Literature: What Is It, and Why Do We Study It?

Screenshot 2017-10-20 at 18.15.54This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave to all Inspiration Trust primary staff on 20th October 2017.

This morning, I want to examine what we mean by literature as a subject. How is literature different from other kinds of reading? How does it connect to literacy? And what exactly is the substantive knowledge within the academic subject called literature? By substantive knowledge, I mean factual, or know-that knowledge, as opposed to disciplinary, or know-how knowledge, such as the knowledge of how to write an essay on literature. The two are always intertwined, of course.

Let’s start with out overall vision. We need to ask ourselves, where do we want to be in five years’ time? We want to have pupils who love literature. What do we mean by that? We mean that they are interested in the types of stories that they find in great novels and plays. They want to read them, because through them they enter into other worlds which have great significance for them.

We all love stories. We tell stories and we listen to stories all the time. We tell stories about each other and we listen to them. Films and television are full of stories. We don’t have to persuade our pupils to be interested in stories. They naturally are. But we do need to build their curiosity about the kinds of stories they find in great literature.
How are we going to build this curiosity? How are we going to reach the situation where our pupils have a hunger for reading more high quality fiction? Where they want to read all seven Narnia books, not just one? How are we going to convince them that the plays of Shakespeare are full of rich meaning for them?

Firstly, we need to understand what curiosity is. It is not immanent – it is not something that you just have inside you, to a greater or lesser degree. It is emergent – it grows and develops, depending upon how it is nurtured. People in general, including children, are curious about things with which they have some familiarity. For a young child, this is quite a limited range of things. They are curious about the world that is immediately surrounding them, so curious, in fact, that it can be dangerous, as any mother of a toddler will tell you.

It is our job as teachers to develop and nurture the curiosity of children by giving them more things to be curious about. We do this by introducing them to areas of knowledge with which they were previously unfamiliar. You can’t be curious about something if you know nothing about it.

This is why reading aloud to young children is so important. When we read them classic tales, their minds are opened upon many different and fascinating worlds. But when they hear stories that are based only around what they already know, they remain in that limited sphere.

During the twentieth century, there was a move away from using folk tales and fairy tales in the education of children, towards using stories that reflected their own lives – stories of lost teddies, or of starting school, or of coping with the birth of a younger sibling. It was argued that fairy tales were not worth sharing with children, because they were so far removed from their everyday experience. What children needed was something that was immediately relevant to them.

By removing the fantastical and strange from children’s fiction, we remove precisely what is needed to introduce them to classic literature. If they only hear about lost teddies when they are four, they will only want to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid when they are ten.

This is why our core primary books are based around classics and folk tales. We want to build, from the earliest possible stage, the appetite for what is different and unfamiliar – for other worlds. These other worlds help us to understand our own world, because they give us different points of reference. When we are locked into our immediate surroundings and our present reality, we have no points of comparison.

The desire for escape into other realities will be fed in other ways, if we do not feed it through introducing children to classic literature. It will be fed through films, television and computer games. We all have a thirst for escape into different worlds, just as we all have curiosity. The question in both cases is not whether the appetite exists, but on what does it feed? Just as a child who is not fed wholesome food will be more likely to fill up on crisps and sweets, a child who is not fed classic tales will be more likely to fill up on the escapist fantasies of Disney films and video games.

We have to offer children these alternative realities. We have to be convinced that the alternative realities of fairy tales and classic children’s fiction are more nourishing to their imagination than the latest Disney film or the latest thrilling video game. They are more nourishing because they ‘hold a mirror up to nature’: they help us to reflect on our own lives with renewed wisdom. We do not leave reality behind entirely. This is the difference between imagination and fantasy. In the world of imagination, we build stronger relationships with reality by thinking about it through new symbols that reflect it more luminously. In the world of fantasy, we become the centre of our own private universe, and our connection with reality is weakened. This is preeminently the case in video games, which do quite literally make the player the centre of an alternative universe.

When C S Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the middle of the twentieth century, his publisher was worried at first that it would tarnish his reputation. It was Lewis’ first attempt at writing children’s fiction. He already had a strong reputation as an author for adults. His publisher fretted that such a book would not be popular even with its intended audience, as the fashion was against tales of talking beasts and evil witches, and in favour of greater so-called ‘relevance’.

But as we know, Lewis’ novel was a runaway success, and it remains one of the most popular children’s classics of all time. It is a classic because it is rooted in Lewis’ deep knowledge of myth and folklore. Lewis was a professor of literature, and this expertise was not a dry set of ancient facts, but a living body of stories and symbols which he could deploy in creating his wonderful, magical tale. Lewis drew on the many alternative realities which he knew intimately, in Greek, Celtic and Icelandic mythology, as well as biblical sources, and created something which ran completely counter to the prevailing ideas about children’s fiction. He and his friends J R R Tolkien and Roger Lancelyn Green knew that these timeless stories had not lost their power to tell us something about our own lives. Human nature had not changed, and humans could still respond to the stories told by their ancestors down the centuries.

We need to keep this belief alive as we initiate the young into the world of classic literature. We are introducing them to tales which have a timeless value. Precisely because they are not set in our current reality, but somewhere else, they afford us comparisons and contrasts that help us to understand our lives in a richer way. Just as we cannot understand the present without knowing the past, we cannot understand this reality unless we have access to other realities. The strangeness of fairy tales and of classic literature is precisely its strength.

But how can we most effectively initiate the young into these alternative realities that are so rich in meaning? Firstly, by reading aloud from a carefully selected range of classics. Hearing classic tales from a young age will shape the taste of our pupils. If from a young age our pupils are hearing about dragons and giants, about heroic quests, they will experience vividly the possibilities that classic literature affords. There is real danger and real excitement in fairy tales that is entirely absent from the sanitised, mundane world of books which only reflect what is already familiar.

Building on this familiarity with the world of classic tales, we have selected books which will develop further the taste for alternative realities that are rich in meaning. We need to make the books themselves the centre of what we are doing. The content of the literature needs to be at the heart of our teaching. We want them to know these stories intimately. The more they know about classic literature, the more likely they are to want to read it independently, because curiosity is always based upon what is already known.

This is the key: we need to keep the content of the literature central to what we do. This is not in conflict with achieving better SATs results. When we make the substantive literary knowledge central, we are building the knowledge and vocabulary of our pupils in a highly coherent and therefore highly effective way. It is better knowledge and vocabulary which lead to better reading and better writing, which will mean better SATs results, and more importantly, better educated children, well prepared to go on to more demanding literary content in their future academic careers.

So what is literary knowledge? It is the knowledge of plots, characters and themes in literature, and the knowledge of the language used to communicate these plots, characters and themes. Integrated into knowledge of plot, character and theme is the contextual knowledge which is essential to understanding them properly. But we must not let context swamp text. Our literature lessons should not become history lessons. The work of literature must hold centre stage.

Plot, character and theme sound rather technical, but we could express them as stories, people and ideas. And who isn’t interested in stories, people and ideas?

First must come plot. If our pupils do not grasp the whole sweep of the plot of a work of literature, they are wandering in a mapless wilderness. It is the plot which makes a path through the work of literature. This is how we find our way through it. This is what keeps us turning the page: we want to find out what happens next. We need to ensure that whatever methods we use, we do not lose sight of the plot, because if we do, whatever we teach will lack the satisfying coherence that the plot provides. If we choose to use extracts, we need to make sure that all pupils know at least a summary of what happened between those extracts.

What do we actually enjoy about reading? We enjoy discovering what happens next. If we use extracts that are not rooted in this overall sense of the plot, we are turning the work of literature into a mere tool for practising reading. Our pupils will never become curious about literature through lessons like this. They will see it as a tedious, dry exercise in test preparation. We will have inoculated them against literature, not initiated them into it.

We, as teachers, need to know the plot of the literature we teach inside out and back to front. It’s no good just being a chapter or two ahead of the class. We need to memorise the plot, so that whenever we deal with specific incidents within the text, we can place them effortlessly, and communicate that coherence to our pupils.

Next must come characters. We are all interested in people. That’s why we gossip. The characters of the literary works we teach should become so familiar to our pupils that they gossip about them, or wonder what they would do in this situation. C S Lewis actually brings Aslan into the dreary world of the awful school attended by Eustace and Polly in The Silver Chair, the sixth Narnia book. We want our pupils to imagine Aslan on the playground too, because they know him so well.

We, as teachers, need to know the characters intimately, just as we need to know the plot inside out. These characters need to be familiar friends for us, so that we can confidently introduce our pupils to them. Once you have really got to know someone, you never forget them. Could you ever forget your best friend from school days? These characters need to become our best friends, and our pupils’ best friends, so that they will never forget them.

Then there are the great themes of literature. We shouldn’t shy away from the big questions asked by literature, because it is this which raises it above the puerile, sanitised content of the latest Disney animation. Literature leads us to examine the meaning and purpose of human existence. Frequently, it is a memento mori too – a reminder of our mortality. Instead of being threatened by such deep questions, we need to embrace them, so that our pupils come to see books not as mere escapism, or worse, as some kind of dry academic exercise, but as a source of truth. Yes, I used the ‘T’ word. And why not? Without it, literature is so boring.

A word about poetry. Plot, character and theme are the substantive content of literature, particularly of novels and plays. They apply to narrative poetry too, but with shorter poems, theme may be more present than plot or character. Nevertheless, we can tell a story around a poem to bring it to life for our pupils. There is always a story to tell, because there is always an author, and the story of the author’s life. There is also the story of literary movements: the drama of Romantics reacting against neoclassicism, for example.

Within the framework of this substantive knowledge about plot, character and theme, examples of the language used by authors of great literature become meaningful. There will be no danger of meaningless feature spotting if we make sure that every example of language use is anchored in specific knowledge about the meaning of the work of literature.

Plot, character and theme, or stories, people and ideas: this fascinating content must be at the centre of what we do when we teach literature, and if we make sure that it is, we can be certain that our pupils are building a coherent body of knowledge that has a priceless intrinsic worth, as well as being invaluable for developing their ability to read with understanding, and write fluently, articulately and creatively.

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3 thoughts on “Literature: What Is It, and Why Do We Study It?

  1. The time spent learning to become literate is without doubt well repaid in life, but the route I took bears only the slightest resemblance to yours. I expect most literate people have trod a path rather closer to yours, because magical worlds like Narnia have never had much appeal for me. Ditto science fiction–and I’ve never been able to suspend judgment for long enough to get into Tolkien, Pratchett or Douglas Adams, let alone JK Rowling. I enjoyed 100 Years of Soltitude, and Gunter Grass is one of my favourite writers; but magical realism is largely about fantasies lived in real worlds.

    From my earliest days, about 90% of my reading has been non-fiction–largely history, After losing interest in English Lit at the U of Michigan in the early 1960s, I abandoned academic pursuits for another 25 years, in part because I had no interest in sitting behind a desk for several years just to qualify for a job that entailed sitting behind a desk for the rest of my life. For all that my life has been physically active, I’ve never owned a TV–so I’ve still found lots of time for reading.

    My fear is that today’s kids know so little about the past that even Dickens is completely inaccessible. There’s no easy answer to this, as relatively few of our primary school teachers are literate in the sense of being able to write a coherent sentence (let alone a paragraph or an essay) about Thackeray, Trollope or George Eliot, or anything they wrote. A Corbynite mate of mine–an old grammar-school boy– lamented that none of the kids he encountered with Occupy had even heard of the Spanish Civil War, let alone read Homage to Catalonia. And these were tomorrow’s teachers and parents.

    However, there’s one area where I am sure we are in agreement: most of what passes for children’s fiction these days is shallow and meretricious. This is inevitable–children’s books date quickly, as thoughts and words that were permissible last year may well be unacceptable this year. In 1993 I filled up the back of my car with books discarded by our local primary school and took them to an English teacher in Poland, who couldn’t believe his luck. As the head of our local school said, the books ‘were a bit old-fashioned’.

    Like

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