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Battle of Ideas head-to-head debate, 30 Oct 2011 Notes by Harley Richardson
These are my sketchy personal notes of debates at the Battle of Ideas 2011, which I attended in a personal capacity. I thought they might be of interest to folks who weren't able to attend. They're not comprehensive – I'm a fast typer but some of the speakers were faster talkers - and any quotes I give are from memory and may not be 100% accurate. I tried to capture the main points I thought each speaker was making, but if you're one of those speakers and you feel I've misrepresented you, please let me know. I've flagged up the names of questioners from the audience where I know them.
From http://www.battleofideas.org.uk/index.php/2011/session_detail/5748/ In a move to make our children’s education more ‘relevant’, the great literary tradition has been losing ground for some time. But now ‘multimodal texts’ - such as graphic novels, magazine articles, advertisements and television programmes - are being proposed as an intellectual supplement if not an alternative to literature. The reality of this was brought home to parent Joseph Reynolds in Somerset when in July 2010 he found his daughter’s English class had spent six weeks studying The Simpsons, leaving no time for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mr Reynolds’s subsequent campaign to ‘raise the bar’ resulted in a petition with 400 signatures being delivered to the school, yet this failed to bring about any change of policy. And in the wider media Mr Reynolds was roundly criticised for promoting a one-sidedly traditional curriculum, and failing to appreciate the subtle cleverness of 21st century visual media. The Simpsons, with its quick-witted verbal displays, its multi-layered meanings, and its manifold cultural references, is seen by many commentators as both entertaining and worthy of academic study. And celebrated television dramas such as The Wire seem almost to make reading redundant as a means of appreciating complex plots and subtle characterisation. But while these ‘texts’ can no doubt be used to teach important ideas in an English class - irony or bathos, for example - is there anything lost if we abandon the cultural treasures passed down through the generations? Is there a case for teaching Shakespeare as literature that is valuable in itself, rather than as a means to an end? Or does it not matter what children study as long as they’re learning something? If modern media are better than Shakespeare for teaching today’s students how to ‘read’ the real world then what case can be made for classic literary works today? What aesthetic and moral values do the written works of Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens represent, and are these any better than those expressed in modern media? And can an objective pedagogic case even be made for certain books, or must we confine ourselves merely to celebrating the books we love and hoping that others agree?
Chair: Ciarain Guilfoyle, former editor, Queen's English Society's journal, Quest Michele Ledda, Maths and English teacher with Civitas, talking in favour of Shakespear Ian McNeilly, director, National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), believes The Simpsons could form useful part of the English Curriculum
Literature increasingly considered a niche activity, displaced by study of leaflets, images, cartoons. All valuable in everyday communication and commercially but purpose of literacy should be to learn English, and to learn to express thoughts clearly. Literature is where the greatest command of language resides. Key criteria is that authors should be dead. The phrase 'English white men' is an attack on literature, made by people do not understand what literature is. WH Auden – 'Poetry makes nothing happen, it survives'.
Keates told to get a proper job by people concerned for his economic wellbeing. But inspired by thought that his poetry would be read by future generations. Why should we care about communicating with the dead? Because it's a defining feature of humanity, can transmit knowledge across time and space. Without that we cannot have progress. Think abstractly, without aid of senses. We can create a fiction in our mind and manipulate it. And think about things that do not exist, such as numbers. We should not take this ability for granted. He sees it in children who cannot add up in their minds, need their fingers. Lev Vygortsky (Russian psychologist) explains that thinking is 'faking in our mind'. As we develop our thinking, can keep in our minds longer and longer sentences, meanings, allusions, relationships... language is full of unexpected terms and ideas. Kant's idea of 'enlarged mentality' - enables us to see the world in a more objective way, by looking at it from different points of view. ("What would I do if I were Hamlet?") When we close a book, we look at the world with new eyes. Better able to understand our world because we have been away. It's precisely because we haven't been looking at our everyday experience. Should expunge everything but literature from the English curriculum.
Shakespeare - no other writer given so much primacy in schools. Schools would be breaking the law if they did not teach Shakespeare (twice) to secondary school pupils. Doesn't need protection. Study of great literary tradition is a relative newcomer to schools – started late 19th C, only really took off by WWI. Used to be Greek or Roman. Any good teacher should pass on literary passions. But when they become elitist, turns into a problem. The Simpsons is no longer new, it's a product of the 20th C. Use of language via character to make us think about ourselves. Homer much more succinct than Shakespeare. Place of Simpsons in curriculum should not be denied by form of 'cultural apartheid'.
Ciaran Guilfoyle: Don't modern examples such as The Wire have something to offer pupils? Michele Ledda: Test of time is really important. Items are in the canon as an objective result of centuries of criticism. There are great works of culture in film but they're not literature. Images are there for us to see not to imagine. Need the best possible material in schools for our children. Ciaran Guilfoyle: Is Homer really an advance on Hamlet? Could we have had Homer without there first being a Shakespeare?
Ian McNeilly: Need to study widely. Simpsons is never taught as a piece of English literature. Usually taught within a KS3 English lesson. We don't live in a world that's encapsulated by language, must expose children to other stuff. Media literacy won't be called that for long, will just become literacy. Audience Member: Aren't private school students getting an advantage over others by studying Shakespeare? Ian McNeilly: We're assuming teaching The Simpsons precludes teaching Shakespeare. They're complementary or should be. Michele Ledda: Taught Eng Lit in many schools. The past tends to be lumped together – no information about when something was written or in what context. Teachers complain about having to teach too much poetry - but the less you do, the harder it becomes. Audience Member: Doesn't think Shakespeare or Matt Groening would have much to disagree with. Audience Member: Hasn't the world always been multi-modal? Need other criteria to decide what to do about it? Yes Shakespeare is studied but children don't get to read the play, just read assessments. Audience Member: Why not leave Simpsons to media studies? Audience Member: Studied Shakespeare but never saw the play (saw the film). Audience (Harley Richardson): Contradiction in Ian's idea that we live in a world made up of images etc and so need to expose children to that. If they're already immersed in it, surely we should expose them to something else. Largely agrees with Michele, but thinks back to own struggles with Shakespeare at school, and wonders if the universal ideas in it are just not relevant/interesting to children. You tend to see more in Shakespeare as you grow up. Although doesn't mean it shouldn't be taught. Disaggrees with Michele's idea that imagination not involved in looking at images. Ian McNeilly: English literature has only become respected recently. Media is a fundamental part of current curriculum, teachers don't have a choice about it. Children will get a chance to study Shakespeare. Nowhere has he said all teaching of Shakespeare is great. Lots of Shakespeare's plays are rubbish. Teachers need to be given the professional respect to decide what to teach. Michele Ledda: There's a flight from everything that's difficult. If you watch Shakespeare films you get the wrong idea. Always been disagreements about the canon. Better to have the disagreement and aspire to select the very best, than just give up.
Shakespeare is a poet. That's why the lines stay in your mind.
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