This week students at OISE Cambridge are preparing a presentation on the Ideal School or training centre.
I mentioned in a post earlier this week [here] the idea of forming a peripatetic academy in the Botanical Gardens just opposite the school, and I have been wondering why that might in fact be a good idea.
In a typical language classroom, students sit still, listen, talk, yawn, take notes, fill gaps; occasionally the teacher will invite them to get up and move around for some reason, perhaps as part of a game, perhaps in order to give a presentation. But on the whole, the student sits and the teacher stands, and the knowledge trickles slowly downhill.
Of course this was not always so; the Peripatetic School at Athens was famously organized for walking up and down; the cloisters at Europe’s oldest universities fulfilled a similar purpose. To walk is, in a sense, to think; Bruce Chatwin, in his 1987 book, The Songlines, argued that because we evolved as a nomadic species, we think best when we are going along at a steady walking pace – we think, literally, on our feet.
So it is, we might conclude, that every student loves to get out of the classroom, whether it is a five-year old going on a nature walk or an OISE student taking a trip to Lloyd’s of London. There is a sense of freedom, and of the real world shattering the classroom bubble.
But the idea of students strolling through the Botanical Gardens is more than simply a way of ensuring they get some fresh air; it is a way of introducing the phenomenal world into the learning experience: in other words, of learning through objects.
In the nineteenth century in Cambridge (and elsewhere), plaster -cast copies were taken of classical sculpture and used to illustrate points in lectures on archaeology or aesthetics; students would be invited to come and inspect the casts at close quarters, perhaps handle them.
The casts are no longer used for this purpose, but I am often struck by the animation of students when, instead of photocopied sheets of paper, a teacher places an object on the table for them to inspect. It is as though a fragment of the real world has suddenly appeared – the real world of objects whose language everyone speaks. In Gulliver’s Travels, the philosophers of Lagogo converse with one another by holding up objects which they carry around for the purpose. An object – an apple, a ceramic pot, a toothbrush – has an equal clarity in any language.
There it is then, the Ideal Classroom: out of doors, with space to walk about in, in the company of a philosopher who keeps producing memorable objects to which you can attach your ideas.
Now all we need is some weather.