Learning to Love Literature

That hotel, which is pure surface, apparently.

In Seven Myths, Daisy Christodoulou rightly identifies the philosophy underlying progressivism as postmodernism, because of its rejection of truth, which then leads to a refusal to pass on definite knowledge, seeing in this merely the imposition of one person’s beliefs upon another. Thus the central purpose of education, which as Chesterton points out, is only ‘truth in a state of transmission’, is lost.

But there is another aspect of postmodernism which poisons education: the declaration that there is no depth, only surface, as in Fredric Jameson’s famous analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Staying on the surface means gazing at the forms of literature, and declining to enter into its deeper meaning. Indeed, English undergraduates are taught to reject the whole concept of deeper meaning which can appeal across ages and generations as a humanist myth that has been disproved by the more advanced thinking of the cultural materialists. Materialism denies the soul, and therefore denies the existence of any transhistorical human nature to which great writers could appeal across the centuries. We are left only with shifting surfaces, supplemented by reductionist sociological readings that turn literature into a mere historical artefact, and usually one which supports the evil oppressors.

Thus the very existence of a deeper content to literature is systematically attacked by university English departments, and we are left with two things: form, and sub-Marxist historical context. Two boxes which GCSE and A level examiners are endlessly ticking. There isn’t any message. Or if there is, the medium is the message. Or the message is the same message over and over again: that everything is written to support the powerful and crush the poor.

How excruciatingly dull and lifeless.

All my teaching career, I’ve battled with the expectation to place form and context so prominently, when what I really want to talk about is content. Does anyone read anything because they want to admire its form or comment on how it relates to economic arrangements? Or do we read things because we’re interested in their subject – I mean their human subject? Of course there is a connection between the form, context and content, and for the fullest understanding of meaning, we need a sensitivity to the forms of literature as well as its living, human context, but the form is never an end in itself and the artwork can never be reduced to historical documentation. The form is merely a means by which the artist communicates. The artist wishes to communicate something to the reader. He is an artist because he is highly skilled at shaping language to communicate. What he communicates can have multiple meanings, layers of meaning, certainly, but meaning there is, and meaning is what the reader is looking for.

Meaning at its highest level is significance: philosophical significance, moral significance, human significance. The meanings of great literature are endless and inexhaustible. That’s why people keep reading it generation after generation. They don’t keep reading it so they can say, “Wow, look how he used personification there” or make erudite comments on how the base has shaped the superstructure. They read it for meaning, deep meaning which changes their lives.

That’s where the love of reading comes from. And that’s why we so often kill it in schools. David Didau has written about this recently, inspired by a controversial lecture from the ever interesting Frank Furedi. One of the points David considered was whether we do not think enough about what pupils are reading, because we are too concerned about how they learn to read. This is so crucial. In every area of the curriculum, but especially in the arts and humanities, the how has replaced the what. Form has replaced content: this is the skills agenda. It is one of the progressive mantras, and it is thoroughly postmodern. It doesn’t matter what you read. What matters is that you develop skills of literary and contextual analysis, and you can do that with any material, so the argument goes.

It’s certainly true that you can analyse anything, even the most trivial products of popular culture. George Orwell was one of the first to do this, with his essays on seaside postcards. These artefacts have an interest for their cultural meaning. But they are not of interest in themselves. They do not have the intrinsic interest of great literature. They do not have a meaning which can appeal across the generations, because it is deep enough to speak to any human soul. When we favour form over content, analysis over meaning, context over artwork, we take the power out of the hands of the artist and place it in the hands of the scholar and the critic. Thus does literature crumble into dust; thus does it turn into a dead butterfly pinned to the page.

The life of literature is in its meaning. That’s why we love it, if we love it at all. Everyone who has fallen in love with literature will say that it has changed their life. And they’ll never say it changed their life because of the subtle use of a concluding couplet or the skilful deployment of metaphor. Those techniques may have helped it to have the impact it did. But it was never the artist’s intention that we should stop at the surface and never enter the depth.

How are we to lead our pupils into these depths, so that they can discover the joy of reading? Firstly, we need to do a lot of reading great stories out loud, from a young age. Right from the start, children can start meeting Goldilocks and Robin Hood and St George and King Arthur and Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver and Ebenezer Scrooge. Exposure to a wide range of great stories from a young age will open their minds to all the wonderful experiences of literature. They should be listening to stories that are well beyond their ability to read, because it gives them a glimpse of the exciting territory that lies ahead once they have mastered that skill.

Secondly, we need to do a lot of memorisation, and this can begin even before children can read. Memorisation can be done entirely orally, and it gives possession of beautiful and meaningful words to the child. They can own them, and turn them around in their heads, speak them loud and soft, taste them in a way that cannot be achieved without this ancient, wise practice of committing to heart.

There it is. Simple. At primary school, alongside thorough training in the skills of decoding, lots of reading out loud and lots of memorising. And there’s no reason not to continue sharing stories and committing poetry to heart at secondary school.

Further reading:

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

To Educate Human Beings, You Must Believe in Their Existence

(Image from Wikimedia).

Academic Knowledge

Academic knowledge is a mysterious and an ominous thing. We are told that young children are not ready for it, that some children will never cope with it, that ordinary folk have no use for it, that only elitists care about it.

What is this arcane and dangerous substance? How can it be distinguished from common or garden knowledge, so that we can place government health warnings on it, for the sake of public safety? After all, we wouldn’t want young children going too near it. Perhaps it’s time we put age restrictions on serious works of literature and history, and placed them on the top shelf in bookshops?

Clearly it is urgent that we establish some means of classification. Academic knowledge must be handled with tongs and kept well out of sight when tender young minds are present. So let’s look at a few examples. Consider fairy tales. They have lasted through many generations, have huge cultural resonance, and typically involve life or death battles between good and evil. This is looking serious: they share so many characteristics with Shakespeare’s tragedies. Therefore I suggest they be removed from the shelves of primary schools, in favour of cuddly stories about small children who lose their favourite teddies. The young must be protected!

And what about history? I have been shocked to discover that some young children are still being exposed to some actual historical dates. Such things have been proven by science to be inimical to the development of their creativity. Never must 1066 be mentioned again. Children must make their own history, by sharing family stories with each other, otherwise they might be in danger of discovering that they are not in fact the centre of the universe. Just imagine how traumatic that discovery would be for our delicate young pupils. Their little brains might never recover from it.

It’s time to get serious about protecting the young and vulnerable from the mental health risks posed by this toxic substance. Academic knowledge must be avoided!

(Image from Wikimedia).

Educational Perjury

Rubber StampWhen one of our daughters was in preschool, we were presented with a lovely file containing lots of labelled photographs. The photos combined with the annotations were supposed to ‘prove’ all kinds of things about our daughter’s development. The time taken to compile all of this must have been significant. At the same time, our daughter was not, as far as we could tell, being taught any kind of objective knowledge in a coherent systematic way. For example, she was encouraged to discover her own way of writing the letters of the alphabet, rather than being required to begin a systematic course that would have given her the first steps towards attractive and legible handwriting.

It was clear that more time was being spent gathering ‘evidence’ than doing explicit teaching. In spending their time this way, staff were dutifully following the requirements of the early years curriculum, as the school interpreted them.

Like joyriding through a multistorey carpark, this obsession with so-called ‘evidence’ is wrong on so many levels.

Firstly, the evidence isn’t even evidence. It is the recording of one current performance, not proof of any kind of fluent mastery. If a pupil knows something today, and we believe that means he will know it forevermore, we are deluding ourselves. Thus, if we spend time fabricating a wonderful one off performance for the sake of producing such spurious evidence, we are involved in nothing less than a time-wasting sham of education.

If current performance cannot determine mastery, does this mean that we should not be testing our pupils? Of course not. We should be testing our pupils very frequently. But the tests should be genuine tests, not fabricated performances, and we should not be abusing the results of the tests by claiming that they are evidence of mastery, or a lack of it.

Tests are an excellent way of consolidating knowledge that has already been taught. That is their key function. As a measure of mastery, they must be viewed with extreme suspicion. Even if everyone in the class scores 100℅ today, what will they score tomorrow? Or next month? We must always, always be on our guard against the widespread and pernicious fallacy that current performance is a measure of long term learning.

So how do we know when to move on? How can we ever have any confidence about whether our pupils have mastered something? Instead of generating spurious ‘evidence’ to ‘prove’ this, or just ‘going with our gut’, we need to turn to programmes of instruction that have been tried and tested over many years and with many pupils, and look at the ways they build mastery using a carefully designed schedule of spaced and interleaved repetition. We need to look at how programmes designed by organisations such as the National Institute for Direct Instruction work, and either adopt those programmes, if they focus on the content and skills we want to teach, or do our best to apply their principles of instruction to what we are teaching.

If we’re serious about mastery, we’ve got to stop wasting time faking evidence. It’s educational perjury.