Article by Anna King
It’s that time of year again when World Book Day brings about a pause in the school curriculum and allows literary liberty to reign in the classroom. This was always a favourite day for me, as I know it was and is for many others – which is odd. Why is it that a day dedicated to books should be such a novelty in an education system where reading and writing are held in high esteem, more so than practically anything else? I think that there’s more to it than being able to forego school uniform for a day.
While, obviously, schools drill into us that English is important, and we’ll never succeed in the real world without it, the reasoning behind this is often misinterpreted or dismissed, and I believe this lies in the nature of schools today. It’s commonplace to hear teenagers complain about the fact that Shakespeare isn’t necessary in everyday life, and they’re right; but English Literature (and every other subject) has been warped to suit our exam-obsessed system, so that, rather than emphasising the powerful ability books have to pass on knowledge, the beauty that lies in artistic prose, and the genuine amusement to be taken from stories, teachers are obliged to summarise ‘key points’ of the greatest pieces of literature in existence, in a Fahrenheit 451-like algorithm for explaining fiction. Meanwhile, students, forced to spend two (and now even three) years on one book, feel pressured while reading to wring connotations from each line like water from a dishcloth because they’ve been told it’ll be important for future essays, so that the fiction itself becomes to them the dried-out husk which perpetuates the unfortunate assumption that both classics and English Lit are boring. I won’t even begin to describe what this robotic process does to poetry, something which is, in theory, meant to be a lyrical translation of the soul.
It’s increasingly difficult to instil in children a love of reading, with TV, social media and video games to compete with – but it shouldn’t be overlooked. The Guardian states reading for pleasure as more important in a child’s education than their wealth and social class; clearly there’s something fundamentally beneficial about books.
English in schools really isn’t all bad: I love studying English now; I enjoyed it in my secondary school. Learning to think about 18th century verse and Shakespeare’s plays was a truly enlightening experience which I’m grateful for, and it remains a great opportunity to learn a new language – ironically, the English of times gone by – and to cultivate a respect for generations of writers past. But here’s the problem: teaching literature to children so that they’ll be able to regurgitate quotes in an exam and then never pick up a book again is not the right way to encourage pleasure in reading.
Personally, I think that the importance of variety can’t be expressed enough. ‘School books’ are pretty predictable year by year, always falling into the category of Victorian fiction, or else Shakespeare, with perhaps a classic dystopia tossed into the mix. For some people, 19th century prose – Dickens, Brontë, Stevenson – just clicks. But we can’t all be expected to have identical tastes, which is why the tedium of studying one text, one genre, for months on end does nothing to improve children’s opinions of literature. Even if you like the book you’re studying, by the time the exams are over you want to burn the bloody thing you’re so tired of it. That’s not to say that classics shouldn’t be studied – so much can be gleaned from them; but they can’t be analysed to death, and panoply of narrative style wouldn’t go amiss. Studying novels from different countries, or being audacious enough to look at contemporary fiction, even if just in passing, would be a great way to infuse colour into Literature; but with exams looming, looking at something just because it’s interesting is not an option in schools – and this is a great shame.
In terms of classics, it’s a firm belief of mine that children’s classics are enormously underrated in terms of helping students later on; promoting these – alongside more modern texts – at primary school not only allows pupils to enjoy reading, but also dispels fear of antiquated prose before being faced with the likes of Hamlet. I think this is where Peter Pan, Heidi and Anne of Green Gables become true and faithful friends, inspiring children to read.
To conclude then: yes, English should be challenging, and yes, students should read books from previous centuries, but this doesn’t have to be the arduous process it is. We must remind ourselves that fiction is an art form, and should be taught as such, an expression of passion for words which never diminishes. This is how we should educate the youth of today – not with dull trivia about authors and over-analysis of every line of a book.