The real thing: authenticity in the classroom and beyond

By | 10 January 2018

Buried in a breathless review of the recent exhibition, ‘Raphael: The Drawings’, at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, there’s a reference to something I know – recognise – but have never heard named thus. It’s a term that really nails a complicated and attractive quality one might wish one had, particularly if one was a teacher. Because it would be lovely if all teachers had this quality. In spades.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ‘sprezzaturra’. Classicists and linguists among you may recognise the word – for all I know, it may be a regular in the more elevated crosswords. But let me repeat for you the definition offered by the critic in the particular article which caught my eye: quoting Baldassare Castiglione, credited with having invented the word, he defines ‘sprezzatura’ as “a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.”

That sounds like a gift of the highest order. Fairy godmothers please note. It seems to me to equate with wearing wisdom lightly, with not appearing as if you tried too hard, getting things right without looking as if doing so caused you to bust a gut.
Doing what without getting in an undignified sweat? Well, anything really. Such as doing well academically. In fact we so admire those who can achieve much without looking as if they tried too hard that it was commonplace in the olden days for the few people getting to the giddy heights of a First Class degree (it was 7% of students in 1994, 24% in 2016, so don’t tell me there’s no such thing as grade inflation) to be denigrated for visible hard work – “Yeah, nice he got a First, but he was always a swot, never out of the library…”  It’s as if we like to think that real excellence is effortless, or it’s not real. You’ve ‘got it’, or you haven’t, like ‘star quality’ – whatever that may be, I use the inverted commas advisedly.
It’s a seductive but dangerous thought.  If excellence is only real if effortless, then what about the rest of us?  “Never going to get a First – no point trying. . .”
“But you might if you worked harder. . .”
“But if I work hard and don’t get it, I’ll just look stupid and I’ll have wasted all that time when I could have been partying and meeting millionaires.”
And you can’t help but think better not to make that look too effortful – or am I mistaken in thinking a millionaire might actually be put off by a pretty young woman putting loads of effort – the hair,  the make-up – into catching him? Why do I believe he would be more attracted to a woman who suggests that whatever she says or does is uncontrived and effortless?
I will come back to schools, but for the moment just consider two alien worlds: politics and sport. I will admit that when it comes to politicians, I have given up looking for ‘sprezzatura’. The more they seek to appear ‘uncontrived and effortless’, which in this context might translate as ‘authentic’, the more I suspect, in these post-modern times, that not only long practice and much effort, but also a battery of coaches and advisors have been involved in the creation of the public persona.
Which leads you to wonder who is the candidate/minister anyway, if so thoroughly shaped, moulded – created? – by the shady, anonymous team getting great jobs and even honours for their contribution to the making of ‘The Great One’?  Does he/she have ‘sprezzatura’? Nah, but don’t worry, we’re fixing that.  Hence perhaps The Times concerns about improved TV and other performances from Jeremy Corbyn (JC) in the last general election – “His performances have prompted questions about the team behind his improvement,” a correspondent mused.
In return, the advisors “insisted no outsiders were brought on board.” Does that mean the politician is indeed ‘authentic’, ‘the real thing’ after all? But then the advisors were happy to declare, “Instead he has undergone intensive preparatory sessions with Seumas Milne, Director of Communications, and Andrew Fisher, his policy chief.” And in addition, a former advisor to the Labour Party campaign chief ‘has been credited’ with influencing his smarter appearances, she having “a good awareness of the optics, how things look and come across.”
Meanwhile, JC is reported as having “eschewed the advice of PR professionals to improve his look or debating style.” So that’s alright then. The writer seems to be making fine distinctions between ‘PR professionals’ and bright and perceptive members of his own team who apparently gave him enough right advice to work the transformation from – what? The ‘real’ JC? And if so, who is he now?
The irony of a long-time teacher questioning the value – authenticity? – of any kind of teaching or coaching on an individual, and worrying about how much coaching/teaching/advising is possible before all ‘authenticity’ is drowned, is not lost on me. Was I not working with students to impact such transformations all those years? And how did I become the person to stand in a classroom and presume to do that?

“Am I mistaken in thinking a millionaire might actually be put off by a pretty young woman putting loads of effort – the hair,  the make-up – into catching him?”

Ironically, I don’t think I was transformed from student to teacher myself by the year-long course which purported to train me to lecture in further education.  Not even our lecturers demonstrated what might be useful tactics for all of us, aspiring to do what they did. Mostly we seemed to be told painfully dull details about the history of tertiary education, which was never going to help in any classroom where we encountered real-life post-school students, most of whom had enjoyed little academic success in 11 years of compulsory education.
But I had the immense good fortune to find ‘digs’ (Lord! Does anyone else remember them?) with someone who was already lecturing in FE. Irene was brilliant.  Pragmatic. A realist. Indeed, the Real Thing. Wise and generous. Whatever I took into the classroom came straight from Irene’s book of survival for young lecturers: “Keep ’em interested, keep ’em entertained, and do not bore them.”
I was forever grateful, and an improved performer. Which of me was ‘real’?
Maybe my problem is with the very definition of ‘real’, or ‘authentic’. There is no doubt that we live in times which accept as gospel the possibility of self-improvement, nay the responsibility to engage in any and every activity which will improve on the original you. Learn, practise, put in the hours, go on the diet or take the body-building supplements, get the teeth fixed, have the plastic surgery, earn enough to buy and wear the best, be the very best possible version of you.  Employ the gurus, who will coach you and shape you and mould you into someone who can appear at interview, or in class, or on stage, or at the hustings or even in parliament – where it is perhaps possible someone else writes every word you will utter – and how real does that make you?
It’s nice that a respected art critic can find ‘sprezzatura’ in the drawings of Raphael. I am delighted that it is there, and recognisable even now.
I just wonder who taught him that?