Literature, Education and Socio-Cultural Representation: Refocusing the Debate

Chelsea Swiftpost by CHELSEA SWIFT
Doctoral Researcher, University of York

Dominant ideas about culture and literateness, advocated by the likes of Matthew Arnold and F.R. Leavis, have been reflected in much educational and political discussion since the late 19th Century. During this period, there has been a shift in emphasis from the act of reading itself to a focus on what is being read, resulting in increasingly narrower notions of what it is to be literate, cultured and educated (Williams, 1976; Milner, 2005). These beliefs about what reading is and what it is to be a reader are the only criteria many young people have to judge their own literary and cultural lives.

The ideas of these cultural and literary critics “have long since been superseded in academia”. In fact, Michael Gove’s authors have been dead for an average of around 206 years, whereas those cited by Leavis were still writing shortly before the publication of The Great Tradition in 1948 (Olive, 2013). This demonstrates the failure of educational policy to keep up, not only with developments in educational and social research, but with the variety of cultural and literary experiences that young people bring to the classroom.

There has been a consistent focus on the English Literary Heritage, a symbol of rigour and high standards in education. This is largely at the expense of relegating other texts and ways of reading to, at best, mere stepping stones to ‘real’ reading and, at worst, unfit for classroom study. This emphasis on nationalism is long outdated, failing to take into account the multicultural nature of our ‘island’ and the blurring of its boundaries through globalisation.

The language used in various policy regarding the teaching of English throughout the 20th Century and including more recent versions of the National curriculum often begs the question; what is ‘good quality’ literature and who decides? Much debate surrounding the new KS4 curriculum for literature has been concerned with what should be read in our classrooms. This is demonstrated by the recent media attention received by changes to the National Curriculum and GCSE exam syllabi (here and here) and in various speeches by former education secretary Michael Gove (2010, 2013). Consequently, research in this area has largely been centred on seeing oneself through reading rather than seeing oneself as a reader (Clarkson, 2013; Yandell and Turvey, 2012; Rogers Cherland, 1994).

However, my PhD research suggests that the primary issue is not socio-cultural representation, but how reading is generally thought about in educational settings. Many of the students I spoke to viewed reading as an exclusively academic activity, with little relevance to their non-school lives; an anti-social pastime for ‘clever’ people. This leads to the belief that reading for pleasure is only for certain individuals, preventing some from seeing themselves as ‘someone who reads’.

It is important to pay attention to issues of understanding, engagement and identity- often neglected by research in this area, which tends to focus on younger readers developing the basic skill of reading. This reduces reading to understanding the words on the page, without considering the social, cultural and historical context in which it occurs.

We need to first address questions of what reading is and who it is for in order to promote positive reading identities and genuine engagement in subject English. This has largely been overlooked in current policy and in the debates surrounding it. Research which identifies the various benefits of reading for pleasure (particularly fiction), demonstrates the significance of addressing these issues. This is part of a wider need, “to think seriously about what is the purpose of education and what it means to be educated, what schools are for, and concomitantly and crucially who should decide these things”.

However, my research has also highlighted the importance of non-school reading experiences, demonstrating the limits of the school’s ability to encourage reading for pleasure and foster positive reading identities. Reading must be viewed as more than an academic activity in order for young people to receive its academic benefits.

There is a need to establish stronger lines of communication between schools, parents and students, making possible communities of readers where resources and knowledge are exchanged. This would provide both teachers and parents with the tools to cater to the real literary and cultural lives of young people. As Stephen Ball suggests, providing an education system “related to real social needs and economic problems” will require the efforts of all stakeholders.

Basil Bernstein’s statement that “education cannot compensate for society” has been reflected in many of the posts on this blog, such as those by Ruth Boyask and Geoff Whitty. Responsibility for fostering positive reading identities should not be placed on the educational context alone, which has its own aims and objectives and which can only achieve so much when work is not being done in the other contexts for reading which young people are exposed to. We need to be clear and realistic in what we expect of our education system.