Absolute classic

Yesterday, there was an extraordinary rant on Twitter full of random CAPITALISATIONS by an American poet, translator, author and education professor called David Bowles. Here is a link to the thread. It is not viewable at present because Bowles seems to have protected his tweets, but you can see the river of effusive praise he received for taking such a bold stance. If you are wondering what it is all about, I had the following still cached on my phone (I have covered up the swears in consideration of those of you with a nervous disposition):

Disgusting worms! TWELVE DIFFERENT LANGUAGES!

I think it is important to point out that the thread did not appear to be in response to anything in particular and the object of Bowles’ shoutiness appears to be all those of us who think that there is value in a canon of classic literature and that children should be expose to this canon at school.

I have a number of thoughts on this. Firstly, if we are proposing that there is some choice to be made between good contemporary literature aimed at young adults (YA) and children reading the classics, then this is a false choice. In my view, children should read the former for pleasure and the latter for class. Yes, we have a big problem with encouraging reading in young people. This is not solely the result of ignoring the evidence on systematic phonics, but paying attention to this evidence would be a good start.

I also think it is wrong to assume that children can only be interested in stories about people who look like them, are their age, live in similar neighbourhoods and have similar problems. Such books may be a gateway for some, but this idea ignores the wild popularity of escapist fantasy fiction. Children are capable of empathising with a wide variety of characters because children are human beings and empathy is our thing. If you ask a child whether they want to read Jane Austen, they will probably say, ‘Who’s Jane Austen?’. It is our job to open the world up to them and give them possibilities. Sure, they may dislike some or even most of what we serve them, but education is about expanding minds, not narrowing them.

And finally, there is the argument about core knowledge. Think of a book like 1984 and imagine being unfamiliar with its concepts. You wouldn’t understand what a person was talking about if they referred to a ‘Big Brother’ state. Some key texts function like this in our modern culture. A lack of such knowledge can be exclusionary. The kid who goes to university knowing nothing of Orwell will feel out of place in a first year lecture where such knowledge is assumed. I suppose the next logical step is to burn down the canon at the academy too.

And I do understand that for historical reasons, when you attempt to construct a canon of key literary works in a modern liberal democracy, your list tends to be overrepresented by white European men. So, yes, I think there is an argument for consciously trying to balance this, as I outline at the end of Chapter 1 of my new book, along with the mechanisms I propose for doing so.

However, there is perhaps a more fundamental point. Clearly, there are those who believe with capitalised, sweary fervour that it is far better to feed kids literary candy than proper books. I would not want them imposing this view on my children and I imagine they would not want me imposing my view on their children.

When positions on education are so diametrically opposed, when any possibility of rapprochement is eradicated by uncompromising rhetoric, is there any alternative to school choice?

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4 thoughts on “Absolute classic

  1. Greg Esres says:

    When positions on education are so diametrically opposed, when any possibility of rapprochement is eradicated by uncompromising rhetoric, is there any alternative to school choice?

    Only if you think we should have a school for every idiosyncratic idea on education. The guy you quoted appears to be a bit of a nut, but I’m sympathetic to his views on the canon. That said, I wouldn’t base the school I sent my kids to based on this alone; as you point out, there is value in everyone learning the same thing, whether it’s to your taste or not.

    I’m relatively indifferent to school choice; I think there’s little evidence that it solves any particular problem in education. In some ways, it seems like the faux choice of having fifteen different brands of toothpaste on the shelf of the supermarket. While there are some flavor and texture differences, all you really need is something to get fluoride on your teeth, so the choice is mostly a waste of resources.

  2. Chester Draws says:

    I also think it is wrong to assume that children can only be interested in stories about people who look like them, are their age, live in similar neighbourhoods and have similar problems.

    I was a massive reader as a kid and I hated books aimed at me like that. I already knew what it was like to be me. I read to find out about new places and new things.

    When I was 15 I started reading modern classics (A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Catch 22, Fahrenheit 451 etc) and absolutely loved them. They were both better written and more interesting by far.

  3. Stan Blakey says:

    It is the challenge of our time to figure out how to engage with people without falling into the traps of cheerleading or attention seeking outrage that only serve to polarize people.

    On this file it is quite likely there are teachers on the “this is canon” side that suffer from the curse of knowledge or plain hubris and don’t realize they are talking over the heads of a lot of students. There are clearly the overly woke that are throwing the baby out with the bath water to demonstrate their purity.

    The answer shouldn’t be let them go and play in their sandpit and let us play in ours. It should be lets use the social media impulse to polarize to increase awareness that it is a path that doesn’t go where we want and say I will not add to the polarization here.  Instead ask how can I be interesting without doing what twitter seems to drive us towards?

  4. Pingback: The Art of Craft – Pocket Quintilian

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