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, not fob them off with the candy floss churned out by the contemporary children’s fiction industry.

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15 thoughts on “Real Life Issues, Relevance and Classic Literature

  1. Another interesting and thought provoking post.

    I actually agree with you in principle, that many legends, folk tales and stories provide lessons for life. I do however think that in the “old days”, when these were the only vehicle for passing lessons in life on to the young folk, the approach was appropriate. People tended in the main to be uneducated and written language scarce for many if not all.

    We don’t live in those days anymore. Star Wars will in future be the Shakespeare’s Literature of the past. We don’t have to hand down knowledge in story form any more.

    It is interesting to know about the past, but to see yesterday’s literature as the means of transmitting culture seems to me to be a bit outdated.

    These days we can just tell them about good and evil, they see it every day on TV and in movies and young people talk with other people across the globe. Transmitting the culture needs to be a bit more 21st Century, nostalgia notwithstanding.

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  2. Anthony, I think you underline what I think of as the ‘existential’ component of education – matters, as you indicate, of ‘life and death’ as we say. I like this as it helps us to make sense of and value the mental life of the child, their being and becoming. In inducting the child into the world of ideas and possibilities it is good to recognise this dimension.
    I am a music teacher and love the Orpheus myth. An English teacher recommended that I read David Almond’s Ella Grey, a contemporary reading of the myth and thought of as teenage fiction and possibly not. I enjoyed Ella Grey. Now I am wondering whether there is a place in the school canon for both the original myth and Ella Grey. In the case of Ella Grey the subject matter is contemporary and age related. Thus it could be argued made more relevant.
    The notion of relevance thought of an existential component of meaning making I think is appealing.

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  3. Brilliant. Thank you for this. ‘Relevance’ is indeed a very unhelpful word. It is almost anti-educational to think in terms of relevance as a curriculum driver. It isn’t that a curriculum shouldn’t equip pupils for the modern world, and today’s life and work; of course it should; it’s rather that ‘relevance’ is generally deployed in the kind of curriculum advocacy that confuses ends and means. We can neither understand ourselves, nor prepare for the future if we have no grasp of the traditions that shaped us (and others), and no grasp of the workings of tradition itself.

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  4. So very true Anthony, thank you. In the rush to embrace everything digital and “cutting edge” in today’s society, does anyone stop and think what might actually benefit the child? Why do we think yesteryear literature is no longer valide for our kids, when we ourselves benefitted greatly from these stories? Why do our educators insist on pushing 21st century learning on kids, when those giants of 21st century learning send their own kids to schools where they learn how to knit, and practice their handwriting skills? http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/dec/02/schools-that-ban-tablets-traditional-education-silicon-valley-london

    Kids are kids are kids. How they process information, and how they develop thoughts and problem solving techniques hasn’t really changed throughout the years. We’ve definitely benefitted from the cognitive science surrounding children, but in terms of suggesting that kids are different nowadays, that simply isn’t true. We are doing our kids a great injustice by denying them the same learning that we ourselves benefitted from…all in the pursuit of “preparing them for an unknown world”. What bunk. The best thing we could do, is ensure they have a well rounded education which will help them tackle life’s issues in a creative manner, and solve the problem efficiently. Reading these stories which have endured hundreds of years, is a terrific start on a child’s journey of learning and discovery.

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  5. Christine and John make wise contributions. Christine rightly refers to ‘traditions’ (plural) and notes how they have shaped ‘us’ and ‘others’ acknowledging ( I guess) that there are always many traditions in play. The most important point she makes (for me) is the importance of young people and teachers understanding ‘the working of tradition itself” and presumably how a tradition can privilege and marginalise particular groups both in relation to ‘authorship’ and the way in which such groups are portrayed;.resonances with critical pedagogy here, perhaps? This understanding of the workings of tradition is important to addressing the ‘serious questions’ that Anthony rightly recognises children ask and to which they require answers. Such questions can be addressed directly by literature but also through critically analysing and exposing the kinds of values that literary artefacts or traditions promote. However Anthony’s occasionally rather Darwinian approach to literature threatens to undermine the intellectual foundation of what could be an intellectually demanding and rigorous approach to literature. A shame.

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    • You need to know something before you can think about it. You need to be thoroughly immersed in a particular tradition before you can compare it to others. Messing around pluralising everything stops young people from even reaching that first base of thorough knowledge of one tradition.

      And I have no idea what you mean by ‘Darwinian’.

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    • Unless children have a very strong understanding of foundational knowledge, they cannot be introduced to multiple concepts and think critically. They first need to process a small amount of knowledge first, allow it to transfer into their long term memory, and that’s only when critical thinking can then occur. If a child is exposed to too many concepts at once, their working memory quickly becomes overwhelmed and frustration sets in. (think computer terminal freezing and then shutting off. Kids’ minds are no different).

      Do not risk a child’s ability to think for themselves by overwhelming their minds with too many concepts to consider. We need to teach them first what’s successful, and then they can fully grasp how to think outside the box once they get older. Children are not mini adults; they’re kids. Let’s stick to what works. Fanciful thinking is what has gotten us in trouble in the first place.

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  6. Great literature is capable of opening up doors to exploring real life issues in beautiful ways and teachers both traditional and progressive (or those between the two) have used it for years. We’ve had the Ancient Mariner opening up children’s minds to notions of justice and pantheistic philosophies, I’ve seen, through Twelfth Night, children exploring all the different kinds of love that they might find in their lives and I could go on with so many other examples. But to dismiss children’s literature as light or irrelevant is a mistake. Read, for example, Jamila Gavin’s superb Coram Boy and you see how children can find their way into Hogarth and Handel. It’s an incredibly beautifully crafted text and steeped in knowledge. Not everything old is best. Not everything new is worthless.

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  7. I see a lot of very “light” literature in my kids schooling. I read them classics at home and they enjoy them very much because they are beautifully written – often subtle and humorous – and they have some substance, rather then jokes about farts, endless diatribes about girls squabbling with each other in some sort of popularity contest or encouraging readers to “embrace your inner geek”.. To me this is not literature.

    To date my girls have loved “Tom Sawyer”, “Oliver Twist”, “Little Women”, “The Happy Prince”, “Alice in Wonderland” etc. To my mind good literature (which should be taught in schools and is not) is often that that has endured through the ages. The fact that it has endured is because it is good. The writing is amazing and the stories are wonderfully rich. That is not to say that we can not add to our literary canon contemporary novels, we should, but the classics have been forgotten in Australian schools.

    I ask, as a parent, would you prefer your 12 year old read “The Hunger Games” or “Twilight” or “Jane Eyre”? That’s a no brainer for me. At school students should be exposed to that which they probably wont naturally gravitate towards. This means we should make sure “set novels” are not the popular literature of the current teenage culture but instead that which they would not otherwise encounter in their daily lives. It’s like fast food vs nutritious food.

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  8. Anthony, I enjoy your blog very much. It is very refreshing to see that some English teachers appreciate what English should look like in schools.

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  9. Relevance has always struck me as a red herring. There’s little value in obvious relevance to student lives – they already know about them; reading and re-reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” isn’t teaching them anything new at all.

    And more subtle “relevance” – relevance of ideas and underlying experience, regardless of the setting – can be found as least as much in the classics as it can in books set in the modern day, in the students’ own immediate world.

    None of my students are Hamlet. I accept that. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t gain something from “Hamlet”, that there aren’t ideas worth exploring in a play even if it isn’t set in 21st Century England.

    We’re meant to expand their horizons, not keep them limited.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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