Forget Ucas forms, forget apprenticeships, forget dangling the hope of a portfolio of careers or a six-figure income in front of those you teach. Set against the price we are all rapidly shelling out for ignorance and intolerance, these are lightweight goals. Skilful, intelligent reading is the healthy heartbeat of any civilised culture, and the assertion that teachers have no more right than anyone else to signal what is worth, and what is not worth, reading is one of the most pernicious and damaging assertions undermining high-quality schooling. Leave school at any age incapable of exercising judgement about what and why you read, and you might as well have stayed at home.
Milton’s famous attack on censorship Areopagitica, pulsates with the power of the written word: “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself." When he wrote his unsurpassed defence of freedom of expression, he wasn’t thinking of tabloids or the background noise that passes for writing on social media, as rewarding and irksome as music in a hotel lift. He was concerned about books, tangible, intelligent, well-crafted books; the most important tool mankind has yet designed to convey wisdom from one generation to the next.
When I wrote a piece here criticising the quality and purpose of much young-adult fiction last summer, it caused a furore. In the aftermath, a sixth-former wrote a response which included this comment: "Ever heard of a little principle called freedom of choice? I’ll read what I damn well want, thanks, Joe. And so will the rest of us."
A fellow columnist here, Natasha Devon, writing more recently about essentially the same issue, argued: "It’s not only irritatingly snobby, but also actively harmful to young people’s enjoyment of and engagement with literature to dismiss the books which resonate with them as insufficiently ‘highbrow'."
'Antipathy towards classic literature'
The part of the equation these contributors fail to include is the second-most important constant – teachers. One of the greatest responsibilities they carry is to introduce the children they teach to what is worth their precious time and what isn’t. What lies at the heart of antipathy towards classic literature and old white men is merely a peevish determination to reject the idea that some adults might know better than some children about what constitutes reading/literature worth spending time on.
This isn’t just an argument about books. It’s the brightly coloured ball pit that a post-1960s, liberal-left rejection of all cultural value longs to romp in. It’s the idea that any child’s scribbling on a page is as valuable as any stuffy old white man’s because we are all equal. Its shallow roots hold on to nothing more than simplistic solipsism, the notion that every individual has an equal right to convey value on any cultural object. The same belief has fuelled the reversal of the entire art world so that anything is art, provided the individual who created it asserts it is boldly enough. Like that pinnacle of linguistic sagacity, President Trump’s Twitter feed: the louder and more aggressively you assert something, the truer it gets.
It’s no coincidence that when you study the kind of writing characteristic of almost any kind of liberal elite outrage closely, you will frequently find that whatever the headline says and the piece purports to be about, an equally liberal sprinkling of first-person pronouns will betray that solipsistic craving, stamping its little foot and yelling, “Look at me! Look at me!”
Teachers and professional educators, in contrast, know it is how you justify your choice that matters. The information and evidence you offer any child to support your advice is vital. That’s why a great English teacher is always able to tell a child why they personally loved a book objectively, without forcing it down their throat. Why they are able to justify their recommendation in words of more than two syllables without resorting to insult, aggression or childish petulance to persuade those they address. It’s equally why they are perfectly happy to accept that those they teach will develop their own taste, whatever they advise or recommend. That is as it should be. But standing idly by watching them flounder is a different kettle of fish.
Teachers in the UK often complain that the profession is not given the respect it merits. Sensible teachers nurture and cultivate respect in the classroom in all kinds of ways, but those who think they have no right or responsibility to advise on what those they teach read, fool themselves every bit as much as those they teach.
It might not be a big deal when very young children are in essence learning to decode an otherwise meaningless jumble of black marks on a white page. The child learning to engage their imagination with a written text as well as their cognition can be captivated by a rich array of techniques or strategies, even pictures, but when it comes to secondary school, and those crucial steps they take towards the world of work and adult responsibilities, it’s an entirely different matter. Falling back on the liberals' love affair with freedom of choice is irresponsible and unprofessional.
If you find yourself complaining about fake news, lies or licence in the written word to those you teach, remind yourself that the author had more than one teacher, then hope none of them was you.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author
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