This blog contains book reviews, comments on interesting things and a smattering of self promotion. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

In Defence of Teaching English Literature (or, 'Why should you pay me to talk to kids about poems?')

It’s been quite a while since I last posted. In the intervening time, I have been part of a collaborative novel writing project and qualified as a teacher of English. Although I have never intended this to be an education blog, there are many things happening in education which are worth discussing and may be of interest to the general public. Over the summer, I will post on one or two of these things, starting with why we teach should English at all.

I won’t discuss here why we teach kids to read and write. We are fortunate enough to live in a society where the value of functional literacy is so universally accepted that it is taken for granted. Rather, I want to write about why we teach English Literature.  That our children are taught literature is a less secure assumption – it is not uncommon for schools to teach GCSE English Literature only to the higher sets, and in a climate where a school’s percentage of students achieving a ‘C’ or above in English can make or break a reputation, it’s easy to see why. Literature must be studied alongside Language to count in the league tables, and this is often seen as a more difficult option than the straight English GCSE.

At its worst, English Literature can be a tired process of straining novels and poems through endless PEE (point, evidence, explanation) paragraphs to produce useless and disjointed analysis. It becomes an exercise in ticking boxes:  Yes I have spoken about the effect of specific words. Yes I have talked about the historical context, yes I can find alliteration. But I have no ideas what it’s about. These are issues produced by the current system of assessment, and they do need to be addressed, but I did not come here to talk about my subject at its worst.

What then, can the subject do at its best? As someone who has spent the past nine years voluntarily studying novels, stories, poems and plays (and as somebody who attempts to write some of these things), I’d like to say that it is because of the transporting power of literature – because of the enjoyment that can be had in exploring a good book. Some of you might think that this alone is not enough to justify the percentage of your taxes that goes to paying for me and my colleagues. Why then should English Literature be a core subject, taught to all children? Clearly, I have a vested interest in the answer to this question.

Firstly, a system where literature is taught only to the higher achieving students has a number of unpleasant consequences. It denies a diet of stimulating books to those students most likely not to have them at home. Worse, it reinforces divisions in our society by taking a large portion of our school-aged population and telling them ‘literature is not for the likes of you’.

But my argument for English Literature being taught to all students is not built purely on a sense of fair play. I really believe that literature, taught well, can do things which PSHE cannot. I do not mean this in the prescriptive Liberal Humanist  sense that a canon of Great Books can build moral character (although a fairly recent study does suggest that reading fiction can foster empathy), rather I mean that it can be used to foster a sort of ‘cultural literacy’ which equips us with the skills to engage fully with the society we live in.

The first time I heard the term ‘institutional racism’ was in an English lesson. More recently, I have seen teachers introduce the basics of feminism to GCSE English Literature classes. I witnessed one brave teacher who, when confronted with Curley’s infamous ‘glove full of Vaseline’ in Of Mice and Men (‘he’s keeping his hand soft for his wife’) confront it head on as a way of discussing the same attitude that leads to today’s Curleys passing on nude selfies, or uploading revenge porn (don’t worry, the link is to a Guardian article!).  In my experience, I would have been tempted to rush through the passage and hope the students didn’t notice.

By training students to analyse the way people and situations are presented in novels and plays, they become more able to analyse how they are presented in other media.  Of course, when students are taught ‘purpose’ and ‘audience’ well they should be able to spot authorial bias in newspaper articles and editorials, but the study of literature supports the ability to analyse the more deep-rooted cultural prejudices which still exist below the surface.

I am not claiming that this role can only be filled by English Literature. I have observed a Media Studies on comic books where students were introduced to the concept of ‘moral panic’, and been in another media room where wall displays explained the meanings of ‘representation’ and ‘male gaze’. In fact, I sometimes wonder if Media’s place on the margins of the curriculum has given it greater freedom to explore these issues. Shame on those who denigrate it as a Micky Mouse subject, and shame one those who decided to cut all reference to new media in a GCSE English curriculum which serves children growing up in an increasingly media rich world. However, English Literature has the advantage of being a component of a core subject – it has the potential to reach a far greater number of students than an optional subject like Media Studies.

While there are numerous other reasons that students should study English Literature, it is this which I feel most justifies it position as a core subject: it encourages students to ask questions about our culture, and gives them the tools to do so.  It does not (or should not) engage in polemics, but enables our students to develop their own standpoint on the issues facing our society, and it does all of this while widening students’ horizons and engaging their empathy with people in a wide range of situations. Surely we should strive to make this opportunity available to all students, regardless of their predicted grades.

P.S. I wrote on this topic in greater academic detail as one of the first assignments on my training year. If you are interested in reading a more academic argument with references, you can find it here.

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