Darkness and Light

What 60 schools can tell us about teaching 21st century skills. Here’s the TEDx Denver version of the talk Grant Lichtman gave at #naisac13 in Philadelphia.

I take my title from an extraordinary compliment that Grant paid Poughkeepsie Day School on his blog where he wrote:

“…Poughkeepsie Day School, a school that has preserved the fires of the Progressive Era, un-extinguished, for decades, not unlike those cloisters of learning that held the light of human knowledge through the Dark Ages. It has been tough for a school like PDS, bucking the trends of AP courses and content-driven college admissions. It takes courage to stick with what you know is right.”

That comparison from history is gloriously over-the-top but it is on target about the school which has hewn a progressive path through some turbulent educational times.

There was a brief wavering in the post-Sputnik years when the school seems to have flirted with a more traditional approach – there are pictures of children at desks in rows to prove it – but  a new building on the Vassar campus, the growing open classroom movement and the Plowden Report on primary schools lent a renewed burst of energy to a long tradition.

Grant’s post was called Join the Flamethrowers  (I’m tempted to say: “I’m not a flamethrower but I play one on Twitter.”) Whatever my personal merits of being included in the list, however, the company is great.

The trouble is the metaphor.

Incinerating your enemy goes back to ancient times but the Great War gave a new lease of life to the spewing of liquid fire. The modern flamethrower – flammenwerfer – came of age at Hooge, Flanders in 1915 – the trailing end of the Second Battle of Ypres that also saw the introduction of poison gas on the western front. Liquid fire attack at Hooge.

Liquid fire from the German lines opening the assault on the British positions around Hooge early morning 30th July 1915.

Liquid fire from the German lines opening the assault on the British positions around Hooge early morning 30th July 1915.

The flamethrower  brought a new industrial terror to the battlefield.

The first versions were portable and used to clear opposing trenches before an attack. The smaller flammenwerfer  (kleinflammenwerfer) was designed  to be carried as a gas cylinder strapped to the back of a single soldier. It used pressurized air and carbon dioxide or nitrogen to pour a stream of fire for  twenty or more yards, was hazardous to operate and made the carrier a target for enemy fire.

Before the Somme offensive in 1916, the British constructed four huge two-ton flamethrowers  built directly into a forward trench just 60 yards from the German line. The two that survived shelling were used to clear forward trenches on July 1st.  Their use was limited and they were abandoned as a tactical weapon.

But the that was not the end of the flamethrower as a weapon of war in the twentieth century.   It just became an even nastier and more effective means to kill and strike terror.

Other incendiary weapons are still in modern military arsenals but flamethrowers have not been in the U.S. arsenal since 1978.  They are of questionable military value,  inflict a horrible death and  consequently often create public relations problems.

Field-Marshal Sir John French signalled the entry of this new weapon as follows:

 “Since my last despatch a new device has been adopted by the enemy for driving burning liquid into our trenches with a strong jet. Thus supported, an attack was made on the trenches of the Second Army at Hooge, on the Menin Road, early on 30th July. Most of the infantry occupying these trenches were driven back, but their retirement was due far more to the surprise and temporary confusion caused by the burning liquid than to the actual damage inflicted. Gallant endeavours were made by repeated counter-attacks to recapture the lost section of trenches. These, however, proving unsuccessful and costly, a new line of trenches was consolidated a short distance farther back.”

Edmund Blunden’s poem Trench Raid Near Hooge tells of  treacherous “rosy-fingered” dawns and the “long rosy fingers” of the  flammenwerfer.

Through the black reached strange long rosy fingers
All at one aim
Protending, and bending: down they swept,
Successions of similars after leapt
And bore red flame

 Ok – so you get the point – flamethrower is a troublesome  comparison. But here’s a fire metaphor – Show an Affirming Flame –  that does work for me. And it comes from another poet – W.H. Auden.

His poem about the beginning of the second world war –  September 1st, 1939 – ends with this note of hope:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Auden later backed away the poem  as being too self-indulgent and self-congratulatory.  It has since become one of his best known and most quoted. Such is fame.

In the 1950s, he began to refuse permission to editors who asked to include the poem in anthologies.  He did allow it to be reprinted in Penguin’s Poetry of the Thirties (1964) with a note about this poem and and four others: “Mr. W. H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written.”

Nothing is easy!


  1. Josie, I appreciate how thoughtful you were about considering what language we use when talking about education and school. I find that military language is often used both directly and indirectly; whether it be in school uniforms, the war on teachers, “drop outs,” standardization, the SAT’s, etc, the links are clear.

    We should choose language that supports our philosophies and cultures.

  2. Thanks for the comment Arvind. The language we choose does matter. One of the sets of metaphors I find troublesome is of the “school-is-broken” variety. Some who say that school is broken are speaking for dramatic effect and making the clear point that education needs to undergo radical transformation if it is to meet the needs of a shifting world. Others have a nice pricey technology re-fit in their tool-kit. School is not a machine that has broken down and that requires a mechanical fix.

    Our history is in our language – no wonder it’s a minefield (!)

    There’s the routine, ongoing Orwellian corruption/ co-option of words and meanings – the polluters who bring us “Clear Skies” – and all the ersatz language of school reform (http://www.josieholford.com/beware-school-reformers).

    Of course, writing about flamethrowers was just an excuse to write about the Great War, where:

    “In the Somme valley, the back of language broke. It could no longer carry its former meanings. World War I changed the life of words and images in art, radically and forever. It brought our culture into the age of mass-produced, industrialized death. This, at first, was indescribable.”
    ― Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New

    Sir John French wrote of the “gallant endeavours” to reclaim the incinerated trench at Hooge. We can imagine what that actually meant. No doubt the staunch comrades who pluckily assailed the foe were vanquished. They were the ardent brave who perished for their valiant deeds and joined the glorious fallen. (They showed great courage, were burned and blown to bits and died.)

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