What is Worth Teaching? Stories

My last post argued that much of what we teach doesn’t do anyone any good (focusing particularly on English). I think there are things of enormous value that we are neglecting—not neglecting altogether, but which we have allowed to become periphery when they should be central:

Stories. We have been talking to our children for perhaps 100,000 years. The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a fascinating book on this, if you can ignore the psychoanalytic claptrap. The stories we told them were rich with messages about how to stay out of trouble, be respected and know right from wrong.

I don’t know when we decided that the focus should not be on what it means but how the writer communicates it. Perhaps this was bound up in constructivism, postmodernism or skill-based pedagogy. I think it was an enormous step back towards the dark ages.

When Tony Blair said that his three priorities were “Education, education, education,” why did he care so much? Was it really that he thought the very fact of 50% of the UK having letters after their name would heal society? I doubt he was that shortsighted. The enormous, transformative power of education lies in the opportunity to break the cycle of low cultural, social and moral capital.

The most important thing for children to take from The Winslow Boy is the catastrophic ruin caused by telling a thoughtless, cowardly lie. It is clearly not the playwright’s use of stage directions or the way the servants’ diction reveals their class.

How silly is it that we push children to analyse the descriptions of the weather in Jekyll and Hyde when they haven’t yet grasped that this isn’t about potions and monsters, but about self-control and human weakness?

Who gives a monkey’s about the colour of Curley’s wife’s dress, if children have not fully understood the distorted, shocking heroism required in such a rotten and mean setting as that of Of Mice and Men?

Why are books so life-changing? Is it because of their dazzling metaphors, brilliant semantic fields and nail-biting foreshadowing? No. It’s because they put us in the shoes of another being for hours and hours. They lift us out of our reality and connect us to the wisdom of another.

We all know that, and yet we don’t seem to question that the exams, while they reward understanding of the text’s significance, sadly necessitate the dedication of most English lessons to the analysis of language, structure, or sometimes character (which, while closer to the mark, is still to some extent a distraction from the fundamental meaning of a text).

As I stressed in my last post, I love language analysis. Breaking down the intricacies of language and prolonged sessions of interpretative navel-gazing are a hell of a lot of fun. But this unparalleled platform—two core GCSEs—is crying out for something more significant than the writer’s craft.

In the five years of compulsory secondary education, most pupils probably cover two or three books, if that. Some might be taught as extracts. All of them will be butchered and ground out into neat, trite sausages of language analysis. We should teach dozens of texts, not stopping to dissect and write about every chapter, but pressing on and building momentum, until one day—who knows?—children might even have positive associations with reading.

Finally, it is worth confronting the unpleasant truth that not everyone can be good at language analysis. In fact, by its very nature, it has to have losers—just like getting an in-joke, understanding the obvious doesn’t count; we only accept as analysis those points which stand out as insightful beyond some basic level.

Compare this to the understanding of stories. Everyone can get something out of a story. Everyone. I’m sure we have all taught bottom sets and wondered what good it does them to make them fail slightly better at language analysis. I cannot think of a single pupil I have ever taught who could not learn a life-improving lesson from simply reading and understanding a story.

We shouldn’t be teaching skills (especially not useless skills). We should be teaching wisdom. We should be teaching knowledge which makes us considerate, fulfilled, happy, and human.

Next post, I will suggest what kind of exam might allow this kind of teaching.

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