Monday, 26 May 2014

Apparently Minister Gove

in the UK has demanded that only literature written there should be studied in schools. That would of course cut out things like "To Kill a Mockingbird", "The Crucible" and other things which have appeared on the examination lists since time immemorial.
Naturally all this is also causing outrage among those responsible for educating the young, among writers and among others involved in the world of books. It is entirely understandable.
There was a similar suggestion made here some time back. It did not get very far and it did not get a lot of publicity but there it was, the suggestion that Australian children should study only Australian literature.
What happened was that more Australian writing was put on the lists of what needed to be taught. Note now that I said "literature" first and "writing" second. Not all writing is literature worthy of study.
If we had gone down the road of Australian literature and/or writing only there would have been plenty of material. Australia has produced some outstanding writers and they are worthy of study. It has also produced some mediocre and downright poor writers.
Choosing only Australian authors would of course deny students the opportunity to study other great literature. It would be unacceptably narrow. Despite all the diversity of, and access to, modern media there is already a narrowing of cultural literacy. There is so much information available that some of the literature, music, art and so on that society has absorbed into everyday life is no longer studied. Even some of the most culturally literate people can be entirely unaware of where things come from.
Does it matter? Yes - and no. There has been a revival of all things Jane Austen in the past few years. Joan Aiken wrote some more "Austen" novels before she died. Jane Austen has appeared as a character in other novels. There are people who will read these things without ever reading Jane Austen but they may absorb some Austen along the way.
Nobody has, to the best of my knowledge, tried to write another Shakespeare play or a Charles Dickens novel. (Alexander McCall-Smith writes chapter by chapter novels for the Scotsman but his characters are uniquely his own.)
I did not study "To Kill a Mockingbird" at school. I read it because my English teacher in my Leaving ("O" level)  year gave it to me.
I read a good many other books she suggested as well. Many of them appear on lists of books to be studied for English literature.
In the year previous to the Leaving we were supposed to read just the first 18 chapters of "David Copperfield". I was told to read the entire book "How can you hope to understand it unless you read all of it?"
I suspect "studying" a novel can kill it for many students - especially if it is not well taught and the exam at the end is emphasised. I suspect that there are novels and writers who have been over-exposed. If the study guides, the teaching materials, the films and the plays based on the words are there then it is perhaps easier to teach the same things over and over again, after all you are teaching new students each year and that makes a difference.
I am not worried if students never read "To Kill a Mockingbird" (although they will have missed out on a valuable experience) but I am worried if they never read anything like that. I am worried that they no longer seem to read as widely or often as I did. I am worried that they are not getting that diverse experience of cultural literacy that I did and continue to get.
I am worried that Shakespeare is rapidly disappearing from the texts to be studied here and that his work is being replaced by things like "film posters in context" (whatever that may mean).
Shakespeare is still worthy of study. His works just need to be put into a 21st Century context. 
And I want students to read literature from anywhere, literature in English and literature in translation.  Only then will they be able to consider the great ideas that will shape their future just as they have made their past.
Is that wrong?

1 comment:

jeanfromcornwall said...

Thngs are so much more complicated than when I was at school - for a start, the exams for which we read literature were only taken by the brightest 20% and now they are being taken by all, and these include the ones that can't read much, and those who resist reading with more effort than it would take to actually do it.
I don't know what they did with the 'hard of reading' back in my day - different school - but they pretty much all came out literate, numerate, and capable of holding down a job, in my small town.
If you are going to teach the unwilling conscripts, it helps to have a fairly restricted list, and all the study aids available. It is to be hoped that the brightest will dive deeper into the greats and read for their own pleasure.
More than anything, what matters is the teachers. If they get the youngsters to read with insight then they are giving them a skill, not just teaching them to perform for a test.