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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English Language: The Vampire Subject

2000px-Little-vampire.svgMichael Fordham has already written eloquently about how English, as a whole, is a Frankenstein subject, a monster composed of a myriad of vastly different parts artificially stitched together. Within that jumble of odd parts, there are real academic disciplines that can be separated out. The key academic discipline, for the purposes of general education, is the study of literature.

By studying literature, our pupils have their minds opened upon other worlds; they encounter the great narratives that have shaped human thought and culture down the centuries; they gain cultural capital that will enable them to take part in educated reading and conversation for the rest of their lives. Studying literature is a hugely enriching part of every child’s education, and no one should be denied this opportunity.

But there is another GCSE which everyone takes: English language. What knowledge, precisely, does this test? In fact, it does not test anything in particular. It involves being given a more less random selection of extracts and writing tasks, that are supposed to be a test of the pupils’ general ability to read and write.

This might seem like a reasonable idea. Surely we want to know something about whether pupils are able to read with understanding and write accurately? Well, yes, but here’s the problem: once you get beyond the basics of decoding (in reading), and spelling and grammar (in writing), there’s no such thing as general reading and writing ability. Your ability to read and write well about any topic depends upon specific knowledge and vocabulary about that topic. Whatever topic happens to come up in the English language exam will be more accessible to those who happen to have more knowledge about that topic. General tests of reading and writing are always, inherently, unfair, because they can never take this into account.

So English language is a non-subject. If we want to find out whether pupils can read with understanding and write accurately, there is no reason why this should not be done through the vehicle of all the actual subjects that have real, specific substance. If we care about accurate writing and intelligent reading, then we need to make sure the GCSEs in literature, history, geography and science test these things. They can test them much more fairly than the English language exam, because the test will be based upon a specific body of knowledge which pupils are supposed to have mastered. No one will randomly gain an advantage because the test is based on randomly selected knowledge.

The Key Stage 2 Reading SATs suffer from exactly the same problem. They test reading in a general way, instead of basing the test upon specific knowledge which pupils are supposed to have mastered. Therefore, they are inherently unjust.

As well as the inherent unfairness of general tests in reading and writing, their existence and importance creates serious curricular misunderstandings. When high stakes tests are based around general reading, schools tend to spend lots of time teaching general reading, with endless comprehension worksheets and test drill. This has been happening in America for many years, where a very high stakes annual test of reading has led to a hollowing out of the curriculum, with the abandonment of real academic subjects which contain real substantive knowledge in favour of tedious lessons in how to ‘find the main idea’ in random bits and bobs of text. E D Hirsch has pointed out that these reading tests, which he previously supported, have had such a deleterious effect on the curriculum, that they are what he calls ‘consequentially invalid’ (see Chapter One of Why Knowledge Matters).

So as well as being a non-subject, English language (or English language arts, as it is called in the USA) is a vampire subject: it sucks the life out of the curriculum, emptying it of specific content in favour of teaching generic comprehension skills that don’t even exist, because comprehension is always based upon specific knowledge, and generic writing skills that don’t exist, because good writing is also based upon specific knowledge of the topic about which you are writing.

It doesn’t seem likely that the curse of general reading and writing tests is likely to be lifted any time soon, so we have to make the best of this bad situation. For a start, we could scrap most of the curriculum time currently devoted to the non-subject of English language and spend that time teaching pupils a meaningful body of knowledge within proper academic disciplines. If we want them to read and write well, we need to stop doing generic lessons on reading and writing, and do more and more on the rich knowledge and vocabulary that will actually enable good reading and writing. We’ll need a little exam drill in the final run up to GCSEs, because of their fiddly nature, but really, there shouldn’t be much need for English language at all once the basics of decoding (in reading) and spelling and grammar (in writing) are in place. There are effective programmes already in existence to train pupils in those areas, such as Expressive Writing. Implementing those will mean that there should be very little need for any other specific English language lessons at all, so we will be free to teach pupils specific, interesting, coherent content instead.

(Image from Wikimedia).

An Orwellian Education

George_Orwell_press_photo

Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950)

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), education plays a crucial role. It is because most of the animals do not succeed in learning to read and write that the pigs dominate the formulation of the principles of Animalism, the allegorical equivalent of Marxism-Leninism. But it is not only literacy which matters. Memory is a vital component of the plot too, as most of the animals fail to memorise the Seven Commandments, the founding principles of the Rebellion which are painted in large letters on the barn wall. Thus when Squealer, who represents Stalin’s Minister of Propaganda Molotov, alters the Commandments, the animals do not have a clear and certain reference point in their long term memories which allows them to be sure that something is amiss. Squealer also changes history, reversing the role of Snowball (Trotsky) from that of revolutionary hero to that of traitor. Squealer’s lies are so detailed and persuasive that they come to replace reality in the animals’ memories.

As the animals are the allegorical representation of the people of the Soviet Union, it’s worth considering what Orwell is suggesting about education for the masses. There are different types of animals on the farm, and their educational capacity varies from full literacy, in the case of the pigs who represent the Bolshevik elite, down to a complete inability to learn how to read and write, together with a very hazy, indistinct memory that is easy manipulated.

What does this suggest about the people of the Soviet Union under Stalin? Animal Farm suggests that there are different types of people who are capable of different levels of education, and there are those whose capacities for learning are so limited that they will always be at the mercy of their intellectual superiors. This was a widely held belief when Orwell wrote the novel in the forties, and it led to the creation of the two tier education system after the Second World War, based on the assumption that only a small minority could benefit from an academic curriculum.

Thankfully, this belief does not correspond with reality. The capacity to remember is not limited to a privileged few. It is a universal human capacity. Although fluid intelligence – the processing power of the brain – varies quite widely, crystallised intelligence – the store of schemas in long term memory – can make up for this variation. Everyone can remember. Everyone can become smarter and think better about anything, so long as they build up a store of knowledge in their long term memory.

This means that there are no sheep among the human race. There are no people condemned just to bleat whatever slogan the elite imposes upon them. All can remember, and this is the antidote to propaganda. But this antidote depends upon an education system that recognises this reality and endows ordinary people with the treasures of knowledge from past ages, so that they won’t be stranded in the present and easy prey to those who tell lies about history.

William C Bagley, who did valiant battle with his colleagues in the progressive-dominated Columbia Teachers College, put it well in 1922. He was concerned that the misuse of intelligence tests was leading to the categorisation of humanity into those who could and could not benefit from an academic curriculum:

To endow the masses with genius is biologically impossible; but to endow the masses with the fruits of genius is both educationally possible and socially most profitable. The mental tests will help most if they aid the teacher in discharging this transcendent duty. They will render a gratuitous and disastrous disservice if they encourage in the teacher the conviction that the illumination of common minds is either an impossible or a relatively unimportant task. (See Diane Ravitch, Left Back, p153)

The rhetoric of the twenties, with categories such as ‘feeble minded’, would not go down well these days. But in a softer form, these ideas persist. Too often, children are labelled as incapable when really they are just ignorant. The role of the school is to give them the knowledge that will make them capable, not to pander to their interests, and leave them just where they are: easy prey for manipulation.

Teaching Knowledge: Spoilers Are Essential

800px-london_hoefnagels_map_of_1572If we are reading a novel for pleasure, we want the plot to unfold, and we very much resent having the surprise undone by being told in advance what is going to happen. But when teaching complex works of literature, we must use spoilers. We must give the game away right from the start.

Knowledge of a Shakespeare play, like any other knowledge, must build on the foundations of what was previously learned. If we jump in and start reading through the play, our pupils will not be able to see the wood for the trees. Unless one has a good idea what one is reading about beforehand, one will struggle to make sense of what one is reading. This problem is particularly acute with Shakespeare, where there are so many other challenges in terms of language, densely packed imagery and allusion.

Therefore, it is essential to begin with an overview. Before studying a play in depth, I require pupils to memorise a summary of the main events. This provides the framework, the map, so pupils do not become lost and unable to make sense of their surroundings. Having memorised this overview, we can repeatedly return to it. I can pause when dealing with an important passage in the play, and draw pupils’ attention to where we are.

For example, if we are looking in detail at the scene where Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, I can say to the class, “We’re in Act Three. What are the main events?” At this point, I will fire questions at pupils, ‘cold calling’ them to give them the opportunity to recall and retain this key information. We’ll go through the murder of Banquo, the ghost at the banquet, and the news that Macduff has joined Malcolm in England. Then I’ll ask what these events have in common – and we’ll remind ourselves that at this middle point in the play, Macbeth is consolidating power, but also that his downfall is beginning, and will continue through Acts Four and Five. Then we can return to the banquet scene with a fresh sense of its significance as a key moment in which Macbeth begins to lose the support of the Scottish nobility, who will desert him in ever greater numbers as the play moves towards its tragic conclusion.

All this discussion depends upon beginning with an overview. It depends upon frontloading explicit knowledge of key facts, before going into detail, and requiring the memorising of those facts to the point of fluency.

With this map in hand, pupils can begin to explore the complex territory of a play by Shakespeare. Without it, they are liable to get lost in the undergrowth very quickly.

The Community of Knowledge

agincour

Contemporary miniature of the Battle of Agincourt, 1415.

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.

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).