Learning to Love Literature

That hotel, which is pure surface, apparently.

In Seven Myths, Daisy Christodoulou rightly identifies the philosophy underlying progressivism as postmodernism, because of its rejection of truth, which then leads to a refusal to pass on definite knowledge, seeing in this merely the imposition of one person’s beliefs upon another. Thus the central purpose of education, which as Chesterton points out, is only ‘truth in a state of transmission’, is lost.

But there is another aspect of postmodernism which poisons education: the declaration that there is no depth, only surface, as in Fredric Jameson’s famous analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Staying on the surface means gazing at the forms of literature, and declining to enter into its deeper meaning. Indeed, English undergraduates are taught to reject the whole concept of deeper meaning which can appeal across ages and generations as a humanist myth that has been disproved by the more advanced thinking of the cultural materialists. Materialism denies the soul, and therefore denies the existence of any transhistorical human nature to which great writers could appeal across the centuries. We are left only with shifting surfaces, supplemented by reductionist sociological readings that turn literature into a mere historical artefact, and usually one which supports the evil oppressors.

Thus the very existence of a deeper content to literature is systematically attacked by university English departments, and we are left with two things: form, and sub-Marxist historical context. Two boxes which GCSE and A level examiners are endlessly ticking. There isn’t any message. Or if there is, the medium is the message. Or the message is the same message over and over again: that everything is written to support the powerful and crush the poor.

How excruciatingly dull and lifeless.

All my teaching career, I’ve battled with the expectation to place form and context so prominently, when what I really want to talk about is content. Does anyone read anything because they want to admire its form or comment on how it relates to economic arrangements? Or do we read things because we’re interested in their subject – I mean their human subject? Of course there is a connection between the form, context and content, and for the fullest understanding of meaning, we need a sensitivity to the forms of literature as well as its living, human context, but the form is never an end in itself and the artwork can never be reduced to historical documentation. The form is merely a means by which the artist communicates. The artist wishes to communicate something to the reader. He is an artist because he is highly skilled at shaping language to communicate. What he communicates can have multiple meanings, layers of meaning, certainly, but meaning there is, and meaning is what the reader is looking for.

Meaning at its highest level is significance: philosophical significance, moral significance, human significance. The meanings of great literature are endless and inexhaustible. That’s why people keep reading it generation after generation. They don’t keep reading it so they can say, “Wow, look how he used personification there” or make erudite comments on how the base has shaped the superstructure. They read it for meaning, deep meaning which changes their lives.

That’s where the love of reading comes from. And that’s why we so often kill it in schools. David Didau has written about this recently, inspired by a controversial lecture from the ever interesting Frank Furedi. One of the points David considered was whether we do not think enough about what pupils are reading, because we are too concerned about how they learn to read. This is so crucial. In every area of the curriculum, but especially in the arts and humanities, the how has replaced the what. Form has replaced content: this is the skills agenda. It is one of the progressive mantras, and it is thoroughly postmodern. It doesn’t matter what you read. What matters is that you develop skills of literary and contextual analysis, and you can do that with any material, so the argument goes.

It’s certainly true that you can analyse anything, even the most trivial products of popular culture. George Orwell was one of the first to do this, with his essays on seaside postcards. These artefacts have an interest for their cultural meaning. But they are not of interest in themselves. They do not have the intrinsic interest of great literature. They do not have a meaning which can appeal across the generations, because it is deep enough to speak to any human soul. When we favour form over content, analysis over meaning, context over artwork, we take the power out of the hands of the artist and place it in the hands of the scholar and the critic. Thus does literature crumble into dust; thus does it turn into a dead butterfly pinned to the page.

The life of literature is in its meaning. That’s why we love it, if we love it at all. Everyone who has fallen in love with literature will say that it has changed their life. And they’ll never say it changed their life because of the subtle use of a concluding couplet or the skilful deployment of metaphor. Those techniques may have helped it to have the impact it did. But it was never the artist’s intention that we should stop at the surface and never enter the depth.

How are we to lead our pupils into these depths, so that they can discover the joy of reading? Firstly, we need to do a lot of reading great stories out loud, from a young age. Right from the start, children can start meeting Goldilocks and Robin Hood and St George and King Arthur and Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver and Ebenezer Scrooge. Exposure to a wide range of great stories from a young age will open their minds to all the wonderful experiences of literature. They should be listening to stories that are well beyond their ability to read, because it gives them a glimpse of the exciting territory that lies ahead once they have mastered that skill.

Secondly, we need to do a lot of memorisation, and this can begin even before children can read. Memorisation can be done entirely orally, and it gives possession of beautiful and meaningful words to the child. They can own them, and turn them around in their heads, speak them loud and soft, taste them in a way that cannot be achieved without this ancient, wise practice of committing to heart.

There it is. Simple. At primary school, alongside thorough training in the skills of decoding, lots of reading out loud and lots of memorising. And there’s no reason not to continue sharing stories and committing poetry to heart at secondary school.

Further reading:

Against Analysis, Or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

To Educate Human Beings, You Must Believe in Their Existence

(Image from Wikimedia).

Academic Knowledge

Academic knowledge is a mysterious and an ominous thing. We are told that young children are not ready for it, that some children will never cope with it, that ordinary folk have no use for it, that only elitists care about it.

What is this arcane and dangerous substance? How can it be distinguished from common or garden knowledge, so that we can place government health warnings on it, for the sake of public safety? After all, we wouldn’t want young children going too near it. Perhaps it’s time we put age restrictions on serious works of literature and history, and placed them on the top shelf in bookshops?

Clearly it is urgent that we establish some means of classification. Academic knowledge must be handled with tongs and kept well out of sight when tender young minds are present. So let’s look at a few examples. Consider fairy tales. They have lasted through many generations, have huge cultural resonance, and typically involve life or death battles between good and evil. This is looking serious: they share so many characteristics with Shakespeare’s tragedies. Therefore I suggest they be removed from the shelves of primary schools, in favour of cuddly stories about small children who lose their favourite teddies. The young must be protected!

And what about history? I have been shocked to discover that some young children are still being exposed to some actual historical dates. Such things have been proven by science to be inimical to the development of their creativity. Never must 1066 be mentioned again. Children must make their own history, by sharing family stories with each other, otherwise they might be in danger of discovering that they are not in fact the centre of the universe. Just imagine how traumatic that discovery would be for our delicate young pupils. Their little brains might never recover from it.

It’s time to get serious about protecting the young and vulnerable from the mental health risks posed by this toxic substance. Academic knowledge must be avoided!

(Image from Wikimedia).

Educational Perjury

Rubber StampWhen one of our daughters was in preschool, we were presented with a lovely file containing lots of labelled photographs. The photos combined with the annotations were supposed to ‘prove’ all kinds of things about our daughter’s development. The time taken to compile all of this must have been significant. At the same time, our daughter was not, as far as we could tell, being taught any kind of objective knowledge in a coherent systematic way. For example, she was encouraged to discover her own way of writing the letters of the alphabet, rather than being required to begin a systematic course that would have given her the first steps towards attractive and legible handwriting.

It was clear that more time was being spent gathering ‘evidence’ than doing explicit teaching. In spending their time this way, staff were dutifully following the requirements of the early years curriculum, as the school interpreted them.

Like joyriding through a multistorey carpark, this obsession with so-called ‘evidence’ is wrong on so many levels.

Firstly, the evidence isn’t even evidence. It is the recording of one current performance, not proof of any kind of fluent mastery. If a pupil knows something today, and we believe that means he will know it forevermore, we are deluding ourselves. Thus, if we spend time fabricating a wonderful one off performance for the sake of producing such spurious evidence, we are involved in nothing less than a time-wasting sham of education.

If current performance cannot determine mastery, does this mean that we should not be testing our pupils? Of course not. We should be testing our pupils very frequently. But the tests should be genuine tests, not fabricated performances, and we should not be abusing the results of the tests by claiming that they are evidence of mastery, or a lack of it.

Tests are an excellent way of consolidating knowledge that has already been taught. That is their key function. As a measure of mastery, they must be viewed with extreme suspicion. Even if everyone in the class scores 100℅ today, what will they score tomorrow? Or next month? We must always, always be on our guard against the widespread and pernicious fallacy that current performance is a measure of long term learning.

So how do we know when to move on? How can we ever have any confidence about whether our pupils have mastered something? Instead of generating spurious ‘evidence’ to ‘prove’ this, or just ‘going with our gut’, we need to turn to programmes of instruction that have been tried and tested over many years and with many pupils, and look at the ways they build mastery using a carefully designed schedule of spaced and interleaved repetition. We need to look at how programmes designed by organisations such as the National Institute for Direct Instruction work, and either adopt those programmes, if they focus on the content and skills we want to teach, or do our best to apply their principles of instruction to what we are teaching.

If we’re serious about mastery, we’ve got to stop wasting time faking evidence. It’s educational perjury.

Substandard Poetry in Exam Anthologies


Yes, I remember Adlestrop. But some of the other GCSE poetry, I’d rather forget.

I’ve been working on finalising my resources for teaching GCSE over the summer, and it has caused me to reflect on some of the material I am required to teach. In selecting novels and plays, I have been able to make choices of texts which I know will build cultural capital. As well as being great works of art, the literature I have chosen – Macbeth, A Christmas Carol and Animal Farm  – are all texts which have had a significant influence, and which form reference points which are valuable to learn for the sake of cultural literacy.

In selecting poetry, I have a choice of three collections put together by the exam board. All of them contain poetry from 1789 until the present day: in other words, from the Romantic era onwards. Firstly, the 1789 start point is a missed opportunity. It cuts out the work of wonderful poets such as Donne, Marvell and Herbert entirely. Still, I am grateful that at least it goes back that far. The older selections are all worthwhile, both as works of art and as culturally influential, but once we get past the middle of the twentieth century, the quality goes rapidly downhill. In the selection I have chosen, which I consider the least worst option, nothing later than Elizabeth Jennings is good enough or culturally influential enough to merit the time and effort of studying it in preparation for a major public exam.

I have a simple way of testing whether poetry is worth studying, at any age or level of ability: is it worth memorising?

What makes a poem worth memorising? Firstly, the beauty of the words that the poet has chosen, in the order which he has placed them, make great poems priceless intellectual possessions which we should want to give to our pupils. Secondly, great poems, precisely because they are memorable and beautiful, make a significant contribution to the culture of our nation. Are they likely to be referred to by educated people? Have they had a large impact on later writers and thinkers? William Morris said that everything in a house should either be useful or beautiful. Great poems are both. Memorising great poems is a rich and exciting experience for young people, which gives them an intellectual and aesthetic gift which will last a lifetime.

That’s why it’s such a tragedy when substandard poetry of questionable cultural importance forms such a large part of exam board anthologies. Huge numbers of young people will be focusing their minds on these poems. They may even be memorising them (although this practice is strangely rare). If they’re going to put all that effort in, it should only be for the best and most important writing. It should not be for lines like these:

let me be your vacuum cleaner
breathing in your dust
let me be your ford cortina
i will never rust

Is anyone seriously going to claim that such lines merit as much space in the nation’s poetry study as Blake’s

I wander thro’ each charter’d street
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Ask yourself: if you were going to memorise one of these, which would it be?

Anaesthetic in Various Forms

800px-Syringe2Everything’s terribly friendly at my local hospital these days. When your child goes in for an operation, you get a glossy card explaining all the things that will happen before he goes into the theatre. Evidently, they are trying very hard to make you feel involved in the process.We are told that:

An anaesthetist will discuss with you and your child the best and safest way for your child to be anaesthetised.

I was delighted to hear this. As a taxpayer, I believe that my views should be consulted. All these newfangled methods of rendering my child unconscious seem deeply suspicious to a traditionalist like me. I think we need to re-examine some of the nineteenth century methods which used to work so well. How about ether? Or perhaps opium, or a bit of good old fashioned whisky?

Or maybe not. Maybe we won’t be having a ‘discussion’ with the anaesthetist. Maybe my views are completely irrelevant to the methods he will use. Maybe he knows a little more than I do about the ‘best and safest’ ways to do his job. In a more sane world, the word ‘discuss’ would never appear in these patient guides. The expert explains what they do; they know what they are talking about.

In an area of genuine expertise, authority is undermined by the language of participation. Then, on the other hand, we have the pseudo experts: the ‘play specialists’. Lovely smiley ladies are on hand to advise parents on how to prevent their children becoming bored as they await their operation.

The soft language of participation and inclusion and the soft skills of play: they have in common the determination to make everything as painless as possible. Both children and parents must be protected from experiencing any kind of difficulty or distress at any time. Parents must be protected from the humbling experience of submitting to the authority of experts; children must be protected from any kind of struggle whatsoever. The managers who promote participation and the specialists who teach children to play: all of these legions of tax-funded smiley happy people work hard to make us feel good about ourselves and protect us from distress. Who could possibly disagree with that?

Footnote: none of this should be read as a specific criticism of my local hospital, where lots of people are working hard to do a decent job in a rather mad world. The anaesthetist, for example, did not in fact waste time ‘discussing’ methods: he gave a brief and sensible explanation. Thankfully, management diktats are not always obeyed.

(Image from Wikimedia)

Dogmatic Relativism versus Objective Truth


Could we learn something from this man?

The barriers to embracing traditional, direct approaches to teaching are philosophical much more than they are practical. In fact, simple, direct methods are far less costly as well as being more effective. Those who do finally admit this experience a reduction in workload and an increase in effectiveness, and they find themselves wondering why there is so much resistance to approaches that are tried and tested, simple and straightforward.

The resistance is in the realm of ideas. E D Hirsch is anxious to point this out in The Schools We Need. He is emphatically not attacking the teachers who have been led astray by bad ideas; he pities them, along with the pupils whom they teach:

‘this book is emphatically not an indictment of teachers. They have been as ill-served as our students by the inadequate ideas and impoverished subject-matter instruction that they have been compelled to absorb in order to receive certification.’ (p15)

One of the key ideas which prevents a traditional approach is the widespread belief that objective truth does not exist. I was recently labelled a ‘moron’ on Twitter for daring to suggest that there was such a thing as objective truth. Everyone who studies the arts and humanities at university has it drilled into them by their professors that there are only multiple interpretations of reality informed by vastly different cultural circumstances. The grand narratives are over; now there are only many different competing narratives with no unifying theme.

This is all very clever and serves the professors well. It produces undergraduate essays that have a veneer of intellectualism about them, and it allows the professors to pose as liberating their benighted students from the naive assumptions which they absorbed from their more traditional parents and home communities. Admittedly, that pose is getting rather harder to sustain, as Allan Bloom points out, writing in 1987, that the education system has been geared to generating relativism for some time:

‘There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending.’ (The Closing of the American Mind, p25)

Through the education system, then, the belief in relativism has become so widespread as to constitute an assumption that underlies much of our contemporary culture. Those who deny objective truth do not, however, do so consistently. The first and most obvious contradiction in the dogmatic assertion of relativism is that it is dogmatic. There is no objective truth apart from the objective truth that there is no objective truth. The assertion is so dogmatic that those who oppose it are made to feel like heretics. When they are not simply being dismissed as ‘morons, they are labelled as ‘bigoted’ and ‘intolerant’. Relativism is, in fact, a dogmatic religion, with its own orthodoxy and its witch hunts aimed at those who dare to question that orthodoxy.

There are other, more specific ways in which relativism is not consistently applied. These relate to the pet causes of the liberals who espouse it most strongly. For example, most liberals would pride themselves on eschewing any kind of racial prejudice. As part of this, they would be horrified by anyone who denied that the Holocaust had taken place. They are right to be angry at Holocaust deniers, of course. But they do not appear to realise that this undermines their relativist faith. The insistence on the truth of the Holocaust is important. It is a specific case of the importance of objective truth, and the moral bankruptcy of relativism.

Another example can be found in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They were seeking the truth about what had taken place during the Apartheid years. They were not seeking multiple competing narratives that would be treated as equally valid. They wanted to know the truth so that there could be repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. For some reason they didn’t call it the ‘Beyond Reasonable Doubt and Reconciliation Commission’.

When something evil has been done, we seek the truth about who is culpable. We may not know everything about the act, and indeed we cannot see into men’s souls and judge their intentions, but we can be convinced, objectively, about the events that took place. How many dogmatic relativists would maintain their faith if, God forbid, a terrible crime were committed against a loved one? They would abandon it, and wholeheartedly seek the truth, if there was a shred of humanity left underneath their intellectual posturing.

It is clear to anyone who contemplates these multiple contradictions that relativism is not a sustainable position, rationally or morally. It is a modern form of sophistry, because it is only used by its proponents when it suits them, and dropped when it becomes inconvenient. In returning to sophistry, we have retreated to pre-Socratic times. We are living in the darkness of myth, not the light of reason.

Progressive Education and Political Culture

Snake_oil_old_bottleProgressive educational ideas constitute an attack on truth and authority. Traditionally, education consists of passing on to the next generation a body of knowledge, handing on to them the precious inheritance of human wisdom and thought which has built up through the generations. The teacher has authority because he has already mastered this knowledge, and has been chosen for the important role of passing it on to the next generation. But progressive ideas reverse all of this, placing the child on a pedestal, and asking the child what he wishes to learn. In making education child-centred rather than knowledge centred, progressive educators pass on this key dogma: there is no objective truth; there is only subjective experience, and to know more of this relativist ‘truth’, we must look within, not without.

It is well documented that these ideas took a powerful hold of state education in Britain from the sixties onwards, although their dominance was stronger in primary schools at first, and many bastions of traditionalism continued, particularly in the grammar schools that survived. While Harold Wilson had hoped for a traditional academic education to be made available to everyone – ‘grammar schools for all’ – the comprehensivisation of secondary schools in the seventies in fact ushered in ever more radical progressive experiments, as discipline was relaxed and traditional academic subjects either dropped or hollowed out to the point of meaninglessness. Read Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools, for more detail on this.

The dominance of progressive ideas in education from the sixties onwards has been part of a larger cultural shift away from received wisdom, traditional morality and objective truth towards a relativist, subjectivist view of human society, and of humanity itself.

What we have seen is an abandonment of the final cause: the fourth of Aristotle’s four causes, and the most important one. Aristotle considered it to be the strongest argument for the existence of God, as the final cause of the universe, and he also considered it to be indispensable for a proper understanding of any phenomenon. We must understand purposes and goals if we are to understand anything properly. We must understand purposes and goals if we are to make meaningful judgements. If I want to judge whether a pen is ‘good’, I must know its purpose. Once I know that its purpose is to write, then I can see if it writes well. If it does, I say it is a good pen. If I misunderstand its purpose, and decide to use it as a can opener, I will not achieve my goal – I will not open the can – and I will also destroy the pen.

This is what has happened in education. The final cause has been lost, and education has been used to achieve all kinds of goals for which it was not intended. And just like the unwise man who tries to open a can with a pen, we have tried to do all sorts of foolish things with education and in the process we have destroyed education.

The collapse of authority and traditional wisdom in state education is so widespread that it is now hardly noticed by most people. It has become normal. Generations have experienced schools where teachers are treated without respect, where history is hollowed out to subjective responses and ‘source analysis’, where English involves the arrogant dismissal of the writers of the past as benighted bigots.

Now we have a political class entering the highest offices of government that has experienced this kind of schooling. They are more likely than ever to see morality in terms of conformity to social norms rather than submission to any objective standard. They are more likely to see the population as in need of management and manipulation rather than as having possession of reason and free will. They will have experienced, in their formative years, a system dedicated to the ideological whims of the experts (seventies and eighties) or to fulfilling bureaucratic criteria (nineties and noughties) rather than to handing on the wisdom of the centuries to the young. So it would be natural for them to consider the role of government in a similar manner. Instead of government serving the people, the people must meet the critieria of government. Instead of government being limited to the maintenance of peace and the rule of law, government must interfere in every area of life, to ensure that ‘standards’ are being met. Government becomes one huge, overweening inspection regime.

That’s why I don’t find it reassuring that ever more government ministers are state educated.