The love that dare not speak its name

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Teachers of English should not be afraid to embrace literary criticism, says Carol Atherton.

There are certain things you learn as an English teacher, and one is never to admit that you've read any literary criticism. To ignore this is to court disaster. One minute, your colleagues respect you, the next they're looking at you as if you've just admitted to a covert interest in dismembering chickens. Literary criticism isn't what English is all about.

Richard Hoyes's column(Friday, February 11) is a case in point. Writing of the new requirements for A-level English literature, Hoyes affirms one of the long-standing suspicions about literary criticism: it is "studying books about books and not books", and implies that students cannot think for themselves, or that we don't want them to.

Studying books, by implication, is an opportunity for students to build genuine relationships with texts and become better people in the process. Books about books, on the other hand, are dry. Dusty. They are what you end up with if you advocate teaching the traditional canon of dead white European males. Books about books are a bossy third party in the delicate, unfolding relationship between literature and adolescent readers.

If authenticity is what you're after, books about books get in the way. "I didn't become an English teacher to teach kids about F R Leavis," announced a delegate at a conference I attended.

Other subjects don't have this problem. A colleague in RE tells me that her A-level candidates are expected to know what different writers have said about the Bible, that it's an integral part of the subject. Similarly, examining the work of different historians is not so much a question of accepting what others have said, more a process of playing one interpretation off against another. You look at how they've been arrived at and how they have determined later views of the same subject. This process requires intellectual skill. So why are teachers so afraid of it?

Part of the problem must lie in the nature of the subject itself. I cannot be the only English teacher who feels pulled in far too many directions: English isn't so much a subject as a guilt trip, a fact brought home every time there are complaints about not enough media, not enough heritage, not enough pupils able to spell arbitrary lists of words.

English also suffers from being a subject whose defining skills seem somewhat intangible - which means some people think it doesn't have any. A maths teacher friend tells me that he thinks English is just about telling pupils which books to read, then putting your feet up for the rest of the lesson. I hope he's joking.

A hundred years ago, a small group of educationists fought to hae English literature enshrined as a university subject. A considerably larger group fought to keep it out. A Dr Mayo of the University of Cambridge believed that the study of literature did not require any special skill.

In reply, the supporters of English had to demonstrate that it could be a professional academic discipline like any other, that it possessed a body of knowledge and skills that were worthy of further study. This included an awareness of what other experts in this field had thought and written. Marxist commentators on the history of literary studies often miss this point, alleging that the subject grew from a bourgeois desire to indoctrinate the working classes. The view that literary criticism exists to perpetuate this indoctrination - and to persuade students that the only texts worth reading are those by a narrow canon of writers - is a myth from which the subject needs to escape.

Another myth is that of authenticity. Many English teachers believe that without literary criticism students are free to form their own opinions. They can read books in ways that are "genuine", and experience the text at first-hand. But we all teach our students to read in certain ways, to prioritise certain aspects of what they read and play down others. Studying English will always be coloured by certain ideas about what literature is for and how it operates. English teachers need to be aware of their own coerciveness and stop feigning innocence.

The idea that literary criticism is a form of brainwashing needs to be challenged. There is a lot that A-level students can gain from exploring the different ways in which texts have been interpreted and unpicking the assumptions and prejudices that lie behind many of these. Jane Eyre, for instance, has been seen at various times as an obscenity, a classic romance, a cry for women's rights and an example of 19th-century ignorance about the consequences of colonialism. A study of these views can tell us a lot about the ways in which books can be manipulated and thereby open up an awareness of wider social and political questions. Rigorous it may be, but to equate rigour with dullness is lazy in the extreme.

The process of dissecting what is seen as "truth" and learning to question what you are told is a necessary part of any A-level student's education. To say that everything is a matter of opinion, and that each opinion is as valid as the next, is intellectually dishonest. It is time we embraced the full range of what English has to offer and stopped believing those who tell us that it is simply a matter of reading books.

Carol Atherton teaches at Bourne grammar school, Lincolnshire, and is studying for a PhD at the University of Nottingham.

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