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Education for Leisure, leisure for what?

Just seen in the Guarniad: when the examination board in England had a poem by Carol Ann Duffy removed from the standardized tests because of its violent imagery, Ms. Duffy viciously and with malice aforethought wrote a poem about it.

The poem is called Mrs. Schofield’s GCSE. The GSCE is the General Certificate of Secondary Education. Pat Schofield is an invigilator, which is an awesome word, and is what we might call an external examiner. Or a tester. I prefer invigilator. The Invigilator. Well, never mind. Ms. Schofield was the person whose complaints about the earlier poem caused the ruckus in the first place.

I haven’t read that poem, which is called “Education for Leisure” and is (from analyses available on-line) a first-person narrative of a profoundly disturbed person who, faced with another day of unemployment and general worthlessness, and without any other way to fill up his day, begins by killing the household animals and then takes a knife to go out into the streets. The poem’s main figure shrugs at the first killing (of a fly), connecting it vaguely to King Lear (IV,i Gloucester: As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport) which he had studied in school; one of the points of studying such a poem in school seems to be to bring up the entire concept of education, of why we study Shakespeare at all, or Ms. Duffy for that matter.

Our current poet’s current poem is also about Shakespeare and education. It consists entirely of questions, as it might be an exam. The first seven are short-answer questions, to make sure that the pupil has in fact read the plays, or at least the Cliff Notes. That seventh—To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu?—is followed by an open-ended eigth: and why? The ninth is also open ended, and a bit disturbing, but although one could apply it more widely, it could be taken as narrowly asking about the quote from a Shakespeare play and its meaning. The tenth, then, starting in the tenth line and extending to the thirteenth, the longest question in the poem, ends with a full stop rather than a question mark, and begins with a command: Explain. The line to be explained is not Shakespeare’s, though, but is the poet’s own metaphor for poetry itself. Then, without transition, we are in King Lear; the quote is given and followed by the eleventh and last exam question, to identify who said them.

It is the King who says it to Cordelia, in the very first scene, when he is giving is own and very nonstandard test to his daughters: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?/That we our largest bounty may extend/Where nature doth with merit challenge.” The first two pupils give pat answers, telling the examiner what is needed to get the certificate. The last, Cordelia, finds she cannot speak. “What can you say,”asks her father, and she says “Nothing.” He repeats the word, and she does as well, and then the invigilator king says the line that Ms. Duffy puts near the end of her poem: Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.

I generally dislike exams. I was good at them; I was a Goneril rather than a Cordelia. I could tell the invigilator what was necessary for a grade. It seemed pointless, though, other than that grade, and it still seems largely so. I’ve come to accept that of the ways for teachers to determine whether the students have mastery of their subjects, it is moderately efficient in a cost-benefit sort of way; it only somewhat works, but it’s comparatively quick and easy, and the better ways are prohibitively difficult and time-consuming. The test is a tool, and a clumsy one at that, for measuring the thing that’s important, which is the mastery.

Or, perhaps, not. Perhaps the test and the reward and punishment that follow on it are the tools for getting the students to master the subject, not the tools for measuring whether they have. Perhaps when Cordelia was a child and her not-yet-old father held her to his embrace and said I love you, daughter, she should have replied, Is this going to be on the test?

We are, of course, educated for leisure all our lives. We are trained for it, poorly or well, by whatever we do and see, whatever we read and hear. On those occasions when we get leisure, we make of it what we can. That’s the test. When the children are in bed for the evening, or when you have a lunch break. We face a series of Sunday afternoon tests, one a week, for the rest of our lives. There is a pop quiz when the waiter has taken your order and you look at your spouse across the table and silence falls. And there’s the long, dark teatime of the soul, which is self-graded. And the tests prepare you for more tests, too, just like in school. You can develop techniques and study habits for your life. A truly general certificate.

I can’t get too excited about removing “Education for Leisure” from the curriculum, perhaps because I haven’t read the poem. I do get upset about removing education for leisure from the curriculum, because I do have some of that, and I think it’s important.

Oh, and you know where I said up there that “Mrs. Schofield’s GCSE consists entirely of questions”? That’s not technically true. After the eleventh question is a sentence that is, perhaps, permission, or a command, or a ritual utterance, or even a prediction. You may begin. Or, perhaps, it is a question after all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I know this is not immediately what the post is about. This is the offending poem, Education for Leisure:

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

It seems clear to me that Duffy is not glorifying the violence, that she does not want us to revel in her character's destruction. Somewhere we want to recognize the point of God's creative impulses (as referenced back by "I see that it is good") are not part of this person's viewpoint, and that that viewpoint is deranged, not admirable. I did also feel the sense of aimlessness and boredom stated in the first stanza in the rest of the poem. This is in part Duffy expressing the frustration of some in modern existence, a figure educated by a system into a society that does not want him (her?), who uses the violence against those weaker than himself to feel the attention that he craves.

How is Carol Ann Duffy's poem more glorifying of aimlessness/non-productive perspective than Gwendolyn Brooks "We Real Cool" or more violent than Simon Armitage "Hitcher"? Oh wait, I guess those get censored too...

I guess part of what is also going on here for me in the censoring of Duffy is that it suggests the degree to which we've stopped thinking. As educators, we've allowed the boards to certify a curriculum that does not prepare us for the fullness of life. My students have never gone to a museum or if they have, they have no tools for approaching the works; they cannot tell themselves why they are moved or bored or disgusted. We've stopped thinking about why we human beings are driven to create at all, that the human soul is not always beautiful and never black, that weeds are pernicious both in our own gardens and those of others. I'm not saying that we need to have the education which Duffy apparently references in the fly bit (I had to be told the reference is to Gloucester in King Lear Act 4, scene 1) but I do agree that education--and I include here school but also learning to quilt or garden or cook or surf or watching films critically and talking about them with others (which is an educational process)--is about filling our hours so that our lives matter.

Whatever one thinks of the literary merits of Education for Leisure, AQA’s ban sets a dangerous precedent. Once the very people who should be guaranteeing that our children study the best possible literature start using poems instrumentally, either selecting them because the carry the ‘correct’ political message or banning them because they deal with the contentious issue of the moment, the door is open to all sorts of external demands. And if we don’t do something against this trend it won’t stop here. It sounds very unlikely now, but sooner or later they will ban a Shakespeare play.
That’s why I have started a petition against this ridiculous ban:

For more information, see my post on the Manifesto Club website

Michele Ledda
Teacher of English

Mr. Ledda, welcome to this Tohu Bohu. As I said, I'm not terribly worked up over the inclusion or exclusion of that particular poem. Nor does it look to me (from over in Connecticut) as if the exclusion of this poem sets a precedent; there are plenty of previous precedents for including and excluding works based on their content. In your essay, you address the idea that the prominence of Ms. Duffy's work in the first place is what you might call instrumental. That door is already open. Nor is this such a horrible thing; I can well imagine choosing to teach one Shakespeare play over another because of a current cultural situation (a war, a popular movie, a prominent political success or failure, a local tragedy or coincidence). The question for me is who makes those decisions, and what the priorities and programs of those people are.


An update: Ms. Duffy has been named Poet Laureate, so that goes to show. Something. From the Guardian article:

Duffy said that she was looking forward to her "butt of sack" – the 600 bottles of sherry traditionally given to the poet laureate – and that she had asked for hers up front, as [erstwhile Laureate Andrew] Motion had not yet received his. She likes her sherry dry.


i am doing this for my personal study for my higher english. i choose this poem completely randomly but i am glad i did. i do not see the point in banning it duffy is not glorifying the personas actions she is not even making us feel sorry for them. more dislike as they are going to stab us. it also shows how only a bored uneduacted person truns to knife crime, she is trying to take away any belief that knife crime is dignified. awesome poem.

umm, what does the last stanza mean? Anyone knows?

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