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An Interview with Colin Hannaford: A bit about him; and then a Q and A.

Oct 11, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

Colin Hannaford

            To all outward appearance, Colin Hannaford is a plain vanilla British school teacher. His main subject is mathematics, although he has taken classes in ethics: civics in American schools, and I have previously reviewed two earlier books.

            His first, ‘473959’, is about his career as a soldier. ‘Educating Messiahs’ is an almost daily account of his efforts to help his pupils preserve what he calls their essential spiritual qualities.  In both he refers to an experience that scholars that he later reported it to at Trinity College in Cambridge – a present Master has just won its fifth Nobel Prize – warned him never to mention to others, but instead to ‘attempt to incorporate it in your teaching’.


Amadeus Teaches: Learning Together, Staying Strong

            Now aged 75, Colin has published one of the most interesting books I have ever read. ‘Amadeus Teaches’ is a very slim book for children to tell them how to work together and avoid letting their school fail anyone in their class. It is now being given away free by Oxford’s famous bookshop, Blackwell’s. He has  told me that it contains – as he put it – how to teach mathematics as Jesus would.

            This may be my final opportunity to get him to say more!

Q. Colin, let me start by giving our readers a brief overview of your life. At the age of twenty-nine your government committed you to an army psychiatric hospital, while ordering its director to treat you on arrival for schizophrenia. Why did it do this?

A.  British soldiers were being killed trying to stop Irish and British Christians killing each other. Our government was talking with them secretly. I demanded they call an international conference. I was a serving British officer. It was to silence me.

Q.  And it was then that you had your ‘interesting experience’. But doesn’t it sound rather, well, rather schizophrenic?

A. We will never know whether earlier reports, by Jesus for instance, were schizophrenic, or true accounts of meeting a cosmic intelligence far beyond anything that even modern science can accept. But if you want to be given an experience like mine, the best place to have it is in a well-equipped psychiatric hospital where your sanity will be monitored continuously. If the hospital director had obeyed his order, it could have destroyed me. Instead he and his staff spent three weeks finding me sane. I was then ‘returned to active duty’. I belonged to the army: not the politicians!

Q. You describe much of these events in your earlier books. In this new book you describe being helped to write it by your dog, Amadeus, in the week after he had died. Only a very brave writer would begin as outrageously as this. But on the  back you record the praise of some of the very notable people who have encouraged you over the past thirty years. These include Professor Noam Chomsky in the United States; a President of the Max Planck Institute in Europe; the Astronomer Royal and past President of the Royal Society in Britain, who describes it as ‘charming, educational, inspirational’, and deserving ‘wider readership’, whilst one of your ex-pupils has told you: “It’s funny, and it’s sad, and it can save lives.” I have found it sad, and it’s funny: and in it here is Amadeus telling his readers how not to fail in school. But what has all of this to do with Jesus?

A. Everything. What does Jesus mean by: “Suffer children to come unto me, and forbid them not.” Forbid them not means stop preventing them from behaving naturally. I began working from there. Small children are usually honest; friendly, trusting. Around the age of ten, when I began to teach them, children are beginning to understand three very important facts. The first, that they are entirely individual; next, that they are able to tell lies; next, that they are expected to behave as others, especially adults, want them to behave. From then on their innocence, their awareness of being entirely individual; their wish to be honest; and their respect for others: all this is in jeopardy. This is why, I believe, Jesus meant: ‘Let children remain individual, honest, friendly, and trusting; they are closer to perfection than you are.’

Q. But via mathematics?

A. There was very little in his time of the mathematics we know now. The Jews wanted a king to rebel against Rome. This would have been disastrous: eventually it was. Jesus would have known that for centuries the Athenian Greeks had been practising a kind of government that they called democracy, with no king. This would have brought peace to Palestine. Jesus offered a new kingdom, divinely inspired: democracy. And failed. But questioning every detail of their faith became a religious duty for Jews. It can be argued this is why Jews – from 0.2 percent of the world’s population – have won a fifth of all Nobel prizes. Not DNA: habit.

Q. Phew. Now you’ve lost me. Just how do you think he would teach today?

A. So that all children learn to do the same. Professor Chomsky was the first to notice an essay of mine in the OU [Oxford University] Philosophical Society’s annual Review in 1996. I argued in it that the Athenians developed the first systematic mathematics by using the same three-step argument they used to teach ordinary people democracy. He told me – and I was surprised – that no one had ever noticed this before.

Q. What do you mean by ‘three-step argument?

A. “Listen, pal. Tell us exactly what you’re arguing about; tell us the connection; tell us your conclusion. We’ll get back to you.” I learnt from another very eminent historian, Geoffrey Lloyd, in Cambridge, that this was how the early Greeks learnt to trust their own judgment.They didn’t always get everything right, but everyone had some responsibility in deciding what to do. Above all, everyone was free to speak, and expected to be heard. Most enviably, you have this in America today.

Q. Are you sure no one knew this before?

A. Some years later, I met a fairly senior Chinese diplomat in Belgium who told me that Mao had wanted to create a society in which everyone was equal: “He failed.” I was impressed by his candor. “Isn’t it unfortunate,” I suggested, “that he could not tell the Chinese people that learning mathematics as argument can help young people to see others as equals?”

He was visibly annoyed. “Mathematics,” he told me, “has no role in politics.” “Excuse me,” I persisted. “But what we commonly call mathematical arguments were developed in ancient Greece to give greater powers to ordinary people; in other words, to support and strengthen democracy.” He sat for a while, obviously shocked; and then he said, very slowly: “I have never – no, never – heard of that before.” So, no, I don’t think anyone has noticed this before. And this is why I learnt teach mathematics as democratic argument.

Q. You’ve also suggested that the Greeks learn this from Sparta. How?

A. The Spartans sent their youngsters to look for potential troublemakers amongst their slaves: to observe, assess, report. Special Forces do the same today.

Q. It’s plausible. But then you say that mathematics is primarily ‘all argument’. Isn’t teaching math as argument the same as any argument: someone has to lose?

A. In mathematics, in the classroom. everyone should agree on what they are talking about; then on how to fit this to the problem; then to agree on a conclusion. Everyone is supposed to agree on every step, or to suggest a better solution. No losers.

Q. Alright! Now, back to Amadeus. What does his book teach children?

A. First, he explains how their brain works: that the right side stores and defends the habits that make it feel secure – and will always defend them violently if pushed; that only the left side of their brain can talk, listen, compare, can change or replace any of the stored habits that have got out of date; and that they need to learn to argue with others, peaceably, to understand any new idea to make it their own. If I had enough dollars, I would take a page in the world’s newspapers and explain this there. Children learning this in their schools could bring a new era of peace to the world.

Q. That’s certainly ambitious. Let’s talk first about the crisis in British schools. I read that a tenth of British teacher are quitting every year. Britain doesn’t have enough math or science teachers. Too much assessment is causing pupils’ depression and teachers’ exhaustion. This is not all new. Over here we have the “Be Best’ campaign being led by Mrs Trump. If you could, what would you tell her has gone wrong?

A. There is a continuing belief in modern education that children of the same age have the same degree of the most important kind of intelligence. Children of the same age are formed into one class. Their teachers are then expected to treat them as if they all have the same degree of this kind of intelligence, and as if they must all respond in the same way.They are repeatedly required to say they understand. A few may. Most cannot: they begin to lie. Others rebel: they’re dumped. These three divisions persist in adults: an over-confident elite; an anxious majority; and the rest. Everyone expects others to lie.  Everyone hates easily. No one trusts authority. Society is ready collapse.

Q. What do you propose?

A. Restore the respect that kids and teachers should have for each other. End competition in class. Experiment in learning through collective discussion. Get them to understand what this means. They will discipline each other. Put an emphasis on personal, practical, vocational exams rather than mass assessment.

Q. And for America?

A. Mrs Trump’s ‘Be Best’ campaign should become ‘Be Best Together’.

Q. What did you experience as a young man?

A. I am sure that many have had similar experiences. We know only of the men. Most of them – beginning possibly with Jacob – were surprised. Then all report the same thing. There is an intelligence of immense power in the universe with an interest in our survival. On different occasions, far apart historically and geographically, it tried to teach increasing large groups to unite. Their differences today are still causing wars.

We are the first to understand how vast the universe is; the first able to understand that all these separate accounts have come to us very rapidly in cosmic time; all with the same urgent message: ‘Be honest. Learn to treat others with respect. Learn to replace aggression with compassion. You are running out of time.’ Running out of time for my pupils meant surviving school with their spiritual values intact. For us it means we must unite if we are to survive. This universe doesn’t play favourites.

Q. Thank you, Colin. But what question have I forgotten to ask?

A. Where can one learn compassion? I was sitting alone one evening, feeling sad at his absence, when I realized I had learnt more from Amadeus than I ever knew before. Even as a puppy he could sense my feelings, and would try to show me. But as he grew older, I began to share his anxieties, his fears and excitement: but, above all, to be certain of his trust and affection as he became certain of mine. This is what I most miss now. He was my teacher. I was his pupil. I think that must be all that  I can tell you. Thank you for being so patient with me.

Sincerely, Colin.

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