bishop Alan’s Blog: Vicarage Allsorts: Clergy Supply:

After 30 years of designer angst about clergy shortages I am amazed that this should be so, but the simple fact is that there are actually more active C of E collars on the streets of England in 2005 than in 1959. I don’t know about you, but this surprised me. It also strikes me as the kind of raw figure that won’t be of any interest to Fleet Street, because it neither provokes fear and anguish, nor validates their prejudices and fantasies about the C of E.

The distribution, however has entirely changed. The preponderance is distributed more, I would guess, according to population. The bad story then was rural/urban. Now I would anticipate it to be North/West as against South/East. There are far fewer full time collars of the conventional sort, but far more retired active and self supporting. Looking ahead this means their shelf life and deployability is far lower. People in the 1960’s complained that vicars were too young and inexperienced about the rest of life. Now they complain that they’re all on second careers. You can’t have it both ways! Or can you? Training needs, however are radically different.

The report Bishop Alan was quoting was picked up by a journalist of the Sunday Telegraph to produce an alarmist report quoted by Fr David MacGregor, and prompted Bishop Alan to take the mickey Bishop Alan’s Blog:

The most important person in a business is always, in a way, the person on the front desk. The wellbeing of clergy is, in that obvious sense among others, vital to the wellbeing of the Church. Since Chaucer’s time there’s been public anxiety about this subject. 200 years ago Sidney Smith lamented the decline in the quality of clergy since the enforcement of residence was preventing gentlemen from desiring ordination. In the roaring 20’s, Hensley Henson bemoaned the decline in the quality of ordinands since the first world war. The document quoted in last week’s Sunday Telegraph, however, is barking up a very different tree. A more accurate headline than “poor quality of vicars alarms church leaders” would probably be “desperation to dramatize drab HR questionnaire twits journalist.”

I find this interesting because though it was a different time and a different place, 30 years ago I was responsible for training self-supporting clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, and I thought most people in the diocese had the wrong idea of the role of self-supporting vis a vis church supported clergy.

Many parishes had anything between 5 and 30 “outstations”, and the clergy would itinerate to celebrate the Eucharist. I thought each outstation should have, if possible, 2 or more self-supporting priests and 2 or more deacons. The “rector” (who need not necessarily be ordained) should be a pastor/teacher (a somewhat different kind of ministry) equipped to train and support the clergy at the outstations, and itinerate for training and teaching, not sacraments.

That was the sort of thing advocated by Roland Allen in his book Missionary methods, St Paul’s or ours? nearly 100 years ago, but never really put into practice anywhere. I still think it should be applied, mutatis mutandis, in Orthodox mission, though in practice it would need to be modified. It is difficult to have self-supporting clergy, since most of them would be among the urban unemployed.

Among Anglicans in South Africa there may have been similar patterns. In 1971 a book was published. The vanishing clergyman : a sociological study of the priestly role in South Africa by Trevor Verryn. He noted a marked decline in the number of Anglican ordinands in training. Within a year or two of the publication of his book, the trend was dramatically reversed, as a result of the spread of the charimatic renewal movement, and at least one of the Anglican theological colleges in South Africa had to be enlarged to cope with the influx of new students, most of them married and entering second careers.

There was a similar study to Verryn’s in the Church of England, The fate of the Anglican clergy: a sociological study by Robert Towler (London, Macmillan, 1979). Though it was published eight years later, the period of study was similar to Verryn’s; Bob Towler followed the 1966 intake of five Anglican theological colleges in England over the next 10 years. I was one of them.

It was quite an interesting period, and I suspect one of great change in outlook for many — the time of hippies, of student power. Now most of those in Towler’s study will be approaching retirement, and it might be interesting to see what has happened to them and how their views have changed. How did they change the church, and how did the church change them?

Zemblanity and education

A few years ago I was a member of an SGB of SAQA, that is a Standards Generating Body for the South African Qualifications Authority. It was the standards generating body for Christian Theology and Ministry, and had to generate standards, that is learning outcomes, for various theological qualifications from Grade 10 to Doctorate in Theology.

The SGB completed its work a couple of years ago, and a bunch of standards were registered. But now, it appears, they have to be revised, and so the SGB is being reconstituted, and will have to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops again.

I don’t mind too much. I quite enjoyed the meetings, because I met a group of stimulating and creative people from a variety of Christian traditions. I was able to meet some old friends and make some new ones. But the work we were required to do was frustrating. One could see that it had some good intentions and good goals — to raise the general standard of education, to weed out incompetent and fraudulent educational institutions and so on. But at the same time it seemed likely to stifle initiative, frustrate learning, and make education prohibitively expensive.

I was thus interested to read this, which seems to sum up the drawbacks and dangers of the current system: Changing the World (and other excuses for not getting a proper job…): Serendipitous Learning and Zemblanitous Education

The core of it deserves to be quoted:

…serendipity has an opposite. An antonym, in fact. (And how often do you get to use that word?) ‘Zemblanity’ is a more recent coinage, the work of the novelist William Boyd:

So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.

All this I learned by following up a presentation by a Finnish guy called Teemu Arina – which I came across thanks to a post from Artichoke. Teemu reckons (and I agree) that “making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design” is a pretty good description of what happens in formal education, when “learning outcomes” are specified in advance.

And I’ve been rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where the bureaucratic mentality of educationists (or pedagogicians, as some of them like to call themselves) is satirised in the person of Dolores Umbridge.

Outcomes-based education was introduced into South Africa after our first democratic elections in 1994. It was an attempt to remedy the damage caused to the South African education system by four decades of the National Party policy of “Christian National Education” (which, as Christian educators often pointed out, was neither Christian, nor national, nor education). The damage was worst in Bantu Education, which was hived off into a separate government department that made the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter look positively sane. The whole evil system was underpinned by the pseudoscience of “Fundamental Pedagogics”, which was used to cripple thousands of student teachers at the start of their careers, and consisted mainly in the rote learning of obscurantist definitions of terms that were dressed up in pompous and bombastic language — a smoke and mirrors trick to make them appear more “scientific”. For example, one had to learn such terms as “Temporal Andragogics” (the History of Adult Education, I kid you not).

One of the “learning outcomes” of this system was that students learnt that you did not have to understand this outlandish terminology, you just had to learn the definition by rote and repeat it in the exams. The most important learning outcome was slavish political correctness. You said what your teachers, lecturers and bosses wanted to hear.

At the University of South Africa (which trained more teachers than any other institution in the country) a Fundamental Pedagogician said (of an incomprehensible passage in a first-year study guide), “they don’t have to understand it, they just have to learn it.” Or, as another one said to a person who was trying to translate a study guide from Afrikaans to English, and could not understand the Afrikaans text, “you don’t have to understand it, you just have to translate it.” This was said without tongue in cheek, dead seriously. Dolores Umbridge had a great deal to learn from the Department of Fundamental Pedagogics at Unisa; she was a mere amateur by comparison.

After all that, I can sympathise with “outcomes-based education” (OBE), at least in theory. It moved the emphasis from curriculum (input) to what is actually learned. It takes away the excuse of teachers who say “we taught them that but they didn’t learn it.”

But as it has been applied in South Africa, I doubt that it can remedy the disease of “Christian National Education”. Many teachers who were trained in Fundamental Pedagogics will, and have, treat it simply as a slightly different variety of political correctness — new terms to be learned by rote and used, especially when within earshot of your boss.

So Outcomes-Based Education comes with its own vocabulary. The emphasis is not on what teachers teach, but rather on what learners learn, so it is important to think of learners as people who are learning, regardless of age, and so when speaking of the actual education process one speaks of “learners” rather than “students” or “pupils”. Students study, and pupils are supervised by tutors, but learners learn. But when a teacher is quoted in a newspaper as saying that “One of the pu… learners was run over by a car outside the school yesterday,” you know that political correctness is rearing its ugly head again. It doesn’t matter what the word “learner” means, it is the one my boss’s boss wants us to say. Rote learning of educational jargon does not make a good teacher.

Again, real life trumps satire like Harry Potter every time. At the University of South Africa a few years ago a task group was set up by the university administration, and the task group announced that its task was to “facilitate conflict”.

The theory behind the South African Qualifications Authority is good in some ways. If you had standard learning outcomes at various levels, then it is easier to say that one qualification is equivalent to another. A person transferring to a different university or a different faculty can be given credit for previous learning because they have achieved known outcomes to a known standard. Scammers who rip people off by offering bogus qualifications at fly-by-night institutions with high fees and low standards can be closed down.

But sometimes education, especially in a specialised field like theological education, can be, and sometimes is, done on a shoe string. I visited the St Sergius Institute in Paris in 1968. The students lived in poverty, in a basement under the church, with an open drain running down the middle of the floor, and cloth partitions between the beds. Most of them were Russian exiles, but some came from other countries. Their teachers were part time, their library facilities were minimal. They would never pass inspection by the educational bureaucracy. Yet they were motivated to learn, and learnt what they needed to learn. Registering such an institution in the new South Africa would be virtually impossible, and the fee for a single inspection would be more than the institution’s budget for three years. Far better that they should use the money for improving their teaching and facilities than on bureaucracy.

In South Africa today there are hundreds of refugee teachers from Zimbabwe who are better qualified than many South African teachers, and whatever the problems of Zimbabwe in the past or present, were not crippled by “Christian National Education”. Some of them teach in unregistered private schools, which would be closed down if the education authorities knew what was going on. But they are probably doing as much to remedy the deficiencies of South African education as many of the bureaucrats.

And back in the “old” South Africa a friend of mine, John Aitchison, organised a night school for the staff of the then University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg — cooks, cleaners, gardeners and so on, who had had little chance of education as children. Another volunteer effort, run on a shoestring, the teachers all being students and a few lecturers. By such means some people were able to bypass Bantu Education and have education for liberation. But it would be difficult to run such things under present regulations.

To return to Zemblanity. Another friend of mine, Larry Gilley, once returned from a meeting of people trying to develop an interdenominational Sunday School curriculum at which they had debated the relative merits of a Bible-centred curriculum or a child-centred curriculum. He remarked that it didn’t matter much, because whichever one they opted for, they would still end up with a curriculum-centred curriculum.

You may change the government, you may change the system, but zemblanity in education will cling like a limpet.

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