Real Life Issues, Relevance and Classic Literature

Puss in BootsReal life issues. Relevance to today’s young people. These are some of the top reasons given for reducing or ignoring traditional academic content in the curriculum, especially when it is older. What relevance do Shakespeare or Homer have for young people growing up on a rough council estate, the advocates of education-as-social-work ask rhetorically.

In reality, nothing could be more relevant to a life of struggle than great literature. It’s in great literature that we find the most difficult issues presented with the greatest power and insight. Unlocking this great inheritance for young people gives them ways of reflecting on life’s toughest challenges that they could not get from a thousand citizenship lessons or workshops on ‘teen issues’.

Human life is infinitely various, but great literature has lasted through the centuries because it engages powerfully with those challenges which we all face: death; loss; the passage of time; the enchantment and dangers of romantic attraction. Teenagers may think they are the first people in the universe to experience these things, but a thorough immersion in great literature will teach them that they are not alone. They are part of the human race, which has been grappling with these great questions for time immemorial.

The same is true for younger children. If we give them a diet of supposedly relevant fluff about children just like them, we are denying them the opportunity to engage with the great human questions that are dramatised in the legends and fairy tales that have been passed down through the centuries. There is struggle and death and the clash between good and evil in the great folk tales. Stories about heroes and man-eating ogres and giants actually engage more strongly with the fundamental questions of a child who is afraid of the dark, or nervous about entering an unfamiliar situation, than any number of anodyne stories of kids just like them who have not wanted to go to bed without their favourite teddy bear.

Children and young people have serious questions. Let’s take them seriously, and introduce them to the great stories that dramatise those serious questions.

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Curious about WHAT? How Curriculum Content Is Forgotten

Tumbler_of_cola_with_iceA glance at a typical school website will reveal just how excited they are about everything. They want to promote curiosity, enthusiasm, engagement, creativity! It all sounds so wonderful! You will also be treated to a dizzying array of close-up photographs of pupils sliding across the screen. As they gaze at test tubes and kick footballs, their faces are so curious, enthusiastic, engaged and creative! It’s a veritable rollercoaster ride of feel good experiences!

This slick marketing works just like adverts for fizzy drinks. You look at rapidly shifting images of happy, beautiful people drinking the fizzy drinks, and you make an emotional connection.

But the school websites are often as empty of content as the fizzy drinks whose marketing they emulate.

Content. Substance. That’s what’s missing. Enthusiastic about what? Creative with what? Engaged with what? Curious about what?

There are some things about which one should not be curious. Curiosity is like energy: children typically have plenty of it, and responsible adults have to exert their authority to channel it in the right direction. Children may be curious about what happens when they kick the smallest boy in the class. They may run energetically onto a busy road without looking first.

And it’s hard to stop children from being creative. They come up with creative ways to cheat on tests and to break uniform rules without our help. But if we want them to use language creatively, or to interpret history creatively, we’ll have to put a lot of knowledge into their heads, and we’ll have to be clear about what that knowledge should be. We will need a carefully designed, content rich curriculum. And many, many hours of hard work will be required to master the content.

This hard work may not involve the broad, toothy grins which are plastered all over the typical school website, but it will generate a quiet, deep and lasting satisfaction: the satisfaction of achieving a worthy goal through persistent effort.

(Image from Wikimedia).