Despicable Grammar: The Lost Legacy of Dr Hans Bass (Learntablism #3)

Could this fairly generic evil mastermind hold the key to entire pedagogy? Dr Bass thought so.
Could this fairly generic evil mastermind hold the key to an entire pedagogy? Dr Bass thought so.

“I had the strangest dream last night.

I burst breathless into a yoga studio. My hair was a tousled flop of straw-blond; my eyes a sharp blue. I scanned the room, taking in an array of men and women in varying stages of contortion and salutation. Incense smoke carried itself in a meandering line across the centre of the room, from a statue of the Buddha to a poster depicting the multiple poses.

I was wearing bright yellow tights and large, clumsy yellow shoes – the toeboxes shaped like talons. Strangest of all, I wore a purple blazer, with shirt and tie, but at my waist I seemed to explode into plumage.

I staggered disorientated between the yoga students, my right arm limp at my side. My right arm, clad in the purple blazer was completely numb, but I could feel a phantom connection in my shoulder. Whenever I made to flex this phantom strength, however, a strange purple-blue neck rose from the centre of the plumed foliage where my waist should have been.

Sweating and confused I looked at the plumage from which sprouted my torso, and saw two small, wasted, trousered legs on either side. As I lurched between the yoga students, I felt the limp, dangling legs move and lightly press against my ‘real’ legs (the ones in the yellow tights).

A mirror stood at the far end of the room behind the instructor. I picked my way between the yoga students, desperate to make sense of my predicament.

I reached the mirror and stopped, swaying slightly with fevered exhaustion.

I raised my tousled head, blowing my fringe from my sharp, blue eyes.

I was Rod Hull. Astride Emu.”

The last diary entry, dated 18th February 2011, of Dr Hans Bass: pioneer of Bum-ology; born before his time, and died too young of a lack of recognition.

As the above diary entry indicates, Dr Bass was in a state of considerable psychological stress at the time of his rapid decline. Bum-ology, only briefly adopted by three small, rural primary schools in the late 80’s in and around Chagford, was withering on an already stunted vine. The three schools had only decided to trial bum-ology because they were still waiting to be connected to the local dial-up Grid for Learning, and thought that anything with a tenuous basis in research was worth trying. That and they could fit it in after Wake and Vogue without doing much juggling in the timetable. (They did have Juggling in the timetable.)

What lessons can we learn from such a tale of wasted genius? Only in the final months of his life, Dr Bass was manically working away on a theory to speed children’s acquisition of complex syntactical concepts.

Months earlier, inspired by his repeated viewing of the children’s film, Despicable Me, he had hit upon an analogous relationship between the protagonist, Gru, an evil mastermind on his uppers, and Gru’s minions – a horde of small, yellow Cyclops in dungarees.

His analogy ran thusly:

Sentences are made of clauses. A clause is a complete idea. A sentence with a single clause (complete idea) is a simple sentence. For example:

‘Gary Lineker is getting old.’

Clauses can be combined to make new sentences, by connecting them (with connectives, conjunctions or conjointons, or conjectives). Multiple clauses connected in this way are called compound sentences; so named after the first scientist Ibn Compound (pioneer of the first handheld electric fan because he came from a hot country).

Here is an example of a compound sentence:

‘Middlesbrough have a good chance of promotion if they can just maintain their form.’

Then we come to the thorny issue of complex sentences. Typically these might be taught to primary school children as ‘two clauses, with one that cannot make sense without the other’. Before I go on to detail Dr Bass’s revolutionary idea, allow me to show you an example of a complex sentence:

‘Steve McManaman looked a lot like Doctor Who during that last football commentary.’

In this example, ‘during that last football commentary’ cannot sustain itself without the main clause ‘Steve McManaman looked a lot like Doctor Who’. Technically, this dependent clause is called a ‘subordinate clause’. But Dr Bass found that, when he used this word with primary-aged children in his trials, they told him to ‘eff off’. That is when he hit upon what would be, tragically, his final gift to pedagogy.

The concept is simple:

The main clause in a sentence is Gru the evil mastermind. Gru can sustain himself; he stands tall and proud. The subordinating clauses (for they can be multiple) are minions; they can only sustain themselves in relation to Gru – for in the film, they are dependent on Gru not just for their livelihood, but also for their sense of self-worth. They are forever seeking his approval and sulking if they don’t get it.

From this single observation, and the consequent power of analogy as evidenced in his short-lived trial, Dr Bass (shortly before his demise) was in the process of extrapolating his concept into a series of writing schemes that would culminate in nothing short of a fully-fledged pedagogy.

It is deeply unfortunate that we have been deprived of his pedagogy, for he was taken from us all too shortly after the initial successes of his later trial. He had succeeded in teaching a lesson on subordinate clauses, using the Despicable Me analogy, and not a single student had told him to ‘eff off’.

On the 20th of February, 2011, the body of Dr Bass was found in his bed, his right hand tightly clasped over his mouth. He is believed to have died of natural causes.


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