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?