Ken Robinson has a great story about a school inspector going round a school somewhere in England or possibly Wales, and finding that in every subject the students were studying daffodils. In Biology they were looking at bulb germination, in English they were reading Wordsworth, in Art they were drawing and making daffodils. The inspector goes up to a small boy who is poking at a gnarled, yellow- tinged excrescence of flaking clay. ‘What’s that?’ he asks. ‘Please, sir,’ says the boy, ‘it’s a daffodil.’ ‘Oh,’ says the inspector. ‘Very nice. And do you like daffodils?’ ‘Please, sir,’ says the boy, ‘I’m sick to death of the bloody things.’
A colleague of mine at a very good English independent school – the Head of History, and a respected historian and author – once said to me, ‘The trouble with your subject [ie ‘English’] is that it doesn’t have a discipline.’
I didn’t argue with him – and wasn’t quick enough to take a pop back at his own discipline. ‘Well, Nick,’ I could have quipped. ‘history is bunk, as someone once said!’
I didn’t, because he had a point – more than a point, he was spot-on. The problem facing the high school literature teacher is that there isn’t really any agreed equivalent of the scientific method to be imparted. Instead, there are all kinds of competing schools, new paradigms touted every generation, a jungle of fads and factions with no deep roots. Among these, we have (apparently) found no dominating theory, no over-arching narrative about narrative to use or push against. We don’t have a paradigm, we have a wilderness of mirrors. And so we have more or less declared high school English/ Language A classrooms a theory-free zone. We are not aware of a theoretical basis for what we do, and in as far as one exists at all, it is a wishy-washy pre-structuralist mish-mash which is at least 50 years out of date and has only survived, like some hospital-dwelling superbug, in schools. Put it under the microscope, and what do you see?
OK, you might say – here’s a theory –
“My English class is about learning to write well. It’s about recognizing good writing and learning from it. Everything we read and discuss serves as example and as stimulus for good writing. We learn to read well in order to write well.”
It’s not a bad model.
here’s the problem. It doesn’t support inquiry.
In English classes we have a lop-sided situation where there’s a strong, fresh educational theory (constructivism) which is effective and adaptable, but we don’t have the literary theory to match it and to enable meaningful inquiry into the subject.
Is our inquiry always to be – what does this text teach us about good writing? Is it to be – is Juliet too young to get married? Is it to be – why don’t we write the chapters that the author decided for very good reasons not to write?
The result of the problem is the inflow of dross to fill the vacuum. The confusion about literary criticism. The alarmingly narrow technical base. The shallow politicization of the subject.
The result of that is in turn the loss of engagement across a broad band of students – the more logically minded, or epistemologically-minded, who find the subject empty for them. The technical and scientific types, who don’t understand what they’re supposed to be inquiring into. Many of the boys, in fact.
We escape the theoretical vacuum by shooting off in other directions, embracing the refuge of other subjects in which we might have little training but which still feel somehow more solid than our own. In my first international school, I encountered a Language A (English) MYP curriculum which seemed to have been designed entirely to support the Humanities curriculum. In the name of inter-disciplinary study of course. Everything we read in English served to illustrate a historical experience. Of Mice and Men when they were learning about the great Depression. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch when they were doing the Cold War. Easy to justify from the Humanities side – but from the literature side the overwhelming lesson seemed to be that literature can tell us what history felt like.
Or else it’s all about ethics, concern, identity politics and wedge issues.
At its lowest level, of course, it’s about maps, or anything we can put on display. Let’s make a diorama of the inside of Macbeth’s head, shall we? Let’s make it out of cardboard!
I would love to know – how many English teachers have had their class draw maps or even make papier-mache models of the island in Lord of the Flies?
I’m sorry, but that’s a clay daffodil.
Have you ever used Of Mice and Men to have a class debate about the ethics of euthanasia?
Even that – clay daffodil. Sorry.