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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Ignacio Estrada, via Tomlinson)

Goodbye Mr Chips – and good riddance!

Posted by Lisa Hill on July 11, 2009


GoodbyeMrChips

I blog the books I read over at ANZ LitLovers but some of the things I want to say about Goodbye Mr Chips seem more properly to belong here… 

It’s a slender book, only 128 pages long and written a long time ago in 1934.  It made James Hilton’s name as an author, was reprinted countless times and has been adapted for screen and stage, most notably in the 1939 British classic but also more recently as a TV series in 2002. 

The book and the film made Mr Chips a by-word for a good teacher.  Mr Chipping (to give him his correct name) teaches in a minor public school called Brookfield in England, and is much loved – the complete antithesis of brutal disciplinarians such as Charles Dickens’ Gradgrind in Hard Times who maintained discipline through fear.   He conquers his initial shyness,  learns to lighten up under the infuence of a lovely young wife who he met on a hiking holiday, and handles his grief at her death with stoicism and courage.  He shelves unrealistic ambitions when he realises that his indifferent degree precludes the headship and over time comes to represent the school itself:

a good school of the second rank.  Several notable families supported it; it supplied fair samples of the history-making men  of the age – judges, Members of Parliament, colonial administrators, a few peers and bishops.  Mostly, however, it turned out merchants, manufacturers and professional men, with a good sprinkling of country squires and parsons.  It was the sort of school which, when mentioned, would sometimes make snobbish people confess that they rather though they had heard of it.

But if it had not been that sort of school it would probably not have taken Chips.  For Chips, in any social or academic sense, was just as respectable, but no more brilliant, than Brookfield itself. (p19) 

Mr Chips teaches one of my favourite subjects at school – the Classics – but amongst other aspects of this book which made me revise my opinion of Mr Chips as a model teacher (an opinion based on vague memories of the 1939 film) was his indifference to the efforts of a new headmaster to move with the times.  Mr Chips begins his career in 1870, retires aged 65 in 1913, and is recalled as the casualties mount during WW1 – and in all that time changes nothing at all about his teaching.  Mr Ralston, the innovator, is presented as an amoral brash young headmaster who ‘wants to run Brookfield like a factory – a factory for turning out snob-culture based on money and machines’  (p76) and his ambitions to improve the school run counter to its traditions:

‘I aim to make Brookfield a thoroughly up-to-date school.  I’m a science man myself, but for all that, I have no objection to the classics -provided they are taught efficiently.  Because they are dead languages is no reason why they should be taught with a dead educational technique.  I understand, Mr Chipping, that your lessons are exactly the same as they were when I began here ten years ago?’ 

Chips answered, slowly and with pride: ‘For that matter – umph – they are the same as when your predecessor – Mr Meldrum – came here, and that -umph – was thirty-eight years ago’…..

…’Very interesting, Mr Chipping, but once again it proves my point – you live too much in the past, and not enough in the present and the future.  Times are changing, whether you realise it or not.  Modern parents are beginning to demand more for their three years’ school fees than a few scraps of languages that nobody speaks.  Besides, your boys don’t learn even what they’re supposed to learn.  None of them last year got through the Lower Certificate. (p75)

And what does this ‘noble’ character do, when confronted by a headmaster asking him to improve his performance? He refuses to discuss it, refuses to resign, and uses his influence with one of the Old Boys to ignore Ralston!

It’s not just that Mr Chips’s teaching is moribund, clinging to the idea that Brookfield should be teaching ‘a sense of proportion’ to balance the vulgarities of the new century (p77) – as if that should somehow preclude modernising his teaching methods so that his students might actually learn something.   It’s also that the much-lauded ‘jokes’ that Mr Chips makes are at the expense of his hapless students.  This is what this paragon of teaching says to one of his third generation students, seen in the film clip above  [1] taking tea with Mr Chips:

‘Colley, you are – umph – a splendid example of -umph – inherited traditions.  I remember your grandfather – umph – he could never grasp the  Ablative Absolute.  A stupid fellow, your grandfather.  And your father,  too – umph – I remember him – he used to sit in that far desk by the wall –  he wasn’t much better, either.  But I do believe – my dear Colley –  that you are – umph – the biggest fool of the lot!’  (p15)

The class roars with laughter at this, something I hope would not happen today.  Any teacher who tried to get his laughs by mocking a student and his family like that would be reprimanded by his principal these days, and we teach children not to tolerate this kind of bullying no matter where it comes from. 

Mr Chips, far from being a model of good teaching, is a failure.  He’s a bully, and a bore, and no amount of jolly scones and tea can make up for the fact that he was hopelessly old-fashioned and wouldn’t make any effort to move with the times. He represents the kind of arrogance still occasionally met in the profession, when individuals think that they alone know how to teach and reject research-based evidence that there’s a better way.

Goodbye Mr Chips may in its day have represented a more humane kind of teaching than its Victorian predecessors, but today it is an interesting museum piece, and that’s all. 

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Lau_ROXbog if the site is blocked by your ISP.

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