Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Sorry Oliver

I like Oliver Kamm's blog, I have learnt from it and read it regularly. However, I really disagree with his latest post. He has a bugbear with 'relevance' in art and literature; instead, he stresses the universality of creative expression. There is a good argument in there but in tackling the topic of Shakespeare in schools, he goes wildly off-beam.

This is the passage from a BBC report he takes exception to,

Teachers have steered the Shakespeare curriculum for younger pupils in England away from Othello and Henry IV Part I in favour of lighter texts. After a poll, plays set for 13 and 14-year-olds in England could include Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It. Othello did not make the list because more than half of those questioned said the themes of sexual jealousy and racism were not suitable for that age.

Kamm argues,

Let's accept, for the sake of argument, that adolescents of 13 and 14 haven't experienced sexual jealousy and might be bewildered by Iago's malevolent imagery of "an old black ram ... tupping your white ewe". Ought they not to learn about such common and destructive sentiments before they enter adulthood?

What he is doing is mistaking the ideal with the practical. The teachers who were polled are not a bunch of rabid ideologues fixated with the idea of 'relevance' but enthusiasts and professionals who will be desperate to get their reluctant charges to love Shakespeare. All they are saying is that kids of that age are not intellectually or socially ready to be able to learn from those particular plays and others would be better to fire their imaginations. Most importantly, they know this because they have tried.

School teaching is a formidably difficult job, I would be absolutely terrible at it, and I trust teachers' ability to make a judgement about the best curriculum to follow. I have several exhausted teacher friends. One of them, given the highest praise by OFSTED recently, says the worst thing about teaching is that people who have never done it think that they are experts and pontificate about it to him endlessly. Sorry Oliver, that is what you are doing.

Kamm goes on to base his criticism in a theory of literature and again I can't fully agree with him.

But here I am accepting the utilitarian notions of the "teachers" who responded to the survey: we must teach what is relevant. That is an appalling notion. Literature gains its force not in describing a world we already know, but in illuminating enduring human concerns. Great writers see more and better than the rest of us. We gain experience through their art; we do not (or ought not to) fit the art to match our own experience. Anyone who thinks otherwise ought not to be teaching.

Here I can half agree, but to me great literature is not an instruction book, it does not just prepare us for experience or take us to places we have not seen. Really great literature is subversive. It takes what we think we know, what we thought we have seen and felt, and leads us into looking at the familiar in a completely different way. It challenges us. This literary experience is intimate and once we have read a book that touches us in that way we are not quite the same person afterwards. This is something that comes with maturity. A book you read when young, without experience, learning and your own personal history can be re-read later in life and be startlingly different. This is not fitting art to match experience, but using art to understand it anew. Writers know this; the best are ambiguous and not didactic. Literature is about "enduring human concerns", but they are enduring because we all have to deal with them in our own lives. This is why children's literature and teenage fiction exist after all, to talk to different levels of maturity.

Kamm clearly loves literature and is restlessly ambitious to share this love with others but if I were a teacher, I would not want to meet him on an appointment panel , especially if it was for teaching geography.

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