Great Women Scholars: Maxine Greene, Louise Rosenblatt, Yetta Goodman, and Margaret Meek Spencer. Part four of a four part series, Margaret Meek Spencer.
Great Women Scholars: Margaret Meek Spencer
After Louise Rosenblatt it was Margaret Meek Spencer’s turn to speak. Margaret is a renowned literary scholar in the U.K. but many in the audience did not know her work. Two of her most notable books are Learning to Read (24 editions were published between 1982-1995), and On Being Literate (14 editions were published between 1988-2000). Both books are as relevant today as they were when she wrote them and are highly recommended along with her brilliant How Texts Teach What Students Learn.
You may remember from the introduction to this series of presentations by great women scholars that Margaret Meek Spencer was on one of the first planes that crossed the Atlantic and land in New York after September 11. Now she was at the podium.
“Good evening,” Margaret said, holding up her notes. “Because I’m a little anxious I may refer to the things I wrote to get me on course to come to the forum.”
“After what happened on the eleventh of September I’m very deeply touched to be here with you at this time, because like millions of other people I had no way to appreciate the shock and horror of last week. So, on behalf of all the people who told me to tell you, before I left London, I offer you our sincere condolences for this national tragedy, and I want to do the very best I can to convey to you the sympathy that is sent to you, here, by all the people who spoke to me Friday, before I actually left England.”
Margaret told us that there have been many American influences on her life and work but first said she was going to focus on growing up.
“My early childhood was spent in a small coastal town, eight miles from St. Andrews,” she said, “the place where they invented golf and had a university founded in the 15th century and where heretics were burned to death.”
“I went to the only school,” she told us, “where my teachers, in the Protestant tradition, took learning very seriously. So I was taught by very learned people, and I have to say, I always wanted to be like them.”
Margaret looked at us, leaving her notes behind, “Except that they kept on saying, ‘ Margaret, don’t ask so many questions,’ and therefore, I thought that somehow I could never please them, in exactly the way that Yetta described.”
“My hero was in fact my very learned grandfather who told me stories,” Margaret said. “He bought me books and was admired by my teachers because he came from Edinburgh. My father was an engineer who played the organ in a little church on Sundays, and my very clever mother was a graduate and a very strenuous feminist. I’m talking about nineteen-thirty, and she resented very much the fact that her marriage meant that she had to give up her career.”
“And all I want to say, now,” Margaret spoke emphatically, “is that one of the greatest things that happened in the twentieth century has, in fact, been the education of girls. Even though it looks as if we haven’t done enough of it yet.”
“My mother was a very indifferent cook. I’ve always been very envious of people whose mothers could cook. She actually sang like a nightingale. I was nine before I went to the cinema and we had no television, but an excellent postal service guaranteed at least two deliveries a day, and that so impresses me. The winters were very dark and very cold and I read a great deal.”
“I had a firm understanding of my national identity,” Margaret said, “and I mention this because this is something which is going to play a big part in the last stages of my life, given that we are about to become European. This Scottish identity was emphasized in history lessons where our adversaries in war were always English. The French were always our allies.”
“My grandfather gave me an account of my ancestry, at least on one side,” Margaret said. “I didn’t know about the other as much. I don’t know why. We never talk about it. My grandfather said our clan name was MacDuff. I don’t feel like a MacDuff, but that’s what he says I am. And there was sure enough a castle and ruins in walking distance from where we lived. We would walk around the castle and then we go home.”
“The other details, you can very simply track my ancestry, just as easy as anything, by reading the first act of Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” Margaret explained. “All the names of the places that he mentions are places which are part of my childhood. The place names are still the same.”
“The first foreigners, the first non-English-speaking people I encountered, were Jewish refugees from Germany who crossed the North Sea from Hamburg,” Margaret continued. “My grandfather spoke German so some of these people were always in our house before they went off to be looked after elsewhere.”
“So my childhood ended on September 3rd, 1939, the first day of World War II and the beginning of the Holocaust. It cut out my adolescence. I have been thinking about some of the young people here and I grieve for them because I know that they will never quite feel the same about this part of their young lives again.”
“At the University of Edinburgh all the young teachers had gone to war and the older distinguished ones came back, so I had the most extraordinary time.”
“In terms of national identity I am still a Scot, although I have never gone back to live in Scotland,” Margaret said. “I’ve lived fifty years in London where I have spent my professional life teaching English, language and literature in the multicultural society Britain has become. We shall soon be Europeans, an idea that horrifies some of my London neighbors.”
“My neighbors in France where I live for twelve weeks in the year, in the wintertime, are sorrowful that their language, which used to be the great diplomatic speech in the world, has no such significance anymore. They are very, very distressed that English has replaced French as the international language.”
“I interject these details,” Margaret explained, “because I think that they are relevant to how we look at language in relation to identity, nationality, and culture.”
“What keeps me tied to Scotland is a cultural narrative. The Macbeth bit, the poems of Burns, and the novels of Walter Scott,” Margaret told us. “The fact that my grandfather knew Robert Louis Stevenson, the man who wrote Treasure Island. All of this, you see, together with the fact that I lived opposite the very house where Robert Henryson wrote The Testament of Cresseid at the end of the 15th century is part of my identity.”
“When my grandfather read,” she said, “he read through some pages very quickly then he turned a few more pages because he knew the crucial pieces were interchangeable. This protestant tradition of critical reading is in your tradition too,” Margaret said looking at us, “when you read by yourself.”
“Now it’s this same kind of cultural narrative that attaches me to the United States,” she said, shifting her narrative. “During my first London teaching time I fell in with a group of radical teachers who knew very well that if you want to change the situation in any classroom in any school, what you have to do first is to change the examination system.”
“People teach tests because they’ve got to because people expect their children to get through the tests. I tried saying, ‘let’s just teach them very well and they’ll do the tests.’ It doesn’t work so what we thought we would do was change the examination paper in English.”
“This is back now in nineteen forty-nine,” Margaret said, smiling at us. “We would change the examination paper in English so that it was more like what people actually did. We would just persuade them to get rid of the spelling tests because it wasn’t fair. You couldn’t test spelling on twenty words, not all the children in London?”
“So I found that this was, for me, very important,” she said, “because I was having terrible difficulties with the fact that the English educational system had a very solid social class base. If you never experienced that, be glad.”
“I was impressed by the daring of this group of outstanding professionals and wanted to be like them,” Margaret continued. “And the leader of this group, Harold Rosen, took me on as a kind of an apprentice. He was in fact, American by birth, he was born here and had an American passport and he lived in the East End. He actually served in the American army in Berlin.”
“So this group wanted to do this thing to find out how adolescents read before they left school and they began to look at how people understand what they read. It was just such a difficult thing to get a hold of, so what did we do? He made us examine our own reading and this has stuck with me forever.
“We read the first page of William Faulkner’s novel The Unvanquished,” Margaret told us. “It’s the account of two boys, one you infer from the text is black, but you only know that from his name. And these two boys are playing at the Battle of Vicksburg.”
“The first page is exactly what’s happened, what’s happening in the Battle. And the first sentence goes like this ‘Behind the Smokehouse that summer, Ringo and I had a living map.’”
Margaret talked about the questions they asked each other and what they learned about the story and how you read on if you don’t know. “When you read something you want to get into it,” she said. “You want to get to the talking. You want to get to where the action is, but in actual fact, on the first page is where the author and you make a pact, where the author says, ‘follow me and I’ll show you how to read this’ and you get your teaching lesson for how to read this, anything, on the first page, because the author wants you to turn the first page to the second one.”
“If you’re not intrigued you know it isn’t going to go anywhere,” she said. “You put it down,” she paused, “but children are not allowed to, you see, they’ve got to go on reading what we make them read.”
“What happened to me next was one day I saw an article in The New Statesman about Faulkner, by this time I had read all his books. So I read the article and thought to myself this guy has got it wrong. That’s not what I make of Faulkner. So I wrote a letter to the editor saying, ‘I don’t think this will do’.”
“At the back of The New Statesman there was an announcement about an American seminar to be held during the summer in Salzburg where Mozart was born. I did want to go, and I thought, how nice it would be to learn literature at the same time. In 1951 we didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t have any dollars. We weren’t allowed to have any. If you actually got accepted you got free board and lodging and somebody to pay your train fare.
“I thought that covered all the problems so I wrote another letter to the thing at the back saying please can I come to Salzburg and I was told if I write an essay I might be able to go. So I started writing an essay about Faulkner and I got it!”
Margaret looked as us as if she had just received the letter informing her that she had been accepted and was about to go to Salzburg again.
“The Dean of this amazing, amazing school for European students was the man who had written the article on the front page of The New Statesman,” Margaret sounded incredulous. “It was the most extraordinary, exciting thing, because it happened before the Cold War, so there were people from Eastern and Western Europe, although many fewer women than men.”
“We lived in a castle, we slept on army beds, and we were fed on American food. I think that everyone should have an experience in their lives where they are taken to a place to do exactly what they would like to do, intensively.”
“And that was the great thing about this,” she said. “We talked all night, all day. It’s a little of what I feel today, to get away from the problems, you know you’ve got to go back and face them again, but that’s the whole point isn’t it? And that’s why I’m so grateful to be here today.”
“Then what happened was that things come to you after that,” Margaret continued. “I did a tour of the States the next year, all around, for research purposes, to find out how children learned to read and how those who failed to learn were helped to do so. And I had a train ticket that long. Wonderful people received me, and passed me on.”
“One strand of the Faulkner experience has remained with me,” she said. “Most of my research included huge inputs by thinkers like Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, and the French philosophers, who are the other non-English strand of my thinking. But although I had to study linguistics, from Saussure on, I never gave up teaching poetry and literature generally.”
“And with all of that it had to include literature for children somewhere,” Margaret said, looking around the room. “It seems to me obvious that lots of leading studies ignore what people do when they read, the notion that meaning is something that hovers about the book, somehow, it’s very complicated.”
“So I made my way gradually through the works of Louise Rosenblatt,” Margaret said, smiling at Louise, who smiled and nodded at her, “coming to know that the whole experience of her work was much more important than a bit of it.”
“And Maxine,” Margaret said, smiling at Maxine, who smiled back. “And Maxine writes about the ‘shattering of the silence’, which provided me with a notion of what I wanted to show about reading.”
“And I was then ripe for Yetta and Ken Goodman’s insights,” Margaret said, smiling at Yetta and at Ken, who was also at the forum. “Yetta and Ken came to us in England, just as a huge inquiry into language and learning began. All but a few of us failed to recognize the importance of the work, but we were not alone in our attempts to make reading a rich resource for all. So always when we get to a crisis in the field America comes to our aid again.”
“By this time I was teaching teachers or rather learning from teachers what they took for granted,” she said. “I wanted that implicit skilled understanding to be made part of common knowledge. No research in educational rates with me unless it has some connection to how children come to know.”
“The French say you like something that you think might in the end like you,” Margaret said. “I think this has been a quite splendid occasion. I still have a great deal to learn. I hope you will talk with me because that’s what I really would like to happen. Thank you very much.”
In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes, “Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another.”
On Friday that’s how it was when Margaret, Louise, Maxine and Yetta spoke. That evening we came as close as it is possible in a public space to the pain and pleasure that makes a moment sublime. The evening ended with a candle light vigil with songs and poems in English, Yiddish, Hebrew and Arabic. There is no doubt that in the middle of a historic tragedy we were living history.
On Saturday, these four great women scholars and global thought leaders concentrated on their research and writing. Margaret spoke first about reading, then Louise on literacy as transaction, followed by Maxine on releasing the imagination, and Yetta on kidwatching.
Once again Toni Morrison comes to mind. On that day (here the quote transposed in the past tense) the four “circled each other and stopped. Sometimes their words moved in soft spirals; other times they took strident leaps, and all of it was punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter – like the throb of a heart made of jelly.”
The Saturday conversation will be the final piece on the Great Women Scholars Forum and will be published shortly.