17 June, 2014

Why Bother Studying Literature At All?

Here in the UK there has been something of a furore over comments made by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove about which books children should be studying for their GCSEs (the big exams we take at the age of 16). It was represented in the press as Mr. Gove banning people from studying American classics such as Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Far be it for me to defend such a controversial member of our government, but he didn't actually ban any books - he just said he thought the exam syllabus should favour British works instead.

Regardless of the ins and outs of these arguments and the protests they've provoked, it got me wondering what are we actually trying to achieve when we make our teenagers study literature. It's great if it gives them a lifelong love of books, but we don't get them to study maths so they have a lifelong love of doing sums. It's important for kids to be able to read, but studying novels goes far further than providing the tools to be able to fill in job application forms as adults. What do we learn from novels?

I confess I didn't like English Literature much at school. It was my best subject academically and I have always adored reading, but I didn't like the deep analysis of the books. To me, the subtext of the books were either obvious or by over-analysis ruined the magic of the story. However, I do think it taught me some important things. Novels help us to learn how to read people - to understand motivation and emotion, right, wrong and the complex shades of grey in between. We become more sympathetic, well-informed and have a greater understanding of the struggles and joys of life in both our own culture and others. We learn to be imaginative and to question our own beliefs and morals.What do you think we learn from literature?

With that in mind, which books should our teens be reading? I don't think it matters whether a book is American, British or from any other country. Humanity is humanity. While I think it's great to learn about our British heritage of literature, if children love reading they have a lifetime to do it - the important thing is to inspire them in the first place. Having said that, I think perhaps it is time for Of Mice and Men  to take a back seat. 90% of children study it now. I studied it over a decade ago, and my eldest sibling five years before me. It's a wonderful book, but there are other wonderful books out there too.

I'm aware that books need to have content and language that challenges but that is appropriate for reading aloud in a class of 15 and 16 year-olds without being too long. For this reason some books I think would be great, wouldn't work - stuff by Stephen King and Lionel Shriver for example. But here are my suggestions for just a few books that would make good studies - good snapshots of the world, coupled with good writing:

  • The Fault in Our Stars - John Green
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
  • One Day - David Nicholls
  • Holes - Louis Sachar
  • Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier
  • Lord of the Flies - William Golding (this is studied by some students I believe)
  • 1984 - George Orwell

There are tonnes more, although I'd have to read any of my suggestions to check the language! What books would you suggest children might benefit from studying at school? Modern and classic literature included!

15 comments:

  1. Great post. I've wondered before whether it was comparatively pointless to get a degree in English, but looking back, the 'soft skills' and the sheet enjoyment (plus the fact I now make a living with words) make it all worthwhile.

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    1. I think if you put effort into the process, studying almost anything is beneficial.

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  2. I'd say the insight into other cultures and lives and the world view this can give is a good reason to study literature. I remember studying Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible' for GSCE English - a completely different world that was fascinating to explore.

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    1. That's another one that's been dropped from the syllabus I think. I'd love to see it sometime.

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  3. Important post. I think you have a good list there.

    Thanks for your comment on my post. Congrats to you as well! :)

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  4. Maybe it's my engineer's temperament, but I've always enjoyed taking things about to see how they work, and literature is no exception. I agree with a lot of your list, but Owen Meany goes on f o r e v e r, and I think the heroine of Rebecca is one of du Maurier's weaker and less interesting characters.

    The debate about what 'should' be taught in schools has been interesting, because it seems my school bucked the trend as we didn't study TKAMB or Of Mice and Men. We did lots of Shakespeare and The Lord of the Flies. I can't remember studying any 'foreign' literature at that point.

    My favourite essay from my GCSE days is one where we were free to make up our own assignment. Mine was an examination of the humour in Cold Comfort Farm and The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I was amazed at the similar techniques at work and the process of putting the essay together left me with a deep appreciation of both books. I think they'd be a good addition to the syllabus!

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    1. I can't honestly remember much of Owen Meany, but that was actually what I loved most about Rebecca... the main character's dullness, weakness, namelessness in comparison tothe strong, almost-sinister presence of Rebecca for whom the whole book is named after even though she doesn't appear in it. I thought that was a stroke of genius.

      I love the idea you had for your assignment. Two very funny books - Cold Comfort Farm is one of my favourites. I bet it was an interesting comparison!

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  6. GCSE's? The only thing that penetrated my literature aversion during 'O' levels (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GCE_Ordinary_Level) was Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. It blew my mind and changed my reading life as our English teacher got us teenage boys to appreciate the mastery this non-English writer had of the English language, making a relatively plain story line into something that caught my/our imagination. So, with the curriculum debate, you have to consider the art of teaching - if the teaching makes it live then maybe the content is less important; I'm sure there are brilliant novels which many assign to the 'not for me' category because they had to endure an uninspiring teacher on a day they wished they were elsewhere; and sadly maybe even literature itself.

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    1. Well back in the day when you had to read by candlelight... ;)

      I think you're right. I guess that's kind of the point I was trying to make too. It doesn't matter whether books are American or English - let's read good books!

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  7. Ah - well I very much differ! HA! (when it comes to the "place" of a novel)

    It's funny, because I was talking about this yesterday with my family. I can't stand Gov - but I also thought the same thing about him removing the text "To Kill a Mocking Bird". On reflection, I appreciate the text now as an important tool to address history and race, but actually, when I read it, I found it hard to relate to and I didn't feel much for these characters because I couldn't recognise them. My family said the same - the American nature of the novel made it feel "over there" and not "here". It felt distant and removed from my life, and with something as serious as race I think we need to think about literature in a way that doesn't have to be teaching history or tradition or culture. I think for a subject as serious and relevant as race, the text needs to speak closely and relevantly to those who are reading it and this should vary across the board!

    I'm all for different texts from all over the world (and picking and choosing texts is a tricky business) - but I think it's about time we start addressing the stale nature of the English syllabus. If we only have a few books to capture young minds, then they ought to be amazing ones (not necc because they tick all the 'teaching' boxes) but because kids want to read them. Because ultimately those texts will spark a fire and allow kids to fall in love with reading and open them up to more books down the line.

    I loved Lord of the Flies at school - so would definitely keep that on your list. And would loved to have read 1984 - great idea for getting kids to think objectively about the direction/future of society. And its juicy!

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    1. I guess in a way that was my point - the books need to engage children and make them think, and there must be so many books out there able to do that. "Stale" is a very good word to use! I hadn't really thought about whether a book set in another culture would make it harder to engage with. I think I actually found it easier as a kid! It takes me more effort now to get into a book set in an unfamiliar culture - perhaps I have just become lazy in my reading!

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  8. Those are all good choices. (I've read five of them.) And I'm sure as you said, there are tons more. I think it's ironic, though, that it's such a matter of importance whether to teach British or American novels. I grew up hooked on English and Irish novelists (I'm American), as well as American novelists. I think it had a broadening experience.

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  9. I think schools need to use books that not only teach children about the power of the written word, but also the magic of storytelling. We need an education system that gives people a lifelong passion for reading, even if that means one or two populist choices on the curriculum. Education has to be about more than getting grades and meeting targets. And, while we're on the subject, how about more focus on the short story in education?

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