Encouraging Ordinary People to Love Literature

We have recently been encouraged as fathers, not for the first time, to be ‘seen reading’ in a family context. I am sure I am not the only father who has at times felt a twinge of guilt that they are not sitting around reading novels in front of their children.

Upon further reflection, however, I would argue that this guilt is false. Although it is true that I very rarely read in front of my children, I regularly read to them. I have continued to do this as they have got older, even when they could read the book themselves.

Family reading is a natural and enjoyable activity which was common before the advent of television. It was not confined to small children. Why should they have all the fun? Dickens’ Household Words was squarely aimed at the families who would read out loud each episode of his novels, savouring the plot as it was gradually unveiled, much in the way that a family might watch Coronation Street together (although with multiplying channels and electronic devices in family homes, even that shared experience is less and less common nowadays).

Reading silently is a very solitary activity. It has its pleasures and it has its purpose, but is perfectly understandable that there are many who do not wish to remain solitary for long periods of time: boys and girls, children and adults, may wish to be sociable more often than they are alone. If literature is presented primarily as being solitary and silent, why are we surprised that many say ‘No thanks, I’d rather watch a film or play a video game with my mates’?

Literature was rarely consumed in silent solitude until the advent of the novel, which, combined with industrialisation and mass literacy, turned it into a commodity for mass production and individual consumption. Before that innovation, literature consisted of poetry and drama, both intended for public performance and communal enjoyment.

I used to wonder why it was that although I have always enjoyed poetry, and I even wrote a PhD on it, I have very rarely spent much time reading it when I was not preparing an essay on it or teaching it. Now I have found the answer. Poetry is not intended for silent, solitary consumption. It is intended for memorisation and recitation. At last, I have found the key to enjoying poetry. It is almost as odd to sit and read poetry silently as it would be to sit and read a Mozart score rather than listening to a performance or humming a tune from your favourite concerto. Reading a musical score is the sort of rarefied activity that a few initiates might enjoy, but one would never expect it to become a popular pastime.

Every truly human activity is a communal, shared activity at root, whether it is politics, religion or art. When these activities become privatised, they lose their vital energy, and cease to appeal to the majority of people. We should not, therefore, be surprised at how few people read serious literature.

Along with the family home, school is an ideal place in which to rediscover the original purpose of literature. In a school, poetry can be shared through a communal effort at memorisation and recitation. Novels can be shared by reading passages out loud in a dramatic and vivid style. Literature can be released from its silent, rather gloomy modern prison and can once more become public property, in a form which appeals to people just because they’re human, not because they’re scholars who enjoy spending many hours at a stretch in silent solitude poring over the written word, or bored consumers with so much time to kill that they can afford to spend half of their day in a private fantasy world.

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The Quest for Knowledge

All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore I share my humanity and mortality with Socrates

All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore I share my humanity and mortality with Socrates

The principles of a liberal education are actually rather simple. Pupils will encounter the greatest minds of the past, and from this encounter they will gain the insights to seek after truth and goodness for themselves. Liberal education equips pupils to ask the most fundamental questions: ‘What is man?’, ‘What is the good life?’, ‘What is the good society?’

The principles are indeed simple, but in practice it is very difficult to offer or to a receive a liberal education in twenty-first century Britain. Why is that?

Firstly, we are cut off from the past by a mistaken idea of relevance. Teachers are reluctant to foist ancient material on pupils, thinking that they will reject it as unconnected to their lives. But this lack of connection is only at the most superficial level. Relevance properly understood transcends the immediate concerns of the present. The greatest thinkers are always relevant, because they address the most important human questions, the questions which are of deep relevance to every human being: questions about significance and purpose in the face of mortality, for example. Last time I read the newspaper, death had not yet been abolished, and we are still just as mortal as Socrates.

The second key barrier to a liberal education is relativism. If there is no truth about the human condition, then we cannot expect to benefit at the deepest level from reading serious books, so why put forth the effort?

E D Hirsch is right to point out that exposure to a generous sample of great writers is vital to build cultural literacy, and allow our pupils to gain admission to the civilised conversation of our society. He is right that the ability to read effectively depends upon a good store of core knowledge built up through familiarity with the great legends and myths which have shaped Western society. His arguments are compelling from the point of view of social justice, as they must be accepted if we are to offer equal chances to those from homes that lack cultural capital.

E D Hirsch is right, but his arguments will not be enough to revive liberal education. The principles of core knowledge are attractive partly because they neatly sidestep the philosophical questions. They put to one side the question of whether we will find truth in the great writers of the past, and offer a pragmatic reason for studying them regardless.

The philosophical neutrality of Hirsch’s arguments are both their strength and their weakness. It is certainly eminently sensible and rational to propose the study of core knowledge in order to improve cultural literacy and open up the life prospects for poorer pupils, but is it really exciting, in the way that the discovery of truth is exciting? True liberal education appeals to the eager desire for truth that is in every child. It is the eros of the mind, yearning for consummation. There is all the difference in the world between proposing to study something because it is useful, and proposing to study something because it is true.

The search for truth is what makes us take books seriously. Every time we open one, we might discover something that will change our life. Mere entertainment or practical utility are pale shadows in comparison to the thrill of discovering the truth, and the liberation it brings.

The Cult of Differentiation

Some of the most persistent zombie ideas in education are related to the cult of differentiation. This is the firmly held belief, in spite of any logic or evidence, that a class teacher’s time is best spent producing different lessons attuned to the individual needs of his pupils.

Around 90% of teachers still believe, for example, that learning styles exist, and that pupils are taught most effectively in their preferred learning style. This defies logic, because instruction is always best attuned to the material being taught. If it’s a practical skill, learners need modelling and hands on practice. If it’s the skill of writing, pupils need to have the rules explained to them clearly and repeatedly practise them. If it is geographical information, they need to look at maps and learn to interpret them by memorising mapping conventions and repeatedly applying them. A visual learner will not learn how to write by looking at pictures. An auditory learner will not learn about the geology of Britain best by listening to a description of a map.

The fact is, the best method works best for everyone. A teacher’s precious time is best used working out the best method for the material and using it to teach the whole class. The opportunity cost of producing differentiated material is obscene, and it is futile, because however different pupils are, they will still learn best from the method of instruction which is best attuned to the material being taught.

And yet the learning styles nonsense continues, because if we reject it, we stand accused of failing to treat pupils as individuals. The moral cudgels come out and the traditional teacher is seen as a stern, inflexible and inhuman instructor who doesn’t get down with the kids and see things from their perspective. This is really the heart of the cult of differentiation. Teachers are supposed to sacrifice the best interests of their pupils on the altar of rampant individualism, in which everything must be different for every person: ‘personalised learning’.

But a teacher who refuses to differentiate is not claiming that his pupils are identical. He is simply working on the basis of the well evidenced fact that cognitively, we are far more similar than we are different. Morally, personally we are doubtless unique. We vary too, of course, in intelligence levels, so that some will have to put forth more effort to attain the same levels of knowledge. But we do our pupils no favours when we excuse them that effort and encourage them to think that they have some unique excuse for not trying.

As a matter of fact, well organised and efficient whole class instruction allows far more opportunities for good quality individual attention. It creates a well ordered environment in which expectations are clear and work is well defined. Thus it makes it far easier for the teacher to spot anyone who is struggling, and offer a few words of extra explanation. This quiet, focused, and unfussy intervention is what caring teachers have always done. Now it is much harder, as the madness and chaos of individualised learning continues to make many teachers’ lives next to impossible.