Obituary: Professor Raymond Wilson
Saturday 29 April 1995
Referring to his service in the Second World War, Raymond Wilson once said, "I was just a killick writer - still am really" (a killick writer in the Navy is a ship's clerk). He was in fact Professor of Education at Reading University for over 20 years and was Chief English Master at Dulwich College in the Fifties and Sixties. He was also a skilled educational editor, introducing new editions of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poetry and Jane Austen's novels; a sensitive critic, with texts on Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Golding's Lord of the Flies; and a prolific anthologist, producing numerous collections of short stories and particularly of poetry. Many owe their own introduction to literature to his writing.
His naval service, from 1944 to 1947, qualified him to enter teacher training. He went on to a London external degree, took a First in English in 1954 and next year started at Blyth Grammar School, Northumberland, combining his extraordinary range and love of the language with his compassionate understanding of education.
Wilson worked with words, profoundly and playfully. He orchestrated them in his scholarship, lectures and, as vice- chancellors found as he moved on to lecture first at Southampton University in 1965 and then at Reading in 1968, in his memoranda. He had little time for the powerful and none at all for party politics, where he was the Edenic innocent. In my copy of one of his books he wrote, "Hoping that it's poetically sound enough for the ideology not to matter (which it never does!)". He knew enough, however, to fight the big battalions and defend the individual. In articles such as "Dropping out from Doomsday" (1975) and his brilliant "letter" from Danapur (1983), both published in the British Journal of Educational Studies, he derided the "contamination of a reductive reasoning" and warned of the consequences for education of an overvaluation of rationality.
Frequently Wilson's own poetry scorned reckless technology. Some found his view gloomy, and he did write, in "He Sings a Song of Progress" (part of the Daft Davy series of poems, published in 1987):
O, It's too, too late for braking
Though you peer through dark wind-
At the pile-up of all Progress
And a world in smithereens!
But he was the least gloomy person imaginable. His point was that, without an education of the emotions, science and technology cannot of themselves bring happiness - for Wilson, the attainment of good - and that modern education stands in more need of the arts and literature than ever. He understood that education is what happens between people. He knew that it was not mere cognitive development, nor a system, nor statutory instruments, nor an industry, and never a business. This is from one of his poems for children, "School Inspection" (included in the anthology Nine O'Clock Bell, 1987), which politicians could do well to read:
"Well, what do you say?" the In-
"Just speak up! There's no need for
"But if I don't think, how can I know
What to say?" Mary answered him,
Wilson shared Coleridge's opinion that deep thinking can come only from deep feelings, once letting me win an argument because I quoted Pascal, "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of." Leading a modern scientist to that insight was victory enough: through his lecture series for the MSc in Physics Education at Reading, he introduced scientists from all over the world to the works of Shakespeare, Coleridge and W.H. Auden alongside those of the philosophers Karl Popper and Thomas S. Kuhn.
As head of the School of Education for all but four of his 21 years at Reading he showed kindness to everyone, and an ability to foster his colleagues' ambitions, nurturing developments like the Reading and Language Information Centre and the Agricultural Extension and Rural Development Department from foundation to international status.
In retirement, Wilson could concentrate more on poetry, a lattermath which completed the story of Daft Davy, saner than society, told in 31 poems, each in a different metre. He wrote and anthologised for the young because for him literature had to be moral and the stuff of education. The following is taken from "The Traveller" (part of the anthology Out and About, 1987):
Children, children, I do the best I may:
I meet a friend at my journey's end
With whom you'll meet some day.
On his desk the day he died were the proofs of his latest anthology.
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