A number of the pieces in Pullman's collection Daemon Voices touch on education in various ways. In fact, most of the arguments he makes in his essays come back to his deep love for language, and thus concern for the teaching of language. A teacher himself for many years, he wrote plays for the students to put on, which were later adapted into his first books for children. His feelings about national testing and slavish curricula will be familiar to anyone with common sense. Who, even if they bow to the necessity of testing, can help but at least see the appeal of the old days, when people were allowed to teach without it? Who can help but recognize that we need to recover something of that freedom and spontaneity?
His autobiographical sketch, I have a feeling this all belongs to me, recounts considerably more about his actual memories of teaching. He speaks there of teaching mythology; there and elsewhere, of teaching writing as a fellow-worker (Isis lecture). In other places, he expounds upon ways in which he comes to see the teaching system as one symptom of a larger problem (Miss Goddard's Grave, and perhaps even in his fiction).
In this short autobiography I haven't got the space to write about the thousand things that interest, delight, amaze, sadden, baffle, infuriate, or anger me. If I had the space I'd say something about the wholesale and vicious destruction of the public services in this country that's taken place over the past few years: especially that of education. If I were still a teacher and tried to do now the work I did for twelve years or so-and did well, I think-not only would I be discouraged, I would be forbidden. We now have a National Curriculum that lays down exactly what all children should be taught, and when they should be taught it, and insists on regular pencil-and-paper tests which seem to be checking on the pupils, but whose real purpose is to check on the teachers. When I was teaching, I was free to decide what I should do and how I should do it, and one of the things I decided was that the pupils in my classes should learn about Greek mythology. So I began to tell them stories about the gods and heroes. I had to find good versions to work from, because I wanted to get the stories right; I didn't want to simply read to my pupils, I wanted to stand up and tell them the stories face-to-face. So I used Robert Graves's two-volume version of the Greek myths, which was the fullest I could find; and the Iliad and the Odyssey in the Penguin prose translation. I worked out a course that lasted a year. In the first term I'd deal with the births and origins of the gods and goddesses, and their natures and deeds, to use Graves's phrase, and tell some of the stories about Theseus, Jason, Oedipus, Perseus, Heracles, and the other heroes; in the second term I'd start with the origins of the Trojan War and then do Homer's Iliad from start to finish; and in the third term I'd tell the Odyssey. It was important to tell, not read, so I had to prepare the stories thoroughly. I taught three separate classes of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, so I'd tell each story three times in a week; and I taught for twelve years, so I must have told each story thirty-six times. The result is that now I have all those stories entirely clear in my head, from beginning to end, and I can call them up whenever I want to.(I did this once on holiday. We ate our evening meal in a restaurant, and my younger son, Tom, was finding it hard to sit still while we waited for the waitress to bring us the food, so I told him the Odyssey as a serial to keep him quiet. On the last night, when I got to that wonderful climax where Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, finally reaches his palace after twenty years away, to find it infested with rivals all seeking to marry his wife Penelope; and is recognised by his old nurse because of the scar on his leg; and gets Penelope to offer to marry any of the rivals who can string the bow of her husband, but no one can; and then Odysseus himself asks to try, and they all jeer at the ragged old beggar, but he picks up the bow and flexes it and with one easy movement slips the string into the notch and then plucks it like a harp, sending a clear note into the shocked silence of the hall. . . . Well, when I got to that, Tom, who'd been holding a drink in both hands, suddenly bit a large piece out of the glass in his excitement, shocking the waitress so much that she dropped the tray with our meal on it, and causing a sensation throughout the restaurant. And I sent up a silent prayer of thanks to Homer.) Now as with my brother in Australia, the real beneficiary of all that storytelling wasn't so much the audience as the storyteller. I'd chosen-for what I thought, and think still, were good educational reasons-to do something that, by a lucky chance, was the best possible training for me as a writer. To tell great stories over and over and over again, testing and refining the language and observing the reactions of the listeners and gradually improving the timing and the rhythm and the pace, was to undergo an apprenticeship that probably wasn't very different, essentially, from the one Homer himself underwent three thousand years ago. And the more I think about it the more grateful I am for the freedom that allowed me to think about what would be best for my pupils and to design a course that provided it. I wouldn't be allowed to do it now. And meanwhile, of course, I was writing my three pages every day. ...
But for whatever reason, the autobiographical sketch and Isis lecture were not included in the essay collection. I hope that an anthology or even a fresh monograph dedicated to education will come to light at some point. I made a copy of the version of the former piece, which used to be available on Pullman's website along with the Isis lecture; possibly it's archived somewhere more official; and it can still be found in Vol 71 of Something About the Author, which he wrote it for in the first place.
I would love to hear from people who had him as a teacher, whether at school or university, for more anecdotes. At a wonderful recent interview at the London Literature Festival, the question came up, organically it seemed, of what kind of teacher he was, but I wonder if a more painstaking investigation and research into the material wouldn't be worthwhile.
In that same interview, reaffirming what he's said before and in writing, he called for books of folklore, fairy tales, and nursery rhymes to be bound in gold and given to parents.
Some of the people I've talked to have taught his books. What about his teaching?
(this is another element of Tolkien-Pullman connection. Is there a study out there yet about Tolkien as teacher?)
And supposing we could get recordings of him telling stories--would it be anything like as effective as having the classroom teacher telling the stories aloud? Recall, he didn't read, he told them. The analogy is to physical books and conversations and screen-texts and online discussions. In gaining something with our access to the latter, we're giving something up--but we need not make this an either/or. We can focus on learning how to use online resources, not being captured by them; and can retain in-person interaction, for teachers and students have to have somewhere to be, transforming lost time into learning. Not every teacher a storyteller, but those who aren't can show their kids what storytelling looks like through such videos. Not every kid needing that, but those who don't wouldn't be forced, they'd have other options, like writing stories or making videos of their own...