Sunday, 18 June 2017

Brian Gray - the Art of the Lecture

Brian Gray of Rudolf Steiner College (who describes himself as a 'melancholic Capricorn.)

Fine teachers are rare. Indeed, the world today seems awash with poor teachers and what fine teachers remain among us are increasingly unwelcome in an educational environment that is descending into various forms of decay, decadence and insanity. The present writer has a good handful of close friends and former colleagues who are, by any measure, excellent teachers but who have all, for various reasons, fled the teaching profession. Some have retired demoralized. Some have burnt out and have been damaged and diminished by the whole experience. Some have reluctantly decided they would rather drive taxis or wash dishes. The exodus of talented teachers from the profession - especially in state education - is epidemic.

Largely, this impasse is the result of bureaucrats and a parasitic class of "educational designers", administrators, "managers", and the like interfering with the immediate demands of the teaching situation.  Class room experience counts for nothing. Only the "designers" and "learning managers" armed with the latest theories know anything. They impose an endless array of new and often recycled theories to teaching until the entire profession is an unruly mess of experimentalism, so-called "research" and pointless innovation. Every round of "PD", "professional development" aggravates the problem. Most of the very fine teachers this writer knows who are no longer engaged with teaching were outstanding teachers of the 'traditional' mode, which is to say teachers in 'direct instruction'. This is frowned upon in an era of "team teaching" and "computer labs". Even in universities excellent lecturers are under attack by the "designers" who denigrate them with demeaning labels like 'The Sage upon the Stage' and seek to replace them with email tutorials or similar gimmicks.  

Worse, all of this is very often to cover over the fact that today's students are so immersed in disruptive technologies, and their minds are so incapable of concentration, and their family and school life is so undisciplined that they are almost beyond being taught anyway. There is a crisis in education at all levels but at the same time there is a huge industry devoted to denying it, and those that deny it "deconstruct" teaching so they can use the school system to promote toxic ideologies and poisonous schemes of social engingeering. It is small wonder that the average duration of a teaching career is now just a little over five years. 

There are, however, excellent teachers who battle on. If they are fortunate they will find a place somewhere in the system - or more often somewhere outside the system - where they can give of themselves to receptive students. One such teacher came to this writer's attention recently, and his skills deserve to be celebrated. He is a teacher in the Steiner or Waldorf system, at Rudolf Steiner College, California, and his name is Brian Gray. He teaches matters of substance with commendable sagacity, clarity, warmth, good humour and common sense in the 'direct instruction' mode. The Sage upon the Stage. That is, he lectures and his students listen. His only tool is a blackboard - a tool he uses very well. He has been doing this since 1981. He is exactly the type of teacher - a man with a born vocation for teaching - that the "designers" and "learning managers" have sought to remove from the profession. Good God! The man's a dinosaur! He doesn't even use Power Point!

This writer recalls one occasion at his own university where the "designers" and peddlers of hi-tech gadgetry called together a group of students and asked them what made a good teacher. (It was a rhetorical question. They didn't really want to know.) One student, very forthright, replied that all that was required, in his opinion, was "a blackboard and someone who knows what they're talking about!" The designers - at this time cashed up with a hi-tech budget to spend from endless rounds of course closures and staff retrenchments - were incensed. In their usual slimy, condescending manner they smiled at this student and said, "Hopefully, we've moved beyond such a primitive formula now that we've entered the 21st century" or words to that effect. Yet it is true, and it is as true as it ever has been. All that is needed in a good teacher is, as a minimum, "a blackboard and someone who knows what they're talking about!" 

Brian Gray is certainly in that category. He is a man with a blackboard and he knows what he is talking about. And what he is talking about is the philosophy and teachings - especially the cosmology - of Rudolf Steiner. These are topics that are notoriously opaque in themselves - Steiner can be both dense and even outright bizarre to those not familiar with his work - yet Brian Gray is able to communicate Anthroposophical (Steiner-based) topics with admirable simplicity in a teaching style characterized by patient, clear exposition and a palpabably deep respect for his students. This is a model of good teaching. We immediately feel ourselves to be in the presence of a man who is in command of his materials and who is able to communicate his knowledge to his audience. He doesn't need gimmicks, gadgets or "group workshops". The essential ingredient is the warm generosity with which he shares what he knows. There is none of this misplaced egalitarianism that supposes teaching is somehow an "elitist" activity. Mr Gray knows his stuff. We don't. Therefore, we are students and he is teacher, and any proposal to obscure this fact is simply a nefarious undermining of what constitutes authority in the proper sense.

Numerous lecture series by Brian Gray are available online. All of them are worth watching for two reasons: one, to see an excellent, experienced teacher in action (and to be reminded of just what an excellent teacher looks like), and two, to learn from unusually perspicuous presentations of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner is a difficult thinker. Brian Gray makes it seem easy. A favorite is the series entitled 'The Human Being & the Stars'. This is a particularly instructive introduction to the stellar cosmology embedded in Steiner's Anthroposophy. And while non-Anthroposophists might baulk at more than a few aspects of Steiner - the present writer certainly does - Mr Gray presents it in a very accessible and reasonable form. Even more, leaving aside Rudolf Steiner it is a fine account of how human life is enriched by an acquaintance with traditional stellar wisdom; the series is worth watching just on that account. 'Human Being & the Stars' is a series of six lectures, but unfortunately lecture five seems to be missing. Please see the lectures below. 


Steiner's stellar cosmology


Harper McAlpine Black

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