Monday, February 12, 2007

Literature in Schools

Roy Hattersley's article today in the Guardian on teaching literature in schools was interesting, if vague. He rightly points out that "the way in which [books] are used in schools can make or break our enthusiasm for them in the years which follow". I remember detesting poetry with a passion when I was at school, thinking it was boring and pointless and a waste of time; likewise with Shakespeare. Away from the heavy analytical atmosphere of English Literature classes (what does this word mean? how does the author use irony to undermine his narrator? what is the poet *really* saying here?), I discovered an equally strong passion for poetry as I had experienced in the classroom, only now I love poetry. Not all of it, granted, but I couldn't live without Neruda, Yeats, Edna St Vincent Millay, Auden, Frost, Byron on my shelves. I know some of you feel the same and still have a deep aversion to reading poetry, probably because it recalls the feelings we experienced in the classroom years ago - always analysing, always feeling we were missing something, afraid we didn't 'get' poetry. I never 'got' Shakespeare at school - I remember sitting in class one day reading The Merchant of Venice, and not understanding any of the speeches and soliliquys and feeling decidedly stupid for it. Now I realise it was the way I was taught Shakespeare - I make a point of visiting the Globe theatre in London every year to see at least one performance (and am certain that visits to the Globe would do all young students of Shakespeare an immeasurable service). I can't blame it all on the teaching however; some of the poetry chosen is still the sort of thing I wouldn't choose to read, having had time to develop my own taste, but perhaps I wasn't ready for some of the material selected for us as students of 15 or 16 to read?

What, then, should students be reading? What would instill in them the joy of reading and a love of books? It is all very well to state that "the school syllabus must meet the needs of more than the academic minority", but what does that really mean? Should Shakespeare have been excluded from GCSE curriculums? Will poetry be next, because pupils are not deemed 'academic' enough to cope with it? Hattersley states (and I couldn't agree more) that "everyone should also read books and poems with which he or she can directly identify", and that we shouldn't be afraid to allow "new classics" to enter the syllabus. Both good points in theory, but combining 'modern classics' which allow students to 'identify directly' yet learn about literature as an art form (which, let's face it, is part of the point of teaching literature in schools - otherwise we'd just be teaching reading) will be difficult. Can it be done within the confines of English literature? Or should we look to international literature for inspiration? After all, what do inner city kids who lead deprived underprivileged lives have in common with a novel written by a reasonably well off, middle class Oxbridge graduate about something that doesn't directly relate to their lives? I didn't relate to or enjoy either Great Expectations or The Remains of the Day, both of which I did at A Level - but I did read a lot of Jane Austen and I especially remember how much I loved Wuthering Heights, neither of which were on my syllabus. I don't even see why English literature is confined to English Literature (if you see what I mean) - why can't international literature be read? It is impossible to gain an understanding of the English literary canon and Tennyson's or Forster's places in it in two hours a week, so why continue the pretence that A Level English Literature can achieve that?

The question of what students should be given to read in schools is knotty, and won't be easy to solve. One thing is certain; the poeple who best know what 15 and 16 year olds would most like to read and enjoy won't be consulted. Why aren't the students ever consulted?


Danielle said...

I think that school sort of did me in for Shakespeare and poetry, too. I have avoided both since I graduated (and that was more than a few years ago now). Even now I am afraid I "won't get" what I am reading, so I sort of don't bother. I think that they need to be taught in schools, but why can't some contemporary/international authors be taught alongside? I think young people do want something they can identify with. And you are right--most likely the people who this most directly effects won't be consulted.

verbivore said...

Such a great post! I find it difficult to situate myself in this argument as I have a very hard time deciding whether I think classics or contemporary literature should be taught at schools. I suppose a combination of both would be ideal but that would probably only happen in an idealized situation - something most school districts are sadly lacking!

Imani said...

I confess that I am quite shocked that anyone would feel comfortable enough to publicly reject a book on the grounds that it was set in a country other than his/her own. I find it especially puzzling for this to be expressed in England, a country whose school system, I thought, made an effort to include Commonwealth literature? It's a convenient way to be "international" because that includes countries from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

I do think that the advantage of including literature to which students can "directly relate" is exaggerated, since this often means reading books by authors of a similar racial or cultural background which can often be superficial similarities. It's taking a narrow view of literature to say that one can only "directly relate" to a novel if it immediately resembles one's social environs. But there is some truth to it so I have to ask: does your GCSE syllabus not include some literature that could conceivably be described as depicting modern British life? More specifically lower and middle class British life and culture? Ishiguro is a contemporary author but The Remains of the Day hardly fits the bill.

As for the international bit, considering how many countries England could conceivably select great literature from and still link it to England through the "Commonwealth" link there really is no excuse for there not to be some kind of international lit.

I touched on this to some extent in an old post of mine: Make Creative Writing Compulsory?.

robin said...

Students should not be forced to read anything that does not stimulate them to read more. In Japan, students are introduced to haiku that are too subtle for them and end up thinking that haiku are boring because of it. The problem is not with the haiku but those who select the haiku. It does not matter if the literature is old or new or domestic or foreign, so long as it holds the student's interest. Personally, I feel more interesting light verse and essays should be introduced in school. The English language world seems to have forgotten that literature is not only the novel and short story, and that misunderstanding starts in school. That is especially unfortunate because in this age of movies, not novels, but the sort of truely creative nonfiction that can not be made into a movie is the only literature that gives us reason to study. "Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!"