The dunce done good

School of Blues
Daniel Pennac
Maclehose Press; £16.99

IN IRELAND, the debate on education has grown increasingly sterile. Every August, media coverage of the Leaving Cert results focuses on high achievers to the virtual exclusion of all others.

Certainly, the minister sends platitudinous congratulations to all who took part regardless of result. However, the headlines and photo space are monopolised by those students with the highest points. The casual observer may deduce that the pinnacle of academic achievement in Ireland is represented by the achievement of 600 points in the Leaving Certificate.

In addition, we accept with little question the pleas from industry to make education more “relevant to the economy”, which presumably means that we should tailor the system to specific needs of industry. We may have reservations about increasing class size, we may decry the crumbling school infrastructure and the fact that a decade has passed since the last schools computer initiative. But we rarely, if ever, discuss education itself, what we understand it to mean and what, as a society, we expect from it. In particular, we never examine why the school system does not work for many of its participants.

In School Blues, Daniel Pennac writes from the viewpoint of those for whom education is not the key to a successful future, but a constant battle full of the dread of failure. He devotes considerable energy to providing context.

Cancre – a French word whose original meaning is “crab” – is the source word; “dunce” is the closest English equivalent.

This book centres its attention on the cancre/dunce, loosely defined as a person who does not succeed at school. This distinction is important. The dunce is not a stupid person and, indeed, may be highly intelligent. But the dunce fails at school or, perhaps, the school fails the dunce. Pennac emphasises that “bad student” is an inadequate and even an inaccurate translation of ‘cancre’ since it attempts to “pass off consequence for cause”.

Pennac – abbreviated from the original Pennacchioni – writes with a witty, flowing style, mixing autobiography with anecdote and advocacy.

He speaks with true authority, the authority of one who is himself a dunce, or rather once was. Seeing the educational struggle from both sides, he reports on his own inadequacies during most of his school years and his efforts, as a teacher, to seek out and offer help to those who would otherwise have been cast aside.

Uncle Jules, a patriarchal Pennacchioni family figure who had died before the author was born, had insisted on the importance of education and the succeeding generations of the extended family agreed fully.

This made matters worse, not better, for the young Pennac. In a milieu in which failure was tolerated, he might have found a place of comfort. In the education-centred Pennacchioni household, his sense of isolation deepened.

He saw himself as “a dunce without historical precedent, sociological justification or disillusionment: a dunce in his own right”.

The closest to an explanation for this exception to the family litany of success came from his brother, Bernard, who ventured: “When you were six, you fell into a municipal dustbin in Djibouti”.

Pennac’s mother, who passes the century mark during the writing of School Blues, is a recurring presence.

Despite his successful career as a teacher and author of both fiction and non-fiction, she worries if her 60-odd-year-old son will ever come good. His subsequent catalogue of achievement has not erased the memory of his earlier duncedom.

The young Pennac might have been classified a dunce, but he could also have been described accurately as delinquent. There are tales of 100 ox tongues nailed to the bursar’s door, of 30 chickens installed in the housemaster’s room. Pennac’s transgressions were nothing if not imaginative. These strikes against authority required a high level of invention in their planning and an even higher level of organisation in their execution.

Then, somewhere during his time in secondary school, Pennac’s luck changed. He might have remained in the educational netherworld but for the vision and persistence of some of his teachers. These were individuals who didn’t accept the universal view of failure. At the time, he was a pupil in an unregulated boarding school, perhaps the educational equivalent of that municipal dustbin in Djibouti. “Among the teachers I endured there”, he writes, “four conspired to rescue me.” Books opened new doors to the world for him. War and Peace was a love story on his first reading of that literary marathon at the age of 13, at 14 it had become a Napoleonic epic full of battles and heroic deeds. Subsequent readings revealed further depths.

Other books led him further into a new, exciting, unexpected world. “As I read,” he says, “I settled into a state of physical happiness that persists to this day.”

At 14 Pennac – and his family – despaired of his prospects. Ten years later, he was a teacher himself and brought a special understanding to the role. Many teachers are recruited from the ranks of those who never found any difficulty with the business of learning. Pennac’s insight is informed by his unshakable memory of his own previous lack of success.

In return, he devotes considerable time to helping others who are deemed by the school system to be beyond academic redemption. During his teaching career, he actively recognised and helped the least successful among his students. He did so by challenging them to face up to their difficulties, to take responsibility for them and to do something about them. Although he is now long retired, or rather transferred to his literary activity, distraught parents call him regularly in the hope that he can find a place for a son or daughter abandoned by mainstream education. Often, he succeeds with the help of like-minded educators who have formed a loose, unofficial network.

Although Pennac writes specifically about the French education system, his observations are universal. He may speak of the social and educational problems of the banlieues, the high-rise suburbs surrounding Paris and other French cities, but similar difficulties occur in many societies, not least our own. When teaching becomes a matter of crowd control, education goes out the window.

School Blues should be read by everyone involved at any level in education in the hope that the message contained between its covers will illuminate the way ahead. That includes the minister, all her officials, every principal in every school, every teacher who has the privilege of standing in front of a class and every parent who waves their child off on the education road.


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