15 February 2007
Some years ago the management of this school (which included two senior English teachers) decided to work out a core curriculum for students in the secondary section. The decision to do this came about as a result of an observable decline in students' general reading habits and the tendency for students and parents to choose ‘useful' subjects when options were introduced at O Level studies.
We were worried that this trend would produce students who were ‘savvy' rather than educated. The tradition of this school (which goes back to 1847) was to expose young people to all branches of knowledge, develop them as well-rounded human beings, able to articulate their ideas with ease, sensitivity and confidence. This could hardly be achieved without equipping them with skills in speaking and writing. Since the language of instruction was English, it seemed logical to hone their English skills.
How was this to be achieved and maintained? Contemporary developments seemed to work against this goal. The emergence of multiple-choice examination papers, internet use, days packed with activities, and a utilitarian approach to education left little time for reading – these factors had to be taken into consideration. Students' writing skills were showing prominent limitations – careless and sloppy sentence structure, a limited vocabulary and the tendency to ‘write as you speak' were contributing to a bland, unexciting style. We felt we had to make our students aware of the craft of writing. How was this to be achieved? By setting and correcting endless exercises in English language classes, by getting them to memorise ‘vocab' lists?
We arrived at the conclusion that a more meaningful way of achieving facility in English was to continue exposing them to the rich tradition of literature which had been an integral part of the school's curriculum from its inception. The study of the masters in any tradition has played a role in renewed creativity. Students who learn to analyse the writing skills of great writers cannot remain unaffected by this experience. The question we encourage our students to ask is ‘how' certain effects are produced – they become aware of the real power of words, when they are judiciously used, to evoke feelings, atmosphere, or when they are designed to influence the reader in persuasive argument. Writing has to be planned, organised, precise in terms of tone and effect, if it is to make an impact on the reader. Great texts provide these instructions by the enjoyable experience of reading, feeling, thinking, analysing, and trying out your own verbal and creative skills.
We also observed that the teaching of literature resulted in a strong humanising influence on students. They are taught a subject that relates directly to life – its problems, frustrations, satisfactions and delights. This subject becomes a basis of enjoyment and involvement. It becomes a tool for emotional and psychological release, of therapeutic value at the complex adolescent stage.
The class that, for example, enacts the scene of Malvolio's madness absorbs enduring human values in a pleasurable way for which a lecture on vanity would be a poor substitute.
As an English teacher I find enormous and constant opportunities to elicit students' responses on personal and social mores in a changing world. How does the modern reader respond to some of Jane Austen's ideas? Are the values of her age now irrelevant? Is the idea of balance and proportion now outdated? Students are excited with this kind of approach. For the teacher this covers what used to be called ‘moral instruction' (definitely out!) or pastoral care, difficult to transmit when you are teaching ‘factual' subjects.
In personal terms, then, the study of literature definitely plays a role in stimulating awareness, sensitivity and knowledge. We ensure that all our students are exposed through their school years to prose, drama and poetry. This enables them to see for themselves how the use of language relates to cultures and attitudes and how it changes with time.
Over the last 35 years many former students have returned to say that though they have gone into the world of medicine, accounting or banking, they have never forgotten their literature classes.