Why is analysis introduced so early in the English curriculum? Instead of reading lots of challenging material that builds knowledge and vocabulary, from an early stage, pupils begin picking shorter texts to pieces and offering ‘personal responses’ to them.
You can’t do both, of course. You must choose between breadth and depth in the study of literature. At the level of general education (before pupils choose to go down a specialised academic path leading to studying that subject at university – in other words, before A level), breadth is the important thing. Pupils should be building a wide knowledge of the great stories and characters that are their cultural inheritance. Building up such knowledge does, of course, greatly improve their own reading and writing, which depend so much on breadth of knowledge and vocabulary.
Requiring that pupils produce literary essays for GCSE is mistaken. If pupils are going to do this, they have to spend a disproportionate amount of time practising the skill of essay writing, and the vast majority will get no further than a shallow simulation of expertise. This is all time in which they could have been acquiring cultural literacy that would have served them well whatever they chose to do next, whether A levels and university or a non-academic path.
What’s even worse is the amount of time that is being dedicated to analysis lower down the curriculum. Pupils who have never memorised a serious poem in their lives are being required to analyse the figurative techniques used by a poet. All of this time being spent on a narrow, specialised skill, is time lost to building up broad knowledge that is of use to everybody, whatever their later educational or academic choices.
It also gets frustratingly repetitive. You analyse imagery in year five, and year six, and year seven, and on, and on, and on. You spend many hours painfully squeezing out pretend literary essays, when you could have been learning so much about literature and history, and experiencing the genuine satisfaction that comes from mastering powerful knowledge.
The premature emphasis upon analysis is an example of the ‘skills over knowledge’ approach privileged by progressive ideology. In this approach, it doesn’t really matter what you read, as long as you are developing ‘critical skills’. So by the end of eleven or more years of general education, you know next to nothing about important literature or history, but you can trot out phrases like ‘The author’s use of imagery engages the reader’. And that’s the conscientious ones. Often it’s more like ‘I think William’s language doesn’t engage the reader because it’s old fashioned’. There you go, there’s an evaluation for you. Right at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, if you please.
The irony is that in the name of building ‘thinking skills’, progressive educators are wasting the time of pupils, and denying them precisely the knowledge that will enable them to think more effectively for the rest of their life. Pupils are being left with empty heads and the vague idea that any opinion is valid, as long as you can justify it. The spouting of ignorant opinions cannot be the basis of sound rational thinking. Reason must be rooted in reality; it must be based on objective knowledge.
During those eleven years of general education, pupils should be absorbing powerful knowledge, and the tests they take, which should be done every year, should be checking that they have learned and understood this knowledge, not making them ‘evaluate the success’ of a poet’s techniques (or how reliable a historical source is, for that matter). It’s really quite hilariously misguided to expect a sixteen year old to ‘evaluate’ whether Williams Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Blake have ‘engaged the reader’ with their imagery. Such evaluations can only be made by those with expert knowledge of poetry, which takes years of specialised study to acquire.
‘Evaluation’ should be left for postgraduates. Thorough understanding is the aim of general education.