The current OFSTED-driven conversation around curriculum rationale offers a timely platform for me to launch my manifesto for 2020! Step aside literacy and reading for pleasure* because here are two central foundations of our subject to take into the new year: English grows empathy and the magical power of seeing text as a construct.
The truth is, 2020 Britain is confusing place to be entering. As we catapult through yet another election, the rhetoric from each angle of the discourse is increasingly combative and the state of society in the UK is on the forefront of conversations across the country. What a time to empower young people to be engaged and informed about society and able to reach their own opinions. To achieve this, let’s grow empathy and lift the lid on seeing text as a construct.
*disclaimer: I write this very glibly, knowing full well that these words would trigger my own inner English-teacher-anger…
English grows empathy:
Often in texts, we see ourselves, or at least elements of ourselves, mirrored at a safe distance. Through the buffering security of characterisation, we can observe, criticise, comment, cheerlead, question… But literature also brings previously unimagined experiences closer to us. Through texts, we can live the experiences of others. We can try out a whole new character in an imagined space, and be in their world long enough to see how it feels. Literature changes us – we steal from the ways of our literary heroes, suffer alongside their sadness, revel in their victories, endure their unravellings and defeats. We experience things beyond our experiences and this provides a powerful practice ground for empathy.
In fact, I’d suggest that we actively develop empathy through the worlds of the texts we experience and the complex and humanly-fragile characters and situations that writers pose to us. Most English teachers in the country will at some point have taught Of Mice and Men; how often does a class’s journey with Curley’s Wife shift from ridicule through hatred to some form of nuanced pity as they move through the text? Or Lady Macbeth? Even the consideration of what may have generated such pantomime cruelty can uncover the possibility of deep-seated vulnerability, fragility and lost maternal desires. But the reader’s outcome, or even judgement, of these characters is not the point; it’s the process we go through to get there that I find invaluable to personal growth. The study of English offers a place for such developmental explorations and allows us to radically challenge our own perceptions, biases, blindspots and realities. It is a wonderfully subjective space, a ring-fenced grey area for exploration and shifting perception, where emotive response is not judged as right or wrong. To me, this only further foregrounds the importance of text choice for a rich English curriculum. Whose experience are we exposing students across their 4-18 journey in an English classroom?
I for one want 2020 to be an infinitely more empathetic place than 2019: let’s walk away from combative debate and enter into dialogic discussion; let’s drop non-negotiable absolutes and welcome critical change through listening. This requires greater empathy.
The magical power of seeing text as a construct:
You know that big reveal in The Wizard of Oz, right? When Dorothy and co notice that behind the green curtain, the ‘great and powerful Oz’ is just a little old man in a suit. ‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’, he shouts, desperate to keep his pretence alive…but to no avail. They’ve seen the truth. And as a result, they can never accept the old lie again. This reveal, the pulling back of the curtain, is the turning point that sets in motion the eventual victory of our hero and her friends in their perilous world. It throws a new light on their reality, not just for that moment and the falsehood of the wizard himself, but on every ‘truth’ they see about their worlds and themselves.
So what if, in the study of English, this big reveal is the simple concept of ‘text as a construct’. Once you see behind the ‘green curtain’ of writing, once you have that startling realisation that the writer is crafting, controlling, distorting your experience, you won’t settle for mere acceptance of text as reality again. All English teachers know very well that moment of teaching a text with an unreliable narrator, only for the class to call out every narrator for the next 9 months as unreliable. Aside: I’ve rediscovered this feeling for myself having spent 2019 binging a load of Agatha Christie novels and having the exact same response, fearing Christie’s deceptions, false clues and leads in every turn of the page: I trust NO-ONE.
It’s the same from the early reading experience of realising a character isn’t ‘real’ to the nuanced considerations of a writer’s word choice or narrative tells. When that green curtain is truly pulled back, our experience of literature becomes richer, more intense, more laden with meaning.
And on the cusp of our 2020 world, this goes beyond exploration of fiction. As English teachers, we have an opportunity (even a responsibility?), to see the pulling back of this curtain for any text as a central rationale for our trade. Remember, it throws a new light on their reality, not just for that moment and the falsehood of the wizard himself, but on every ‘truth’ they see about their worlds and themselves. So what if we can offer this to students? As the written and spoken word of the media shouts ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’, continuing to craft, control and distort our acceptance of what is, we have a chance to skill up our students to see exactly that; to be aware of the constructed nature of all ‘text’ and give them a chance to question the very reality they are being sold.