To a higher plane of imagery

15th June 2007 at 01:00
Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy

In The TESS (May 18), I read comments by Derek Hotchkiss, principal teacher of English at Caldervale High in North Lanarkshire, with mounting angst. As a former teacher of English, I feel it my duty to speak from the wings on behalf of the aghast audience who would have read it.

Mr Hotchkiss was analysing the recent Higher English exam and he was positive about it, especially the close reading. The subject matter of the passages was the place of public libraries in the electronic age.

Fair enough: presumably the content is only a vehicle for the questions.

What really shocked me was the admission by Mr Hotchkiss that he was very pleased that there were only two questions which asked candidates to analyse imagery. This was good, he stated, because pupils have difficulty answering such questions.

Now, is that or is that not an admission that Higher English is a pale imitation of its former glory? Absence of questions on imagery is praised by a head of English! I reflect back to when I first started teaching English in 1976, when one of the key textbooks for my class was The Language of Poetry by Robert Millar and Ian Currie.

This book covers areas such as ambiguity, the difference between the notional and emotive meanings of words and contains a chapter headed "The Element of Meaning", which examines terms such as synaesthetic imagery. Do modern Higher English students understand this device of language when the poet refers to one sense in terms of another? Or do they just stick to the comparatively comfy concepts of simile and metaphor? What hope is there for differentiating between the literal and symbolic?

What I find disturbing about the comments of Derek Hotchkiss is the suggestion, albeit thinly veiled, that explaining symbolism in literature is just too much for today's students of English. How, then, may I ask, do they access Lear's "blasted heath" or Eliot's "soul stretched tight across the skies" or Plath's "vulturous boredom" and the innumerable parade of images and symbols which give all literature its heartbeat?

In reducing the rich vibrancy of complex imagery to its simplest forms, we are denying our current students the right to flex that part of the brain which recognises the dance of symbolism in all its intricate movements.

Perhaps the modern multi-coloured universe of in-your-face-technology requires minimal conceptualising and even less imagination. But don't forget the old adage of "use it or lose it". If kids become accustomed to not recognising symbolism, then their brains will inevitably reconfigure so that their creative neurons simply cease to function, and that would take away the heart of what it means to be human.

It is terribly insulting to our students of English to deprive them of the opportunity to unravel the magical embroidery of the world of imagery. My philosophy students deal with the complexities of Plato's cave with comparative ease, thus gaining insight into what is meant by a symbolic journey from ignorance to knowledge.

In inuring students to the uttermost delights of tapping into complicated imagery, we are denying them the vocabulary and tools to unravel the symbolism of the world beyond Higher English. Numerous symbols help us to decode the mysteries of religion, literature, history and indeed life itself. But maybe Mr Hotchkiss knows something which I don't - I hope that he will enlighten me.

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