I was trying hard to think of a snappy title for this one, but eventually I decided this one will do. Why study literature in schools? That more or less sums up what I would like to discuss here. What use is literature to anyone? How does it help anyone in anything? What’s the point?
Even if we were to accept that the teaching of literature in schools is important (and not everyone does accept this), a few more questions come to mind:
To what extent should we prescribe books to children at school? Should we, indeed, prescribe books at all? In determining a literature curriculum, to what extent, if any, should we consider the children’s own preferences? What relevance to all this, if any, is the consideration that children may be put off literature by being made to study books they do not like?
Before we address any of these issues, I think we should consider a question more basic: what is the point of education at all? There are, of course, a number of answers to this, which are complementary rather than exclusive. An obvious answer is that the purpose of education is to prepare us for life, but that doesn’t get us very far: it leads us on merely to the next question, which is “what is required to ‘prepare us for life’?”
Up to a point, the purpose of education is to ensure that we can survive in society, and function in it. So the teaching of basic numeracy ensures that we can count up our change in the supermarket, the teaching of basic literacy ensures that we can read and understand letters from the council relating to bin collections, etc. However, I think most would agree that “preparation for life” should imply a bit more than this. Many would, I think, say that education should prepare us for a job that will earn us a living, and contribute to the society in which we live. In conjunction with this, many would say that education should also instil in us sufficient discipline to allow us to function within a structured society, without unduly compromising our individuality. The balance is, admittedly, a delicate one, but some balance has to be sought if society is to function at all; and, many would say, it is the purpose of education to provide us with just such a balance. I certainly wouldn’t dissent from any of this.
But is this all? For if it were, there is little point in teaching mathematics beyond basic numeracy. Oh, of course, those who want to take on accountancy or engineering or scientific research, or whatever, need to have more than merely basic skills in numeracy: but the vast majority don’t. The vast majority don’t need to know about trigonometrical functions, or about polynomials or differentials, or, indeed, about anything beyond basic arithmetic.
Similarly with other subjects. The vast majority of us don’t need to know what sort of chemical reaction occurs when acid comes into contact with alkali; we don’t need to know about the economic and social transformations that came with the Industrial Revolution; we don’t need to know Newton’s laws of motion, or about the formation of igneous rocks, or about the structure of human cells … and so on and so forth. Indeed, possibly the greater part of what is still in school curricula we don’t need to know: we can all function perfectly well without knowing them. So – why teach them? If education is simply about teaching the basics that we require to function in society, why not merely teach the children simply the basics, and, once they have finished primary school, let them out into the big bad world to do something useful, like sweep chimneys or something?
I think the answer to this is that education is more – or, at least, it should be more – than merely preparing children to function. Education seems to me to be about nothing less than propagating the values of our civilisation. It has taken us a great many centuries to arrive at our current point in civilisation. And yes, I know, the various civilisations of humankind are still greatly flawed; but nonetheless, we have come a long way from being tribes of hunter-gatherers, and, along the way, we have acquired an immense amount of knowledge, of thought, of wisdom. We have also an immense treasure-house of achievements – from Darwin’s theory of evolution to Beethoven’s symphonies, from the thought of Enlightenment philosophers to quantum physics, from the Taj Mahal to the development of the internet … the list is almost endless. I’d argue very strongly that one of the purposes of education must be to propagate the values that are embodied in what our civilisation has achieved, so the next generation can build on past achievements rather than start at Year Zero.
Of course, put this way, our education is never finished, as there is far more to take in than can be possible within one lifetime. This is indeed true: a proper education does last a whole lifetime, and even then is incomplete: it is a journey doomed to remain unfinished. But it must be the purpose of our schools at least to start our children on this journey. And this is why it is correct for schools to teach about such matters as polynomials or the Industrial Revolution: it’s because, to be truly civilised, we should know more, much more, than merely the basics we need to be able to function.
In this context, let us consider the teaching of literature. The only reason to teach literature in schools at all is because we, as a society, believe that literature is an important aspect of our civilisation, and that, therefore, there needs to be, at the very least, a general awareness of it within our society if we are to consider ourselves truly civilised. If we do not believe this, there is no point teaching literature at all. But if we do believe this, then the question of whether or not the children enjoy being taught takes on less importance. We do not make decisions on the teaching of mathematics or of physics or of history based on the criterion of whether children are likely to enjoy it: we teach these subjects at school because, whether they enjoy it or not, we feel it’s good for them. Yes, I know this is authoritarian, but I don’t think you can entirely get away from authoritarianism when it comes to education: if it were merely a matter of the child’s own preferences, most children would prefer not to be at school at all.
But what, some may ask, what if the children don’t enjoy it? What if the poor little darlings don’t enjoy learning about Shakespeare and Austen and all the rest of them? It seems a curious question. When we are setting the curriculum for mathematics, do we really ask ourselves: “Will the children enjoy learning trigonometry?” We put it into the curriculum because we think it important that they learn about it, whether they enjoy it or not. Similarly with any other subject. We hope, of course, that at least some of them will find it enjoyable, but enjoyment is not (not yet, at any rate) amongst the criteria used to determine the curriculum in mathematics, or in geography, or in chemistry, or in whatever. And I think English literature should be considered as important as these other subjects: there are some things we need to learn regardless of whether or not we find them enjoyable – simply because it is good for us to learn them; simply because these things should be part of the mental furniture of a civilised human being.
Of course, one size doesn’t fit all. In an ideal world, every child should have special one-to-one tuition on all subjects. But in the real world, that is not possible, and the best we can do – and, indeed, should do – is to stream children according to their perceived abilities, while allowing for movement between streams for children who achieve more or less than had initially been expected. (And, furthermore, we should also provide special provision for children with learning difficulties.) And once such streams are established, the curriculum within each stream should be tailored towards the ability of the children within that stream. So, obviously, it is unreasonable to try to teach Shakespeare to a stream that is struggling with basic literacy. But, similarly, it is unreasonable, and, I’d argue, criminal, not to teach Shakespeare to the stream of the most able pupils. This is because Shakespeare is perceived to be central to the English-speaking literary canon, and one cannot consider oneself at all knowledgeable in English literature without at least some acquaintance with his works. Whether or not the children find this boring is as irrelevant a consideration as whether or not children find trigonometry boring. If children enjoy their education, that’s great; but if they don’t, that’s just tough. A civilised society has to educate its children in the values that define its civilisation. If we don’t do that, we lose something that is immensely valuable, and which, once lost, cannot be recovered.
And then, there’s the argument that being forced to study literature puts people off literature. But that argument could apply to any other subject as well, could it not? Doesn’t being forced to learn about logarithms put people off mathematics? Doesn’t being forced to learn about the Reformation put people off history? Are these arguments not to teach logarithms, or not to teach about the Reformation, in the classroom? If so, we’d end up not teaching anything at all, as it’s a rare schoolchild who actually enjoys lessons. I’m not even sure that such a schoolchild exists.
I think if someone has an inclination towards literature, they’ll come back to it, regardless of classroom experience. And if they don’t come back to it, they probably don’t have an inclination towards literature at all – and that’s fair enough: we can’t all be interested in everything. Speaking for myself, I used to say for a long time that I didn’t take part in sports because I’d been put off by PE lessons at school. But after a while, I realised this wasn’t true. Yes, I used to hate PE at school, but the truth is I wouldn’t have taken part in sport even if I had never had a PE lesson in my life, simply because I am not a sporty person. The excuse that I had been put off by the lessons was just that – an excuse, and a rather lame one at that. There are, after all, many who had suffered PE lessons with me, but who, in their adult lives, are quite happy to go for regular swims, or to play badminton, or whatever. And similarly, I think, with literature: there are a great many who have suffered English literature lessons at school, but who nonetheless have been drawn back to literature in later life, and, being older and more mature, find themselves even enjoying books that had once been a chore. And they may even find, to their surprise, that some of the things that the teacher had said in class all those years ago have stayed in the mind. At the very least, studying a Shakespeare play (or whatever) in the classroom has given them an awareness of the thing: it has become a part of their “mental furniture”. As for those who don’t return to literature – well, I suspect it’s a bit like my not returning to sports: I’m just not inclined in that direction, and there’s little point my blaming PE lessons in school for what is essentially my personal inclination.
My argument really is that we should treat literature as seriously as we do any other discipline. It’s not just a bit of “fun” to relieve the seriousness of maths or science or language lessons: it’s a serious subject, and should be taken seriously. Choosing which books to study in class based on the children’s own preference is to diminish the importance of literature as a subject, and to present it as a lighter alternative to, say, the sciences. This appears to be the path we are currently going down, and few seem to care. And why are we going down this path? Perhaps for the same reason that we are destroying our public libraries, for the same reason that arts broadcasting on television has declined so dramatically in quality: we no longer seem to have sufficient confidence in the value of our culture to think it worth propagating.
Well, that’s how it looks from where I stand. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am. And even if I’m not, there’s little I can do about it. Except, perhaps, to stand up where I can for the teaching in our schools of the best that our literary traditions have to offer. To all children of sufficient ability – whether they like it or not.