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

William Wordsworth

‘William’s language is a bit old-fashioned, innit?’

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.

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16 thoughts on “Against Analysis, or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

  1. Excellent points here.
    I can’t help but wonder if part of the problem here is the need to be seen to be teaching. If children are just read to, or with, or worse, left alone to read, few Ofsted inspectors or senior leaders would recognise the value in the lesson. Instead we must always be seen to be pushing the boundaries of our 60-minute slot.
    What a waste!

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  2. Nice to see a post which deals with this issues related to their subject rather than generalising.

    I will be honest and say that I cannot even get my head around the idea that people should only evaluate when they get to post graduate level.

    The arguments are mainly similar to those of the generalist but I am fascinated that kids should spend such a period developing their cultural literacy. I cannot see how anyone can understand a text in any meaningful way without analysis. I feel that your example is actually analysis and understanding rather than evaluation so maybe therein lies part of our differences.

    I don’t agree with the statement below, and i fail to see how the following is possible without higher order skills use and development.

    “which should be done every year, should be checking that they have learned and understood this knowledge”

    People start to analyse and evaluate soon after they are born, why would we not build upon this is general education.

    One issue that interests me, and which I hope you might provide some insight, is can you provide some examples of the cultural literacy that might be appropriate during the 11 years or so under discussion. Which knowledge is so powerful that we might put the development of a child’s ability to analyse and evaluate the world around them. Which reading would you recommend?

    The fact that a child’s ability to accumulate powerful knowledge might require analysis and evaluation we should leave to another day.

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    • We’re talking about different things. Reading and understanding are active. Meaning must be created, and this does involve what might be called analysis and evaluation. This is one reason why reading serious material is such an enriching experience. By analysis here, I don’t mean this ordinary process of constructing meaning. I mean the very specific practice of literary criticism, which requires expert knowledge. It’s like the difference between understanding biology in a general way, and being a hospital consultant.

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  3. Nit-picking of book extracts really turned me off English. I used to love reading before I had to transfer back into a state school.

    Also, slightly off-topic; why on Earth am I teaching French to children who cannot read, write and speak English properly?

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  4. There is a further irony, which you hint at here. True critical insight is difficult to produce on demand. Since school work has to be produced to a deadline and a target, we take shortcuts. I know that, as a teacher, I make sure that pupils have some generally applicable structures to use for evaluation. I also know that, when time is short, my teaching of these structures turns into rote training, of the sort that progressives decry. Instead of memorising big worthwhile ideas, pupils memorise something whose only use is passing an exam.

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  7. The other thing that (particularly for primary kids) is never mentioned is that one needs a certain level of experience of life to be able to even understand the plots, never mind analyse the language. For example, I have seen some schools (sadly under the guise of cultural literacy) doing Shakespeare with Nursery/Reception children. Do you think children who have not felt the pang of love (or hate) understand why Romeo and Juliet want to elope?

    Maybe I’m mistaken – because most two-year olds can grasp the love bits in any Disney film.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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