A Man’s a Man for a’ that – Robert Burns

Why we study Orwell but not Burns. An ill-informed rant from an ill-informed ranter.

Note: The following is a personal take on Robert Burns’ work with reference to collective action and an egalitarian future. If you don’t agree with it, then please vent all frustrations towards your nearest haggis.

Around the 25th of January every year at school we would do a Burns poem, usually a last ditch effort of guilt-ridden tokenism for my Scottish school in which ‘English’ literature at exam level gave no mention to a man who is revered as a national bard. Though things may have changed, I assure you that back in the golden age of 2005, Burns was unavailable to us.

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward-slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

In an age in which schooling has come to propagate the merits of capitalism and individualism, the idea of status as a result of money or possessions being inferior to the simple human existence, is downright subversive in the eyes of many for whom privilege is status. The line being that the superiority and inherent good in mankind won’t get you on any graduate trainee schemes and it certainly isn’t worth any UCAS points.

That’s why we always did ‘My Love is Like a Red Red Rose’. It’s safe, dialect-light, and basically a simple love song. Put into the hands of Kenneth McKeller and nothing could be less appealing to a bunch of high schoolers.

I’d take the Ball o’ Kirriemuir over this Big Kenny eh?

So was this Burns, crooning, kilted, distant, even cringeworthy? No.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Standard Grade English taught us about socialism (and the apparent inherent evils therein) through George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. Though a masterpiece, the moralistic tale goes to the length of using pigs to depict the slow degradation of collective, socialist values which predictably ends up in the standard vision of despotism that we in capitalist societies happily pin on those who don’t follow our shining example of thoughtless consumption. In any case, said metaphors and cautionary tales were clumsily transferred to the ambit of education, thus removing them of any relatable themes and leaving the under-motivated teen in no doubt that socialism was wrong.

Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that,
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind,
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

Though we never questioned how the pigs’ descent into decadence and apathetic corruption basically mirrored the exact behaviour of our very own governments; governments whose choice of Orwell was intended as a warning as to the ills of collective action, the standard fare to a good grade was to clumsily compare some imaginary pigs drinking whisky to the misdeeds of communist Russia. They killed Boxer the horse. That was bad. They became what they intended to destroy. That was bad too. All that, written with a hint of eloquence and good spelling, is what got you a 1.

A Prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that!
But an honest man’s aboon his might –
Guid faith, he mauna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities, an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ Sense an’ pride o’ Worth
Are higher rank than a’ that.

When I look at Burns and his conspicuous absence in my own education, I can see the issue at heart. Works like ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’ transcend the idea of good and evil, the simplistic dichotomies that haunt our education systems. This work rubbishes the idea of rank, prestige, possession, and wealth, putting in its place the human values of free-thought, brotherhood, and honesty. It hints at an alternative society free from needlessly imposed boundaries and made-up positions of authority. This, I suppose, scares the shit out of educators nationwide, which is a great shame.

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

Deconstructing our society’s concept of wealth and property being indicators of achievement while explaining that liberty of mind and collective action shine the way to an undefinable, but surely better, future, is a lot harder to teach to a bunch of 14 year olds. The Soviet Union is dead, they were the baddies in James Bond or Red Alert etc, whereas free-thought and deed doesn’t lend itself so easily to the Western educational narrative.

Allegorical swine = bad. Thomas Muir = beyond teachers’ salary bracket.

Thus out comes Orwell, and our allegories are thrown to the pigs.

Enjoy Burns’ Night everyone.

A man’s a man for a’ that.

In addition to ill-informed diatribes, I also write about music. If you want me to write about your song, then you can get in touch with me here.

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