Despite being an avid reader I chose not to study English Literature at A level. I chose Maths instead and still have nightmares about sitting the exam. The one where I’m sitting alone in the middle of a huge exam hall, empty desks all around me, clock ticking loudly and the exam never ends...can’t just be me, surely?
Anyway...The way English was taught at school seemed to be designed purely to suck the joy from reading. To analyse a novel line by line is soul destroying and surely not what most authors intend.
This is a great article click here in which a 15 year old girl talks about her love of reading but her despair at having to follow the current GCSE English syllabus. She talks about “slamming my head on the table many a time as I thought about the pain of reading Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliet“ and I find myself sympathising.
In my last blog post I talked about my aversion to the ‘classics’ and I can’t help feeling that part of this was driven by school’s attitude to teaching English Literature. I studied A Kestrel for a Knave, Romeo and Juliet and To Kill A Mockingbird for GCSE.
I hated A Kestrel for a Knave with a passion. All that, ‘it’s grim up North’, nonsense still makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a pencil. Although, I will admit to having a massive chip on my shoulder about all Yorkshire folk being portrayed as poor gambling alcoholics who swear constantly, beat their kids and either work darn pit, in’t mill or are on t’dole. I actually took a coach from Leeds to London in the 21st Century and had to sit next to a woman whose son was a doctor and daughter was a concert pianist who told me she felt sorry for children who had to live in the North, because let’s face it, what chances do they have?
Anyway, I’ve gone off on one again...Romeo and Juliet is fine as a play but enough to make any 15 year old cry into their pencil case if forced to analyse it line by line. In fact I’ve seen several Shakespeare plays (Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) either adapted for film or on stage and enjoyed most of them. (Much Ado About Nothing by Joss Whedon is fab, so see that one!) But surely Shakespeare intended for his plays to be viewed and enjoyed, not torn apart line by line?
The only redeeming factor was To Kill A Mockingbird, and only because I ignored instructions to read a chapter a week and read it all in the first week. But spending weeks considering why Boo Radley was considered to be a ‘malevolent phantom’ because it was a likely exam question is tedious in the extreme.
I love reading. I love writing. I’d love to have time to do more. But this love was not fostered by the school curriculum, or a particularly engaging teacher but by me. By a desire to return to something I loved doing and had somehow lost sight of.
If we really want kids to enjoy reading for pleasure, to engage them at school, to make them curious about the world around them and to encourage independent thinking rather than memorising acceptable answers, surely we need to change the way we teach.
Sadly, this doesn’t seem likely in the near future.