Monday, 17 May 2010

English literature as a taught subject

In David Lodge’s novel Nice Work, Robyn Penrose, a lecturer in English literature and an uncompromising champion of post-structuralist theory, receives a note from her colleague Charles on why he has decided to abandon the cause and become a banker:

Poststructuralist theory is a very intriguing philosophical game for very clever players. But the irony of teaching it to young people who have read almost nothing except their GCE set texts and Adrian Mole, who know almost nothing about the bible or classical mythology, who cannot recognise an ill-formed sentence, or recite poetry with any sense of rhythm – the irony of teaching them about the arbitrariness of the signifier in week three of their first year becomes in the end too painful to bear…
This struck me as the very quandary that those of us that pursued English from GCSE to Sixth-Form, then to degree level and finally to MA, found themselves in. I went to a comprehensive school that taught no pre-20th century novels (with the exception of George Eliot’s slim Silas Marner in Year Two or Three), and little pre-20th century poetry (a notable exception being Keats at A-Level, although as far as I know that was only because that particular English teacher, Mr Giovanelli, loved Keats). Like the students mentioned in the extract, I had no knowledge of biblical or classical mythology. Then, upon arriving at university, I was presented with a module called Introduction to Critical Theory, which challenged the concept of canon. There are a number of approaches behind the questioning of teaching the canon of texts we associate with English literature. Both post-colonialism and feminism prompt a range of previously neglected authors and texts, while much critical theory argues that canons are constructions of language as surely as the texts themselves. Yet the irony behind this is that the academics behind these theories only reached them because they are of the generation that had to read large doses of the canon. How can one know if the canon is overrated if one has not read a fair amount of it?
Here it is worth looking at an article written by Robert Eaglestone, a lecturer in English, for the Independent Education section, on 22nd April 1999.

English Literature at A-level is a branch of the heritage industry, selling an England of lace and Empire Line dresses, loveable Elizabethans and obedient servants. At best, it offers ‘passnotes’ to the latest BBC costume drama or high profile Hollywood blockbuster. At worst, it sells students throughout the UK an outdated and exclusive image of Englishness, a long way from the multicultural society in which we live. […] Judging from the dominance of nineteenth century novels, the A-level curriculum wants us to see ourselves as Jane Eyre, Pip, Darcy, Elizabeth Bennett or Tess. Not only does this exclude literature from other periods but, perhaps most importantly, it means that A-level pays less attention to contemporary literature.
This article was written around the same time as I was studying English literature at GCSE, but presents a very different picture to the one I remember. Clearly teachers of English, remembering their own schooldays, think that students are still saturated with the canon, which seems the exact opposite of my generation’s experience at a comprehensive school that taught no pre-twentieth-century novels. Neither of these two extremes is ideal, although the one Eaglestone outlines actually sounds more attractive to me. Of course literature should not be reduced to a heritage industry, but the belief that it already has been - and memories of the dryness of text-based lessons in their own childhoods - has led Eaglestone’s generation to distrust the books themselves.
Similarly, in the first lecture for the Introduction to Critical Theory module, a professor of English recalled how previously studying English at university consisted of reading the actual literature; ideas like literary theory were saved for postgraduate study. It was clear from his tone that he saw moving away from this as a change for the better, but it left this student yearning for a TARDIS. The professor then compared studying literature without knowledge of critical theory to operating on bodies without knowledge of the equipment, but this analogy is false. Literature doesn’t lie on slabs: it exists as a transaction between the mind of the reader and the mind of the author. What happens there is so complex and beautiful – and so far from being definitively understood – it doesn’t need to be supplanted by any critical theory. As Clive James put it, “literature says most things itself, when it is allowed to.” My aim here is not to attack critical theory, any more then I would condemn quantum physics or art history. Those that are interested in those subjects should by all means be encouraged, but those of us who aren’t should be equally respected, especially as champions of Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction have long been resolutely incapable of explaining to us what those three words actually mean. You either love them or don’t know what they are (I still don’t). My concern is that students baffled by critical theory end up performing poorly in a discipline they might have had an aptitude for if they had been allowed to read the literature itself.
If the slide away from imaginative writing into the realms of philosophy and linguistics is one problem facing the teaching of literature, another is the fear of Englishness. This problem is also very perceptible in the teaching of history: For my GCSE and A-Level in that subject, we were taught nothing that happened before the 20th century (and even before GCSE at the same comprehensive school, little pre-20th century history that I can remember, apart from something about the Spinning Jenny). Obviously it’s a century of profound importance, but the lack of knowledge of anything prior is a handicap when one is embarking on a university course. Not knowing anything about the Reformation, I realised what the difference between the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury was ludicrously late in life. Catholicism, Protestantism and Puritanism tended to play important parts in the literature we studied at university, but it was hard to grasp the differences in the effects they had upon writers’ sensibilities when one didn’t even know what they were. One reason for this coyness in teaching British history before the 20th century is the threat of colonial connotations. A second, more important reason is the extent to which Britain has become a more multicultural society, and the urgent need for teaching to reflect it. To complain that a sense of identity in the teaching of British history and literature has been eroded might seem like a conservative or right-wing point, but it is a complaint that is also noticeable from an entirely left-wing point of view: the lack of identity leads to a lack of enthusiasm, so that by the time we arrive at university there’s a sense of vagueness as to what we have learnt. Without calling for a return to the days of immersing students in a “canon” or “heritage” which Eaglestone and my professor remember, (let alone the nightmare of jingoistic revisionism that the likes of Niall Ferguson and Michael Gove kept threatening to inflict upon the curriculum) we need to conquer our hesitancy over teaching British pre-20th century history and literature, in order that what we are trying to persuade young people to invest their time in has a face, not to mention context and detail.
Perhaps we are expected to read the Dickens, Hardy, Austen, King James Bible, Homer and Milton that we never studied at school in our spare time. However, this isn’t going to happen, at least not in our teens. Reading such intensely challenging and lengthy work requires motivation, which is why the academic study of literature is necessary: it provides that motivation, while teachers can help you see things in the text that you would never have noticed on your own. Outside the classroom, the idea of reading Ulysses is a joke. Inside the classroom, it becomes a credible and potentially very fruitful proposition. On a recent season of programmes on BBC4 looking back at arts television over the years, the debate over the canon was illustrated with a clip of David Hare mentioning that he had noticed how superior Raymond Chandler was to many of the novelists he had been studying at university. The crucial point he didn’t mention was that he didn’t need university to help him appreciate Chandler’s books, and that if he had it might have reduced his enjoyment and interest in them. When I mentioned to a university English teacher how I loved the humour of The Catcher in the Rye, he asked me if I was quite sure it was funny and suggested I read it again, arguing that it was really a very disturbing portrayal of an obsessive-compulsive mind, and offering its alleged effect upon Mark Chapman and John Hinkley as examples. I am grateful for having come across the book in my own time and not through his teaching. My own literary passion is for contemporary fiction, with Terry Pratchett and Kazuo Ishiguro being particular inspirations, but there’s nothing that university could add to my appreciation of them. Like many, I regard the TV shows The Wire and The Sopranos as some of the finest fiction around, but I wouldn’t want to see them taught – what would we watch for pleasure? Moby Dick, on the other hand, only becomes comprehensible with a good teacher. Teaching, after all, requires a subject that cannot initially be grasped by oneself.
Umberto Eco once argued that it was “semiotically uninteresting” to apply semiotic analysis to the work of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas because they themselves became amateur semiologists through their filmmaking, aware of the implications of their intertextuality. You don’t need academic study to realise that Raiders of the Lost Ark is a variation on Boy’s Own Adventure serials, or what movie tropes Quentin Tarantino is playing with. Those films’ audiences are already their students. This strikes me as similar to the problems posed by Media Studies as an academic subject. Philip Pullman defends it thus:

Media studies is easily sneered at by those who think it entirely consists of watching EastEnders and Coronation Street. [But] how TV news and information reaches us through the media is of profound importance.
He’s right, of course. Only a fool would think the media and its effect on our lives not worthy of study (I noticed from a recent interview that Marilynne Robinson, an uncompromisingly intellectual novelist, doesn’t own a television set. Does this mean she’s only seen still photos of President Obama?). The key difference, though is that we are already students of the media. Anyone with the slightest interest in the modern world spends their lives considering the implications of what was on the news or in the paper, how it was presented, and what those that were presenting it were trying to say. We notice rhetorical techniques, fallacies of argument, styles of language and attempts to reach particular kinds of audience or states of mind as they recur. If this sounds a bit high-flown, it’s worth pointing out that obviously we don’t always think of it in those terms – sometimes we’re barely conscious that we’re doing it – but we are consumers of the modern media.
Literature, on the other hand, differs in two ways. Firstly, it largely comes to us from a different historical, social, political, intellectual and scientific context. The classroom is the best way to provide this; the only alternative would be for teenagers to read novels side by side with history textbooks. Secondly, it consists of media – poetry, novels, drama – that are no longer the dominant artforms, and which have been superseded by media – tv, film, computer games, internet – that are much faster, much easier and much more overpowering (notice I didn’t say better). Crucially, they make use of sound – unlike reading, which requires varying degrees of silence – and are visual, whilst reading, except in the most literal sense, isn’t. It happens when the letters you’ve just seen are matched up with their meanings inside your head. Reading Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley requires much more effort – and took me a lot longer – than watching an episode of The Sopranos, even though the latter is vastly superior. Reading poetry is extraordinarily difficult for many teenagers, to the point where it seems barely feasible outside the classroom.
This brings us to the question of contemporary literature. This can be more plausibly read by teenagers outside of school, as it requires no explanation of context. While I think, for that reason, that literature from the past should take priority in English teaching, it is important to remember that contemporary fiction in particular can provide for the literature student an important bridge between academia and the modern world, and can be vital in maintaining their interest. One of my happiest memories of A-Level English is of preparing a presentation on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, while studying Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and Pat Barker’s Regeneration the following year played a major part in sparking my interest in the contemporary novel. A balance has to be maintained between maintaining literature’s relevance to the modern world and allowing students to become acquainted with texts which are too difficult to wrestle with on their own but which have a major influence upon literature which becomes more and more unavoidable as they progress from sixth-form to university. Like anything else, the teaching of literature should move with the 21st century, but let’s allow students to actually read some of it before we get onto that business about the arbitrariness of the signifier.

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