Sunday, 18 March 2012

Two tributes to Harold Rosen by John Richmond

[Thanks to Peter Medway for the photo]

John Richmond wrote Harold's obituary in the Guardian. It was cut and 'edited' in various ways. Here it is as he  wrote it:

Harold Rosen
A Leader of Thought in the World of English Teaching

Harold Rosen, who has died aged 89, was a leader of thought in the world of English teaching in the second half of the twentieth century. He and his colleagues forged and sustained a new understanding of the purpose and possibilities of the subject English within the school curriculum. Beyond the constituency of English teachers — people teaching that subject in secondary schools — Harold's teachings, writings and activities illuminated many more people's understanding of the relationship between language and learning in any context, whatever the age of the learner and the content of the learning.

Harold was born in 1919 in Brockton, Massachusetts to Jewish parents. At the age of two, he came to the East End of London with his mother, an active communist and inspirational woman whose influence remained with him all his life. He attended local elementary and grammar schools. In 1935, he joined the Young Communist League, where he met Connie Isakofsky. Their emotional partnership, marriage and intellectual collaboration lasted 41 years, until Connie's early death from cancer. In 1936, they took part in the Battle of Cable Street. It was the urgent clarity of the needs of those years — to defeat fascism and to liberate working-class people from every sort of poverty — which formed Harold politically.

In 1937, Harold went to University College, London to study English. He was a college rugby player, middle-distance runner and political activist. He graduated in 1940. He took short-term teaching jobs in England during the rest of the war. Having been born in the USA, he was officially an American citizen (and remained so throughout his life), so it was the US army he joined when called up in 1945. He served in the Education Corps for two years, with the rank of captain, working in Frankfurt and Berlin. Returning to civilian life in 1947, it was clear to him, as to so many people politically committed on the left, that the defeat of fascism must be only the necessary beginning of a shift towards more open and egalitarian societies in the victorious as well as the defeated nations.

Harold took a teaching qualification at the University of London Institute of Education, and began his teaching career proper in schools in Leicestershire and Middlesex. The first of the Middlesex schools was Harrow Weald Grammar, where he met James Britton and Nancy Martin, who became his great teachers. Elsewhere in Middlesex, however, his career was impeded by the blacklisting of communists then practised in some circles of that Local Authority. When the London County Council made its pioneering move towards comprehensive education, with the setting-up of pilot comprehensives, Harold went to one of them, Walworth School, as head of English.

The work of the Walworth English department in the 1950s has filtered by countless channels into the theory and practice of progressive English teaching in the UK and the English-speaking world. Briefly put, this theory and practice insists that the content of the curriculum which the teacher brings to the class must respect the culture and experience which the learner brings there. It sees the making of meaning in and through language as the essential act in which learners engage and which teachers help to bring about. It says that the best learning is a collaboration between teacher and learner, and between learner and learner. It was the effort to make this theory and to put it into practice which Harold joined and helped to lead for 40 years.

Harold was a founder member of the London Association for the Teaching of English, the first local organisation dedicated to the improvement of English teaching by practitioners. LATE was the spur to the setting-up of other local English teachers' associations, and to the establishment of the National Association for the Teaching of English.

When he left Walworth, Harold began his long career in teacher education, first at Borough Road Teacher Training College in Isleworth, and then in the English department of the London Institute of Education, where he had trained. James Britton and Nancy Martin were by then the senior figures there. Beginning under their leadership, and later when he rose to be head of the department and a professor of the university, Harold and his colleagues made the department a place of national and international fame and impact in the professional education of English teachers, and a centre of thought about language and learning.

Harold had the intellectual apparatus necessary for a conventional academic career of great distinction. This wasn't the choice he made. His list of educational publications is long, but those for which he is best known are all collaborative efforts addressing the needs and concerns of practitioners: for example The Development of Writing Abilities 11-18, with James Britton and others; Language, the Learner and the School, with James Britton and Douglas Barnes — a book which emerged from an LATE conference and which launched the idea of 'language across the curriculum'; and The Language of Primary-School Children, written with Connie, herself an inspiring figure in progressive primary education.

Harold left the British Communist Party in 1957, having decided that the party was no longer likely to help bring about the social change he desired in Britain. Its Stalinism was increasingly at odds with the direction and tenor of his educational activities and beliefs. He remained all his life a socialist, as fiercely critical of the evils which American imperialism has brought upon the world, sometimes with British assistance, as he was sorrowful at the dashing of the hopes of his youth with regard to the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc.

In the politics of education, Harold fiercely resented — and, when he was still working, fought — the attacks on progressivism from within the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments, and lived long enough to see, very recently, the irony that some of the principles and practices which he helped to develop are being re-adopted as official government policy in England, without of course any sense on the part of the policy-makers of the origins and history of those ideas.

Harold's second wife Betty was, until her retirement, also an English teacher. She is the author of books on narrative and story-telling, and it was partly under her influence that Harold's later educational writing focussed on the nature and role of narrative in our ability to conceptualise and communicate.

Harold loved to watch England play rugby on television, especially when I was in the armchair next to him. He was an ardent Arsenal fan. Betty cared for him with deep devotion in the physical infirmity of his last years. Mentally, Harold remained trenchant and analytical, and joyful at news of gains in the long educational revolution in which he had played so prominent a part, until the end.

Betty survives him, as do Brian and Michael, his sons by his marriage to Connie, his step-children Ian, Joanna and Rosalind, 10 grand-children and one great-grand-child.

Harold Rosen, educator

Born 25 June 1919

Died 31 July 2008

John Richmond, The Guardian, 4 August 2008

John Richmond’s Tribute to Harold Rosen at ‘Remembering Harold Rosen – A Celebration of his Life and Work’, University of London Institute of Education, 12 March 2009

I knew Harold for the last 32 years of his life. I was never formally his student, and yet he was — as I told him not long before he died — one of my great teachers, for this reason: he showed how to combine intellectual effort with political purpose. Harold knew that a person’s achievement is only meaningful to the extent that it changes the lives of other people, the lives of organisations (like schools) and the life of society as a whole, for the better: a principle which holds for even as great a talent and as significant a contribution as his own. I never met anyone who more completely lived the idea that the point is not simply to interpret the world, but to change it.

Harold’s life in education exemplified his conviction that theory and practice, thinking and doing, are interpenetrating. He understood and taught that education is a supremely practical business, not a ‘pure’ science. In the years that I knew him, by which time he had already gained the eminence and reputation he so richly deserved, he was constant in his insistence that those whose job it is to help teachers teach better should apply their mental effort to that task, and not go off on academic frolics of their own.

One small outcome of this clarity of Harold’s vision was a visit he made with Tony Burgess to Vauxhall Manor School in south London, some time I think in 1976. A group of us at the school — teachers of several curriculum subjects — had begun to publish home-made papers describing research we had been doing into aspects of language and learning in our classrooms. Harold and Tony were excited at what we were doing. Youngsters as we teachers were, we were pleased and perhaps understandably flattered by this support. But Harold being Harold, this wasn’t just a pat on the head from the great. He took a detailed interest in the progress of the work, reading and commenting on every paper as it came out. He tried his hardest to get the papers published commercially by Ward Lock, and when that didn’t work out he wrote to the Schools Council about us. Partly as a result of his efforts, the Council advanced us a loan which enabled us to publish the papers in 1982 as a book called Becoming our own Experts.

Around 1980, Harold and some of his colleagues proposed that the Institute should host twice-yearly conferences for teachers, which would be opportunities for the exchange of research, theory and practice in language education so dear to his heart. These conferences came to be known as ‘Language in Inner-City Schools’. They were organised by a group of people inside and outside the Institute, of whom I was one. They turned into very large affairs; at their peak, around 500 people attended every January and June. More diligent archivists than I will know exactly how many conferences there were in total, but it was certainly more than 20, so they ran for more than 10 years. They covered every conceivable topic within urban language education. The summer 1984 conference, which coincided with Harold’s official though not of course actual retirement, was one of the best, and best attended. We called it ‘A Telling Exchange’. Harold’s keynote address to that conference was a magnificent fusion of his political beliefs with his lifetime’s accumulation of educational understanding; it was simply inspirational.

Harold’s lived principle — that those who have been raised up within any social structure, in his case the structure of the British education system, must use their advancement to support the efforts of those who work within the structure — came from his socialist understanding of a possible just society, and his work towards that goal. One of his favourite poems was Brecht’s ‘Questions from a Worker who Reads’. Most people in the room will know the poem well; I’ll just read out the first few lines.

‘Who built Thebes of the seven gates?

In the books you will find the names of kings.

Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

And Babylon, so many times demolished,

who raised it up again so many times?

In what houses of gold-glittering Lima

did the builders live?

Where, the evening that the Wall of China

was finished, did the masons go?’

Harold validated, challenged and empowered the working lives of thousands of teachers, the builders of the structure of which he was a master mason. Many years ago I was one of those builders myself, and on behalf of thousands of us I salute his achievement and honour his memory.

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