Thursday, 6 December 2007

Tales from school

I am still reeling from the shock of the parents' evening at my daughter's school this week. Not because it was shocking. On the contrary, it was deeply underwhelming, particularly the discussion of how literature is taught. They look at bits of things: 'extracts' of Victorian novels; sound bites from broadsheet newspapers, comparing these with the miniature bite-size mouthfuls from the redtops. At least I came away enlightened about that. Now I know how the redtops have gained such an almighty readership. The punters are trained for it, at school, by looking at bits of things. I'm not too much of a snob to look at redtops. In fact, I enjoy looking through all those bitty magazines you find in hospital waiting rooms

(which is a convenient link to my new blog


'Chat' is an exemplary title, for instance, since it encapsulates the skimpy sound-bite nature of the content. It's like looking into a parallel world of enhanced breasts and celebrity fashion gaffes (and other gaffes) and people who had their brothers' babies, or whose babies grew up to be serial killers or rapists. All in bite-sized, easily digestible chunks. With no analysis. And no demanding words above three syllables.

I thought my daughter's expectations should be greater than these - not because of snobbery or elitism but because of the SHEER BOREDOM that a diet of chit-chat imposes on enquiring minds. It's worse than boredom after a while. It becomes what the old Victorians might have called 'ennui', and the postmodernists 'anomie'. Whatever you call it, it deadens the soul.

Why read extracts of Great Expectations? Why not stick your toe in the water and tackle the whole thing? Because, I was told, children could not be expected to read 'those long Victorian novels'. Not all children, maybe, but limiting all of them to extracts sends out the message that extracts are all you need to digest the themes and issues of the day. It tells my daughter, for instance (who had already read Great Expectations, because she found it on the shelf at home) that she needn't bother in future, thank you very much, but she should pipe up more in class because the English GCSE assessment is as much about SPEAKING as it is about reading and writing! (As an A level examiner, who resigned in despair from a Board that refused to penalise lapses in basic English usage, such as simple apostrophe use, this shouldn't really surprise me...)

But edcuational nonsense aside, the real issue is far more serious, because this system seems to be fitting up kids for a lifetime of soundbites and extracts. And where the hell is literature in that? When I was thirteen, I looked forward to losing myself in a long Victorian novel - Jayne Eyre, say - or even Great Expectations. The novel, according to that great French master of the form, Stendhal, is a mirror held up along a highway. Sometimes it reflects the sky above, sometimes the mud below your feet. The point is all about the journey. Extracts, on the other hand, are a hide into nothing. A short fix before you get your teeth looked at or your blood pressure taken. A trip to nowhere.

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