Literature is dead, long live the poets
Strange things are happening in the land of the bards- of Aneirin. Dylan Thomas, Islwyn, Hedd Wyn, Idris Davies, R S Thomas and Gillian Clarke.
Pupils are being denied the right to study English Literature.
From year 10 lower set pupils will only be allowed to take the GCSE English Language exam. No poems, plays, novels or stories. Cv’s , Comprehension, Persuasive writing andletters of complaint only.
The message it is giving off is that you are not intelligent enough to understand and more importantly, to enjoy poems and plays and novels- they are justfor the top set- which incidentally are only top to their being better at exams or having pushy parents- top set at 14? On what criteria?
So why am I affronted by this? On two levels. First as a parentand second as a writer who shares poetry daily in a variety of contexts.
James Baldwin said, "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read."
I read to all my three sons when they were young- used to look forward to it after a busy day it would be a time to relax, a moment of silence and to unwind their tired minds and to let them create their own pictures in their bright starry minds. My middle son, Evan, adored Harry Potter and when he went on to read for himself – we would go and get the book the day it was released he would rush to his room close the door and we would not see him for two days except for teeth cleaning, toilet and food breaks- He would, literally, devourevery word to the end-
No sets no course work noforced curriculum or starched teacher telling him to think a certain way or THAT is what the answer is. Just him, his imagination and his little piece of happiness- I have no doubt it helped him develop tolerance to others, discover new worlds, took him into himself, escape out of the now, form his own opinions and above all have fun with words. Not bad for £7.99! Further in an age of instant likes, retweets,shares and the endless bombardment of our sensibilities from the internet, it taught stillness and the dying art of self discipline to follow through a task. As J. K. Rowling says herself;
‘Imagination is not only the unique human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experience we have never shared. ‘
Professor Topping , in a survey for Dundee University in 2017 found that reading ages of teensare slipping. He found after surveying 850000 students that a 16 yr old can have a reading age of a 12 or 13 yr old- shocking - especially when you consider many Primary school age children have reading ages of 2 to 3 years above their real age. Now, to me there is an easy answer- children need to readand be exposed more, to reading and by amputatingEnglish Literature from the majority of young people surely this will continue to happen?
What is firing this new approach? Laziness, Grammar school mentality, league tables, modernity? One English teachertold me ‘children need to be educated for the workplace’ Bollocks. I want my children to dream, to explore to rage to question not fill out an application form for a call centre.
Rajvi Glasbrook Griffiths, Literacy Leader at Glan Usk School thinks ‘ The devaluation of GCSE English Literature in schools is a short-term-gain driven measure that ignores the inseparable connections between literature, language and society’. She reads poetry and stories to her class daily, seeing huge benefits to her children. What happens next is out of her hands but she tries, she believes in the power of literature.
So, what of the other side. Let’s be clear about this. The other is saying ‘ We will not be offering your child the chance to study literature ‘
Why is this happening? What is the schools’ argument?
Some schools say that the Language syllabus puts so much pressure on their teaching that they can’t afford the time to teach Literature. Which doesn’t add up as
1/ The top sets will still be studying it
2/ The cross fertilization of Language and Literature is paramount
It basically means only those that pass the tests will sit the tests thus enhancing the school’s banding status.
Then schools say it is a choice. My son did not have a choice. Along with two thirds of his year group.No dialogue or discussion it wasEnglish Language only. Now when he sees his friends being ‘selected’ for this other side, this ‘exotic’ elite life doesn’t that stamp ‘failure’ upon his young impressionable mind? Which fundamentally is at odds with The Welsh Government’s deprivation gap strategy and the implementation of Professor Donaldson’s ‘Successful Futures” report?
Thirdly, schools say they need to focus more on ‘pupils’ employability’ citing form filling, grammar, cv writing and comprehension..
What a sad state of affairs if that is the sole aim of education- to churn out robots- for the workplace. Yes young people need to create a cv and spell but surely there is so much more to life and work? Further, studying literature should enhance a person’s life chances and indeed employability by offering objective opinions, developing empathy for others, crossing borders and lets face it functional literacy should already be in place by age 13-
Someonewho fired my imagination was Aneurin Bevan used to hold rallies on the barren grassland between Ebbw Vale and Tredegar and used his oratory to inspire others. He used to recite Shakespeare whilst walking to overcome his debilitating stammer.
Why not have some fun with words and ideas why not criss cross the world in a page, put yourself in a bullied person’s shoes, why not feel what it is to be a refugee or black or white or gay or transgender or American? Surely these things make our young people better citizens, better, more informed, workers.
Why not use Twelfh Night’sMalvolio to explore how class and birth can limit happiness and the ability to get what you want in life? Or Chinau Achebe’scharacter Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart to understand how people aren’t always what they seem.
Or thefaith doubting poems of R S Thomasas a springboard into religious beliefs?
And in this post Brexit xenophobic becoming island (the spike in hate crimes illustrates this) we need tolerance, understanding of the other and empathy more than ever.
I have found that often students assume that people around the world live lives very similar to theirs. The more we can expose them to what life is like in other countries, the more empathetic they will be when they come across those differences in real life. So, Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid or Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah or A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah or the poetry of Maya Angelou. Surely education should be about something other than employability?
Angelou’s ‘Caged Bird’ poem carries a chilling portent ;
‘But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.’
What about George Orwell, Walt Whitman, Jean Binta Breeze, Gillian Clarke or Jackie Kay – I could go on-
I take poetry to the neglected sectors of society – to prisons, refugee support groups, pupil referral units, homeless hostels, mental health units and nursing homes and I have not once failed to have been moved by the members writingand their willingness to engage with stories poems and plays. Go into a nursing home, readthe words ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’ and you ll be joined by a chorus of voices reciting those lines etched into their fragile memories. ReadInvictus by William Ernest Henley in a mental health secure unit and patients will report feeling a sense of possibility, that someone acknowledges their pain, after hearing it.
There are many reports that flag up the alarming drop in boys’ reading in teen years. In my experience, boys love Wilfred Owen andSiegfried Sassoon- they connect on a very visceral level even after 100 years- and yet wham- with this new holier than thou approach ‘sorry you’re not allowed to read these now- they’re just for the top set’ for boys who may not be exposed to many literary sources that is tantamount to exclusion. I know that Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ were pivotal moments in my education andeven have a line tattooed on my forearm to remember.
Further, What about aspiration to be something, to dare to dream of being a writer actor poet? Poetry, plays and novels bring up important questions, but they don’t always offer concrete answers, and they help young people to understand that finding their way in the world is a process. Arthur Miller said he hoped his plays made people ‘feel less alone’- what better reason togive every young person the chance to study literature from around the world?
Further, recently the NHS undertook a series of research trials through the Reading Agency to discover works of literature that cold help mental health. They started to recommend these as a prescription alongside traditional treatment. To alleviate symptoms of depression and to help those living with or caring for those with dementia. Also, The Journal of Consciousness Studies revealed a study that reported a healthy and varied dose of poetry and prose straight to the brain provides a rigorous work out to both the left and right hemispheres.
If you want to be a championswimmer, maybe aiming for the Olympics… you have to swim every day. Length after length breath after breath you have to swim. Long and hard. Every day. Strengthen those shoulders, build thoselungs
The brain is a muscle too- it needs exercise- It requires training and the power of reading literature is that it works that muscle and much more. It aids to focusing concentration, building creative thoughts and prevents cognitive decline.
When all these points are taken together it seems a travesty thatcertain young people, solely based on academic performance by the age of 14, are being denied the right to explore the great works of this world. We need to focus on what we think education to be for……..
Churning out robots to sit on production lines and answer phones
Thoughtful, well read, questioning, worldly, empathetic citizens?
I believe it should be about teaching people HOW not WHAT to think and literature certainly does that-
What would Aneirin or Islwyn say I wonder?
Finally, Let us remember, the one famous person who recently said he doesn’t read books … Donald Trump. A spell from the Harry Potter books comes to mind…’Expelliarmus’ !