My Dad, the storytelling engineer.

August 29, 2007


August 1, 2007

My Dad passed on eight years ago.  Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, he was raised in a British school system that I am sure insisted on strict discipline in the classroom and corporal punishment if you broke the rules. 

Fifty years after he learned it, my Dad could recite by memory all 17 verses of the poem The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes.

I always imagined some tyrant Pink Floyd The Wall type teacher looming over his classroom with a yardstick, How can you have any pudding if you don’t learn The Highwayman.  Stand still, laddie.  How else could they learn that much, that thoroughly? 

The Highwayman
He’d a French cocked hat on his forehead, and a bunch of lace at his chin;
He’d a coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of fine doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle; his boots were up to his thigh!
And he rode with a jeweled twinkle—
His rapier hilt a-twinkle—
His pistol butts a-twinkle, under the jeweled sky.

My Dad also read every book written by Charles Dickens, and it always brought a twinkle to his eye to talk about his favorite characters in Barnaby Rudge.

And ask my Dad to tell you a bedtime story about Lingo Longo, an adventurous rabbit with long ears, and you’re probably not going to close your eyes for an hour just thinking about it.

The amazing thing is that my Dad was a civil engineer.

I went to grade school in the early 1970’s.  A few teachers valiantly tried to get us to learn some literature by rote, but by this time it had become a frowned upon teaching method.  I remember having to learn 1 Corinthians 13 by heart.  Something about seeing through a glass darkly.  How appropriate. Now it is virtually gone from my memory banks. 

Education hit a low point in the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s.  English classes started abandoning time tested adherence to grammar.  Schools became more experimental (open concept classrooms) and a loss of discipline and order ensued in the classrooms.  I spent my entire Grade 8 English class preparing a time capsule for the year 2000!  I don’t think we read anything.

Grade 9 English with Mr. Gallimore was a throw back to the golden era of learning about grammar and parsing sentences.  With is a preposition introducing the subordinate clause…  Mr. Gallimore died at the end of my Grade 9 year and so too did the teaching of grammar at my high school.  That was in 1975.

And all the while, education systems in other countries were raising the bar, exacting higher and higher standards of their students.  I used to be a high school teacher; the writing has been on the wall for decades.  I remember one of the math teachers coming into the staff room after teaching a senior level calculus class.  He asked a student who had come from the Hong Kong education system why he knew all the answers to the questions.  It was as though he had already taken calculus.  He had.  In Grade 10.  For decades, North America has been bringing a fancy knife to a gun fight.

Last Friday night, my wife lined up at midnight with my eleven year old daughter to buy the new Harry Potter book.  Lining up for the release of a book?  It brought back memories of the midnight lineups of my childhood – camping out all night long to get tickets to The Who.  Ticketmaster kind of killed that rite of passage.  Thankfully.

I am somewhat skeptical of the Harry Potter series, or any series for that matter.  14 sequel movies will be released this year.  TV, the gaming phenomenon; people don’t read much of anything anymore.

It’s impossible to criticize Harry Potter. The media has manipulated the whole thing into a benevolent crusade that has led children back to books.  Harry Potter surely has encouraged my eleven year old to read; she has read the entire series this calendar year.

It’s great that children are reading the whole Harry Potter series.  For old times sake, though, I say that they all be forced to learn long passages of The Deathly Hallows by rote.  I can just see the look in my daughter’s grandchildren’s eyes fifty years from now as she recites:

You are lying, filthy mudblood, and I know it.  You have been inside my vault at Gringotts.  Tell the truth.  Tell the truth.

And for good measure, parse the sentence for grammar.  Filthy is an adjective modifying the noun mudblood. 

Schools these days are doing a good job of getting our kids into a disciplined, but open environment, utilizing appropriate technology, and encouraging them to read.  If you want to learn to read, read.  Through IB, and AP, we are asking our children to learn material sooner and work harder.  We are linking up high school education to the economic realities of the state by making students declare a major.  We’re on the right track.

All great leaders know that there is much more power and persuasiveness in rhetorical devices such as metaphors and stories than in abstract policy statements and statistical summaries.  Great leaders are readers.  This theme was pointed out brilliantly in a book called The Leadership Challenge (Kouzes, Posner). 

We should never lose sight of how important a broad based, liberal arts education is to the formation of the individual in society.  All those involved at the curriculum design level in this state must remember that we don’t need just engineers, we need storytelling engineers like my Dad.  

Alan Cooper