There has been a trend in English departments to select ‘crowd pleasers’, my initial response to this was positive, it seems reasonable to get them in first and then sell them the ‘hard stuff.’ It’s the sort of tactics that cause supermarkets to drive down certain products, hoping that we buy less appealing products or common products at higher prices. This seems like a logical process, but as pointed out in mrbunkeredu’s excellent blog here, the text we choose may be one of a few that students read all the way through. We’ve all encountered students who have read only one novel, even if they’ve read (parts of) several texts for study. This leaves us with a few difficult questions: Do we select ‘classic literature’, or use these ‘crowd pleasers’ in the hope that it kicks open the door to literature? Is students reading ‘classic literature’ the aim? Is there a third way?
One of the key decisions for selecting texts for our pupils, finances aside, must surely be their current reading age and the selection of texts which move them beyond their current reading age. I’m not convinced that simply bringing ‘advanced’ texts to the pupils would have any impact. However, the use of these texts to target their working vocabulary and understanding of syntax etc. is obviously vitally important. Selecting by reading age allows us to focus on the aim of advancing ‘Active Vocabulary’ (the words people need to use, and have no reservations about using, to communicate with others on an everyday basis.) I do have a slight concern about using archaic texts, which don’t offer the chance to access vocabulary that they could feasibly use in their everyday language. However, it is unrealistic to believe they will never encounter words that are not in common usage. Especially if we achieve our goal of creating lifelong readers.
In addition, it seems obvious that no one group, in this case academics and publishing houses, should make the choice as to what is classic, and therefore desirable to read. ‘Classic’ is a personal choice, and the system we currently have for this is essentially a statement of ‘reviewed by smarter people than you to be pretty bloody decent, and potentially inaccessible in a sort of we-are-better-than-you-pleb’ way. Despite numerous Pavlovian experiences, I still walk to classics when trying to find Iris Murdoch in Waterstones. The decisions we make for students must be about variety and what speaks to our students; not what speaks to a largely upper-middle, near bourgeoisie, class. In fact, if the aim is to have students be lifelong readers surely we need to involve them in the choice, or perhaps teach them how to choice in the way that we, as adult readers, do.
However, what speaks to the students may not be what we expect. There is no reason to think our students may not really enjoy ‘dead white male’ writers. To some extent, the ‘dead white men’ argument is itself an ex-point- it has gone to meet its maker, bereft of life it rests in pieces, if you hadn’t nailed it……. ahum, but we have to question why the dead white males view of the world is dominant in classic literature. Obviously not all dead white men have the same view but equally none of them can illuminate (fully) what it means to be female, black, or alive now. They can only really talk as themselves and to some extent that is the voice existing hegemony. As a white male, I’m aware that my upbringing in the U.K has been largely comfortable and trouble free- despite growing up on one those scary council estates certain broadsheets are so spooked by! I know that if I were a novelist I would write predominantly from this perspective. Narrowing our students field of vision does not seem appropriate, even if we honestly feel these texts will speak to them. The first class readers (pun intended) that grabbed me were not what most teachers would select. In Year 9, led by a frankly crazily ambitious teacher, we read: Benjamin Zephaniah’s ‘Face’, Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, and ‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith. None of which had any real relevance to my actual life, or even spoke of my experience but all of which I loved! What we expect from our pupils, may often be very different to what they feedback to us. Case in point, one of my prized possessions is a card from a student who seemed to find English a nause- inside is the simple statement “Thanks for teaching me to love poetry!” Therefore the only thing we can do is to pick widely, pick things you enjoy as a department and representative of a variety of backgrounds and experiences.
However, a person who wanted a cultural, political and environmental revolution may consider reading texts of the existing hegemony to be useful: if you know the system you can destroy it. I’m not convinced by this view, perhaps all we need to know is it doesn’t work and that we need to hear all/more voices to move forward. Regardless of which texts we choose, we will be sharing the views of the writers; if these are varied we allow our students to (re)consider their own view on the themes etc. Regardless of political persuasion, this is surely a key goal. In exploring the texts we encourage students to really think about their place in society, in simply teaching key skills we miss a chance to be a part of that process.
The text is not the key thing, it is what it achieves for our students. We cannot swerve our vehicles around the sacred cows of classic literature- we must mow them down where they do not serve our pupils. Teaching archaic vocabulary, which would be necessary for certain texts, is not completely pointless if it enables them to enjoy a text but it is not the quickest route from A to B should we make our main focus extended vocabulary.
Budgets are limited, we must fight this situation politically, and do the best by our students in the meantime. Many great texts are available as free PDFs now, with flipped classrooms we can overcome budgets.
Teaching the vocabulary that the students need is vital, but not at the expense of their own cultures. Class constraints are compounded by telling our children they’ve been born into the wrong culture. Yet, as we are not in control of what the students need in the wider world, we would do them a disservice not teaching them the language of academia, hegemony et cetera. This should not be done at the expense of their pride in their own culture-inclusive of white working class students- who at times are spoken about as though they have no individual culture.
Texts must be married to reading age. It is possible to teach the skills of English with almost any text, but this level of analysis is an advanced skill and it is difficult to reach mastery level without the language of mastery level. There may be occasions when common children’s tales can be used as a reference to explain hamartia, for example, but I fear that selecting ‘babyish’ books for the main class reader would leave children with shaky foundations: strong active analytical vocabulary, but weak overall vocabulary.
Notions of elitism are pointless. The only issue is the texts use. If a ‘classic’ works use it, if a ‘new classic’ works use it. It is important that the text speaks to the pupils experience, but this might not always be in our control. I doubt my teachers predicted the texts they selected would speak to me like they did, but those novels transformed me. Equally, I’m sure they’d all be devastated to know that outside of class I only read sports biographies and ‘trashy’ crime fiction, but all of that reading did lead me to a Literature degree. I found inspiration to do that from everything I’d read, if Beckham could work hard at football and achieve then it seemed logical I could do the same with Literature. People’s responses are not in our control, so we must focus on the elements we can control.
*The focus on Active Vocab here stems from the numerous studies which point to links between access to academia and a strong active vocabulary; contrary to this in IQ tests J.R Flynn found current generations are excelling despite falling active vocabularies. However, it seems logical that the greater ability to access language, therefore explain and understand concepts, the greater your intelligence would be. Flynn’s studies suggest that access to scientific methods amongst recent generations explain why they are able to score higher on certain areas of the IQ test. It is worth noting that they would score significantly higher with greater vocabularies, before ending on the confusing note that IQ test are not noted for their success at predicting intelligence or success in further education. If indeed success in further education is what we want for all of our pupils- learning can, of course, be seen as a lifelong pursuit both in and out of such institutions.