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  • David Smith

Inhumanities in Education

The wonderful Michael Morpurgo, appearing at the recent Nielsen Bestseller Awards Ceremony, said of bestseller status:

"I'm not sure a million copies sold is worth celebrating when we have millions of children who don't read and millions of children who leave primary school functionally illiterate... What do we get from reading? It's great books which enrich our lives, books from which we glean knowledge, understanding and empathy. I don't see a country with self-respect or that can call itself a democracy if it does not help every single child–when there are schools without libraries, bookshops closing, libraries closing, it's not good enough. People at the top have to be told it's not good enough."

He'll get no argument from us. At a time when new technologies are consuming more and more of our children’s time and attention the fight to promote books is more essential than ever before.

But exposing children to books is only part of the struggle, because, sadly, even the school curriculum militates against that fight. Our schools are obsessed with ‘teaching to the test’. I have spoken to students and teachers about this regrettable diminution and I have heard many stories of how the joy, power and wonder is being ground out of novels, poems and plays by a narrow focus on ticking the boxes. Surely the way to study literature is first of all simply to read it.

Instead teachers are compelled to spend their lessons dissecting texts with their class, annotating, flagging, rooting out the truffles of Significance, chasing down the flashes of Truth. That’s all very well, but unless a student has read and responded to the work as a whole– whether it be ‘Ozymandias’, ‘The Lord of the Flies’ or ‘The Merchant of Venice’ – this kind of detailed sifting and panning and hoeing will yield little meaning and will simply kill the experience. The written work becomes a chore, an enemy, something to slog through and be done with.

The Humanities as a whole are treated in the state school system of 2020 as an irritant – a throwback to the days of permissive leftie teachers and trendy educationalists. English is just one of the casualties. But if books continue to be pushed into the shadows by the instant gratifications of new technology, schools will only darken those shadows if they are not shaken out of this mechanical, soulless, joyless method of study.

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