A Rejoinder to the Criticism on Good-Bye Mr. Chips
by, Nibras Sohail
An intense criticism is being posed on teaching of James Hilton’s novella ‘Good Bye Mr. Chips’ at higher Secondary level in our Pakistani curriculum. If, on one hand, its being taught for more than 25 years is being criticized; on the other hand, it is being censured with a fanatic approach.
For the former objection the book proves itself being the most endearing creation of the modern fiction that enchanted generations. The book, since the time of its creation in 1934, has never been out of print. A teacher’s life, portrayed in a simple diction, speaks directly to the students’ hearts and makes them fall in love with him forever. For the later approach, one has to be literary in one’s mind to understand the point. The book is being criticized on the ground that reading the life of a fictitious character Mr. Chipping is a worth-less activity, ignoring the real life heroes. They advocate the study of the personality and life of prophet Muhammad (SAW) instead of the novel, ‘Good-Bye Mr. Chips’. Let me say that the narrative ridicules itself as an incompatible option. One should bear in mind that the novel ‘Good Bye Mr. Chips’ is a work of fiction and that of English Literature. It is quite unreasonable to talk of religious figures to be given place instead of English fictitious characters? We have pretty many other venues to place them in the syllabi of other subjects. Have we justifiably presented them there?
Objections imposed on the novel also include that since Mr. Chips is a fictitious character, what good it can bring to the students? My counter question is: Have not fables and parables been inculcating moral values in our kids always through their fictitious characters at their early childhood? But let’s see it in this way… Was Mr. Chips merely an imaginative character? Or was there a “real” Mr. Chips who inspired Hilton? That was the very question asked to Hilton himself many a times. Hilton’s response suggests that every character created by the author in fact exists somewhere around us. Besides his father John Hilton, there were his teachers, Mr Topliss, who taught him Latin, history and English and Mr. William Balgarnie, at The Leys also reflects in the person of this most endearing character Mr. Chips. A reader of literature seeks inspiration from a character in the story assuming it a reflection of reality; that’s how it is done.
Let us talk technically about the novel as a good choice for our young minds on two grounds:
1…Is there any other novel in English Literature that can replace “Good Bye Mr. Chips?” Certainly, one can find a number of great writings. Since we are talking about the novel; (the genre selected for extensive reading of students after doing with short stories and dramas in grade 11), I would restrict myself talking about ‘novel’ only and no other genre. The task is to pick the one from amongst the novels in English literature that is exactly suitable for our youth at such a vulnerable age, for their emotional training suiting our own norms.
Charles Dickens novels are usually taught in early grades (sometimes in abridged versions) owing to their themes. Jane Austin fascinates the female lot of students generally and is suited to be read at later level. Among the other options in novels, that are being taught in other curricula (Indian & British) include ‘The Invisible Man’… a science fiction novel by H.G.Wells, where a scientist does the experiment of becoming invisible but fails to reverse it. ‘Metamorphosis’, a novella written by Franz Kafka, is also being taught at this level in which the author wakes up one morning finding himself transformed into an insect and thus gets isolated from society. The controversial novel of Emily Brontë… ‘Wuthering Heights’ is also one being taught but its depiction of mental and physical cruelty is unusually stark for the readers of this age. If you turn to Thomas Hardy, his obvious pessimism hinders the interest of the youth. The modern fantasy novels by Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton can hardly satiate the maturing taste of college students. Among the other options of novels being taught, neither the complex plot of ‘Silas Mariner’ is an ideal option nor can you expose students of this age to Scarlet Letter’s theme of adultery (if we are to add American Literature too) . Henry Fielding’s, ‘Tom Jones’ sensuality is another hard-to-grasp theme for this age group.
I believe that more than the question of eliminating the novel, the relevant debate could be, why should we read it or why have we been reading it for last three generations, while still its charm enchants many? Rarely it happens in literature that the pen of the writer remains such serviceable that brings into light all the aspects of life; youth, love, marriage, an ordinary man’s strengths and weaknesses, agreements, disagreements…without being sensual at any place even without seeming to be hard and didactic. This novel has this peculiarity in it. The naivety of Mr.Chips emerges as a bonus characteristic woven in the pattern of kind gentlemanliness and wise mastership that brings students in the bond of love and respect with their teachers and so immortalizes the character of a teacher. A reader keeps flowing in the stream of memories of an old, retired school teacher, fluctuating between past and present, joys and sorrows, war and peace without feeling the burden of life- events and the novel keeps teaching the lessons of life, silently and somberly, making the reader evolve emotionally stronger and more practical.
2…The second thing that needs to be focused is; Are we treating the novel in the right way? Regrettably, the answer is in ‘NO’. Our examination system has limited the scope of exploring this simple yet inspiring book. Look at the questions asked in the exam papers. Which year Mr. Whetherby joined Brookfield? Which year Mr. Chips got retired? What was he gifted by Brookfield on the occasion of his retirement? Or tell the name of the character who visited Great Gable with Mr. Chips? The said questions are not going to benefit students in any way. They apply to the lowest of learning levels i-e, Knowledge-based learning, pertaining to their memory.
This approach of dealing with the novel renders it merely a dull story of a retired old school master. The purpose of reading a book of novel is never only to picture the story created on the surface level but to see life through it. The underlying current has always to convey more of the philosophy of the writer through the events and characters depicted. Instead of questions that test memory of students, such questions should be asked that make them think critically and do research work. For instance, such topics can be highlighted; Katherine’s defining teaching as the most prestigious profession by saying ‘school mastering’s so different…so important’, the impact of teacher’s lightheartedness and humor during the lessons, Mr. Chips’ deep emotional bond with his students and the student-teacher relationship in general, the character of Katherine Bridges in contrast with the conservative approach to the liberty of women in England in nineteenth century, the radical philosophies of Bernard Shaw, William Morris and Ibsen that were influencing a many like Katherine Bridges, the difference James Hilton shows between old method of pedagogy and modern style of education, and above all the most crucial issue of today—‘Commercialized Education’.
The novel can offer a platform for higher-order discussions among the students. The teaching of the novel has ample space to develop cross-curricular links to the facts learnt through it…
Who can deny the fact that under-running stream of war events brings the talk of the world’s greatest event, the World War I… its geographical, political, and social effects on the world. Mr. Chips’ calm wisdom ruminating on England’s alliance with France after a hundred years of fight with each other, “Strange, in a way, that the sacrifices of one generation cancel out those of another”— highlights the bitter truth about war-business. Today’s war-situations and terrorism may be brought to discussion under this theme. “You cannot judge the importance of things by the noise they make”—the words of Mr. Chips on the crash of explosives can be a word of wisdom for young minds in many regards.
Queen Victoria’s initiative taken in 1851for the ‘Great Exhibition’ set the world to time-travel on machines through the series of Technological exhibitions. The upcoming event of Expo 2020 is going to set its stage in Dubai, which the whole world is looking forward to. The novel can relate to this ‘big picture’ of today. As described in the novel, the large span of Mr. Chips’ life covers the rise of the 20th century, witnessing the dawn of the modern world and its technological advances. A good comparison of time, pre and post technology can take students’ minds on a survey journey.
The most beautiful aspect of the novel, through a short appearance of the heroine, Katherine Bridges, suggests how a true love transforms a man. Flight from a conservative, rigid approach of a male chauvinist Mr. Chips to a modern, tolerant and progressive man is though a hard facet of the book, but dealt in knife- through- the- butter way. It’s the wonder of this novel. He turns to accept the share of a woman in society, her right to express herself logically and avail of the opportunities. This aspect of novel may open many venues of discussion for brilliant minds of today. Doesn’t it relate to the issues of women rights we are facing in Pakistan?
Surprisingly, James Hilton brings the subject of commercialized education to limelight through this novel a century ago that is now affecting every individual in the world. Doesn’t it relate to our present-day problems in terms of education? One cannot ignore the words of Mr. Chips; “the ideas of dignity and generosity are becoming rare in a frantic world.” The present craze of modern style of education which supports the ‘education business’ is tackled in the climax of the novel in a very effective manner. A venue of debate can be opened among students on traditional methods of pedagogy vs. modern style of teaching. Pros and cons of both methods can be discussed through this aspect of the novel. The dignity, honor and authority of a teacher which have also been challenged in modern times resound loud in the novel. The unreasonable modern approach of disregarding teacher’s deserved respectability is the most important feature of the book. This value is inculcated in students through the novel in a very beautiful way. We see a teacher delivering lessons, tickling the palate of the students, through his harmless jokes and gathering reverence in return.
“Think of me sometime, as I shall certainly think of you”…such beautiful words of Mr. Chipping as a teacher are the true voice of the emotional reminiscence we all cherish for our teachers throughout life.
As Longinus says, “The real art lies in concealing art’… we can attribute this compliment to James Hilton truly who created this book with so many critical ideas under the guise of the story of a school master spending days and night with his students. Even if the book is taken on its superficial level, it does a lot to the students. The novel takes them to the journey of a life where they realize that a muscular and shrewd macho is not necessarily a ‘hero’… where they learn that life is not all glitz and glams, rather it is a plain, quiet and valuable existence of man on the face of the earth… where they learn to trust that their school masters or teachers always have a deep, pure and pious relation with them that stays with them as a sacred memory and a guidance in their later years.
I would like to end by saying that for developing the habit of extensive reading, one or two more novels (from English or American Literature) may also be added, but as far as, the novel Good-Bye Mr. Chips is concerned, it is the best choice for our students from the world of English Novels.
(The Urdu version of the article is served as a translation in Urdu section of the blog)
Note: (Click the link below to watch the Novel-turned-play, Good Bye Mr. Chips… presented on stage by our college in Dubai where the whole back stage team is of students… from Script Writing to Stage Designing…from Costumes to Directions… but as an innovation, performed by teachers)