Review by Sophie Scott

14 Jun 2015, 19:00

Bonnie Greer

Playwright, novelist and critic. She was born in the United States but now lives in the UK

1. What did you like about school?

I love learning. My late father, a man who had limited education, encouraged all of us to learn. So it still gives me great pleasure. I read something every night before I go to sleep that I didn’t know before, or I expand my knowledge in an area that I already know. Then I can sleep on something, wake up, and explore it further.

2.What did you dislike?

I was told that there were things that I didn’t know when I did. Or at least, I had a grasp. And being told that something I wanted to learn wasn’t appropriate for me.

I loved numbers but was told (I was at school in the 60s) that studying maths wasn’t for me. I was told to learn to type. I refused. That actually was stupid; but it was my pushback against the limits. I found numbers again, just a few years ago. But I never learned the language or was given the tools.

A few years ago I took a series of intelligence test for the BBC’s Horizon. I came joint first with a quantum physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I went home and cried a bit. That’s why I’m passionate about “disadvantaged” kids being exposed to the best. You just never know what kind of mind is there. Human advancement needs us all.

3. What seems strangest to you about school when you look back at it now?

The lack of adventure and lack of listening to children. It wasn’t done back then. But we had so much to give and to share with our teachers. When I was at university in the 70s and involved in student revolt type stuff, it was great to take over classes and let the professors listen to us. I think that we taught them how to teach us, make us better.

4. Who was your favourite teacher?

Mrs Kroll, my high school English teacher. She allowed me to write and to write the way I wanted. I edited the school yearbook, wrote poetry, plays, I worked on the school newspaper; all of this engagement with words, which she encouraged.

And Mr Robinson, my other high school teacher. He would recite Shakespeare in class. We thought he was nuts, but the words stuck to me. Not recalling whole passages word for word, but the flow, the imagery, of Shakespeare. All because of our funny, pompous high school teacher who came from that incredible tradition of black education – precise, driven, and exemplary. And teaching for him was a calling. Teaching us was a calling.

5. If you could go back to school and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Have patience. School is a system and you have to understand that it is one of the pillars of the state, the way it creates citizens, etc. Learning is a process, an approach to life itself.

6. Would you prefer to be a pupil when you went to school, or now?

Now. Kids now have an opportunity to be listened to. The technology is formidable. Chalk and blackboard are great, too. But to be in an environment where you are actually competing – perhaps – with a machine, with artificial intelligence; that has to be wonderful. In the right conditions, machines can actually expand human capacity

7. What is the biggest problem in education today?

That we haven’t quite come to the realisation that education is a human right. Education – the best of it – should be available for every child, not used as an indicator of class or status.

8. What is the solution?

First, we have to make teaching an honourable profession again. It used to be. Also, make it possible for the best people to want to teach – give potential teachers adequate pay and conditions – coddle them, encourage them.

Schools should share expertise; good practice; buildings etc. Give all children an early start in language, maths, something in the arts, sports – constantly challenge and expand their minds. Love them above all. And listen to them, another form of love.

Bonnie Greer will be a speaker at the Sunday Times Education Festival on June 18 and 19


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