The joy of a text
James Brodie, teacher of English at Taunton School, Somerset, argues that when 'judging' literature focus should be on its ability to inspire and educate rather than worrying about its age or complexity.
As an experienced teacher of English, it was with a heavy heart that I read Amanda Foreman’s article: 'Public schools shun classic novels', published in this week’s Sunday Times. I suppose what struck me most about the article in question, was the assumption that the study of literature should be nothing more than a journey through the literary ages, offering students and teachers the chance to gawp at the greatness of Austen and Shakespeare, to the exclusion of everything else. Surely there is more to literature than this? At the school that I work, the English Department thinks very carefully about text choice and I can honestly say that we have never chosen a modern novel, or play for that matter, because it was deemed easier to read, or teach, than an older text. Is McEwan any easier a novelist to understand than Hardy or Charlotte Bronte? Is ‘Jane Eyre’ a better, or more difficult, novel than Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’? I would say emphatically, no. For me, the teaching of literature is important because it enables students to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of a text while, and perhaps even more importantly, allowing students(and teachers for that matter) to gain a better understanding of themselves.
On a personal note, I have always enjoyed teaching Austen ( Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Text being my texts of choice). It is not though because I judge her stories to be suitably ‘difficult’, as Amanda Foreman asserts , but because she understands the human condition better than anyone I have ever read. Literature should both inspire and educate and it is these ideas that a text should be judged on, rather than worrying about its age or complexity. For me, it is as simple as that.