At the chalkface: Abuses of literature

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We’re left with parrot wisdom, memory tests and the tyranny of the “correct” answer. Was the Mariner right to kill the albatross? Is Macbeth a bad sort? Answers in a tick box please...

It’s certainly more than our modern gurus seem to think.

They want to turn the arts into a branch of life from nursery to university. Nicky Morgan thinks the arts peripheral to the market place. 

There are so few protesting voices. Michael Rosen mocks the barbarous philistinism of baseline tests. Marina Warner laments an academia in thrall to market values. They seem to go unheard.

It’s even worse at secondary level. The rot set in with the National Curriculum of 1988 – with the slow death of coursework and the cancelling of open book exams and open-ended questions. Texts go uncontested. We’re left with parrot wisdom, memory tests and the tyranny of the “correct” answer. Was the Mariner right to kill the albatross? Is Macbeth a bad sort? Answers in a tick box please. Bad teaching gets good results. I’ve dictated A*s to average GCSE candidates and encouraged the use of dire cribs, crammers and study aids, which ride roughshod over complexity, metaphor and pleasure. Literature is thus abused, reduced to something called “cultural capital” – what a ghastly and revealing term.

Worse. And am I getting paranoid? Does this fetish for the literal and correct, this assault on ambiguity, hatch fundamentalisms? I’ve had real trouble exploring some religious texts with the more fanatic pupils. Whatever. Guru George is surely right about one thing. Literature can be dangerous. Set texts can’t be contained. King Lear trashes all certainties, Toni Morrison disturbs our comfort zones, Marlowe roughs up God, Rooster Byron shocks, Rimbaud rocks, Sappho thrills, Webster sees the skull beneath the skin, and Jonathan Swift has savage insights – “happiness is the perpetual possession of being well deceived”. Ponder well, next time some smiling clutz in a bank hopes you’re feeling good.

And as for mad Frank Kafka’s Metamorphosis: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Look unflinching into your mirror. Whooaaa! Is that you? Answers in a tick box please.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.

  


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