Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Considering Classroom Communities: Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Considering Classroom Communities: Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon

Article excerpt

What is the relationship between the poet and his or her community? What is the poet's responsibility, if any, to that community? How are the events, cultures, or teachings of the community translated by the poet as he or she seeks to connect the poetry with a larger world? These questions have dominated contemporary poetry in Northern Ireland for many years. Yet what is often overlooked when considering them is one of the poet's earliest communities: the classroom. If all pedagogy is political, as the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire has argued, then nowhere is that intersection more evident than in Northern Ireland, where most schools (about ninety-five percent) are segregated by religious affiliation. How, then, does the pedagogical process, both its method of conveying and assessing knowledge and its formal and informal systems of relationships, inform the aesthetic sensibilities and responsibilities of Northern Irish poets? By examining several poems on education, this essay will show how the contemporary poets Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon respond to and ultimately interpret this primary community. While on the surface both poets seem to critique and rebel against the oppressive conditions of the classroom, neither can reject what takes place there. Both poets understand that genuine learning occurs within those vague intersections between facts and fancy, and between academic discourse and the outside world. Although Carson and Muldoon differ, particularly in the degree to which they feel committed to and responsible for their communities, their poems on education demonstrate the significant impact the classroom has on the poets' aesthetic development, and in turn, the role the poet assumes in contemporary Northern Ireland.

Because the system of education in Northern Ireland is so politicized, it may be useful to start with Freire, who argues that education can serve either to indoctrinate or to liberate. A leader in educational reform in the tradition of John Dewey, Freire distinguishes between two ways of teaching. The first resembles Mr Gradgrind's school in Charles Dickens's Hard Times, in which students are 'to be filled so full of facts'. (1) Freire describes this way of teaching:

The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task it to 'fill' the students with the contents of his narration--contents that are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance. Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity. (2)

Just as Gradgrind sees students as 'little pitchers' waiting to be filled, Freire adopts another apt metaphor, the 'banking' system, in which 'the scope of action allowed to the student extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits' (p. 53). If educated thus, students are passive receptacles of knowledge and will never seek to change or improve their world. In contrast, argues Freire, the second kind of education links learning with praxis, dialogue, and problem-posing--in short, with the world. This view, now called constructivist or critical pedagogy, posits that students build or construct knowledge onto their existing understanding of the world and how it works: 'Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferals of information' (p. 60). For Freire, all pedagogy is therefore political in the sense that students are either trained to parrot a system of oppression to which they may belong or are allowed to engage with, question, and (if necessary) rebel against that system in order to transform it.

For a Catholic student in Northern Ireland, that intersection between pedagogy and politics is even more complicated. Ciaran Carson recalls the confusing cultural affiliations that were established by his Catholic school education in Belfast:

We were brought up to accept the Crown but not believe in it, because its dominion had no power to extend beyond this temporal world, this Vale of Tears reiterated in our litanies and family rosaries, as we dipped our fingers yet again into the cold stoup of the holy-water font, and touched them to our cold foreheads. …

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