We still read out loud to our older children every evening. They are perfectly capable of reading silently by themselves, but we don’t want to lose the experience of sharing stories together. Sometimes we read old favourites that we’ve read several times before; sometimes we read something new. Over time, we’re building up a shared body of knowledge. We all know who Pip is, and Magwitch, and Aslan, and Frodo Baggins. In family conversation, these characters are part of our shared frame of reference. It’s a miniature version of what E D Hirsch has been campaigning for vigorously at a national level: shared knowledge for a shared conversation.
One of the examples which Hirsch gives which stays most strongly with me is that of his own father, who was a businessman, but who saw nothing odd about referring to Shakespeare in business letters. He only needed to say that ‘there is a tide’ to express the idea that here was an opportunity which needed to be seized, a time to act which would pass by if it were not taken advantage of. He expected his business colleagues, who had received a traditional education as he had, to pick up the reference to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Brutus argues that now is the time to attack, using this naval metaphor:
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Hirsch’s father evidently didn’t consider it elitist or obscure to quote Shakespeare in a business letter. The reference was commonly known because of the persistence of traditional education, which collapsed in the decades which were to follow.
From small beginnings, but with increasing momentum as the years go by, we need to rebuild the community of knowledge which Hirsch’s father took for granted, giving an ever greater number of people access to the richness of great literature. This richness is the heritage of every human being, because it is human knowledge, not the possession of an elite. Shakespeare, of course, wrote for the common people, and his plays were popular amongst all classes of society. Dickens, likewise, felt no shame in aiming for a mass audience. He did not consider the rich language of his novels to be something that only a cultural elite would be able to access. Many an ordinary family would sit around the fire in the nineteenth century, listening with excitement to the latest episode of the master storyteller’s latest novel, which he published through his own periodicals. The first of these was called Household Words. Not university words, not academic words, not obscure words: household words. The reference is to another great Shakespearean speech:
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
It’s the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. This is a speech which my year eights memorise, and I often reflect on how fitting it is as we chant it together in class, because it is about a shared memory which will regularly be revisited as part of the cycle of liturgical feasts. It is about a past which the ordinary people of England will treasure together. It is about tradition and inheritance.
There are two things which need to be understood before the community of knowledge can be rebuilt.
Firstly, teachers need to understand that everyone can have access to the richness of literature, when direct, effective methods are used, which involve memorisation through oral drill and repeated practice. Why should anyone be excluded? There are no practical reasons, only ideological ones, for the restriction of great literature to a privileged few.
Secondly, the greatness and importance of the literary tradition must be understood. What is in the past, what has been known and spoken and written by generations of English men and women, what has entered into our very language through countless references in countless texts, that must be the common foundation which is laid in our schools. On that basis, we can rebuild a community of shared knowledge which will civilise and enrich our national cultural conversation to an immeasurable extent.