'In their violent ignorance, they have taken what we love and made us hate it'

19th August 2005 at 01:00
Catherine Paver declares war on the Daleks who turn the English syllabus into an assault on the world of literature.

The trouble with exam criteria is that they are written and implemented by Daleks. They rule by fear and their numbers have been growing for years. It is time to fight back.

Whatever your subject, whether you are a Time Lord of Literature or some other marvellous world, try doing this with your syllabus. Add an exclamation mark to the end of each phrase. There it is - that unmistakable metallic loathing, that quaver of robotic death-joy: "Attainment target! Assessment component! Assessment objective!" What was wrong with 'aim'? "Resistance is useless!"

I have watched the Daleks attempt to exterminate my world for years.

Literature is a force for individuality and imagination. That is why the Daleks fear it. So they have systematically reduced it to an intellectually pulverising assault course designed to produce total conformity. They take what is human and make it inhuman. Daleks hate literature, with its uncontrollable power and emotional force. They plan to exterminate J.K.Rowling. It isn't journalists she has to hide from.

Daleks use words to confuse us. They describe what we have always done, then give it back to us in alarmingly flat terms. They make the obvious sound unfamiliar. "Review and extend their strategies for locating, appraising and extracting relevant information!" A young Dalek's eye-stalk grows with every word. When I telephoned a Dalek to inquire what it thought was the difference between "form and structure", there was a muffled clanking and an incoherent response. "Vision impaired! Obey without question!"

In their violent ignorance, they have taken what we love and made us fear it. With our own tools, words, they have made us aliens in our own world, making us wrongly dependent upon their guidance. Type "assessment objectives" into a search engine and you get more than 18 million results.

That is three times what "William Shakespeare" gets. The Daleks have made their own exam criteria a subject in itself. In doing so they have left thousands of children afraid to think for themselves, and afraid to read great books. We must resist this rule of fear.

Why didn't the Daleks take over our classrooms instead? They would have had very few discipline problems. Too obvious, though: they preferred to begin their rule of fear in hiding. To fight them, fight your fear of them. You know your subject. You have other worlds at your fingers' ends. Stop asking, "Do I know the Daleks' wishes?" Start asking, "Do the Daleks know mine?" As we speak, I hold a single Dalek captive. So, if you are feeling brave, follow me...

There it is. Isolated from its fleet, chained in a library of classics. You may have seen a fellow Time Lord meet Charles Dickens. Tonight, I have gathered other great writers of the past. If anyone can teach a Dalek what great books can do, it must be those who wrote them.

Welcome! Please speak one phrase from your own work. Shakespeare, you first...

"Strong imagination!"

A long pause. Well, it was worth a try. Wordsworth, your turn.

"Powerful feelings!"

A blue light flickers briefly.

No, no, we mustn't give up hope! Jane Austen, you're a match for a Dalek, I'm sure...

"Wit and humour!"

The air crackles with confused electric loathing and the Dalek spins horribly: "Ex-ter-mi-nate! Ex-ter-mi-nate!"

Jane Austen sighs and withdraws with the others to the safety of the shelves - but wait! Something has caught the Dalek's eye-stalk. My shopping list! This could be interesting...

Studying the Dalek's fascination with the shopping list, I am reminded of one definition of poetry quoted by an exam board. "Poetry is the best words in the best order." Put through Dalek circuits, Coleridge's definition would become something logical, sequential and banal, like "cheese," "bread," "ham," which were all "best words" because I was hungry when I wrote them...That's it! This is Dalek poetry! "The-best-words-in-the-best-order!" The Dalek's agitated lights flicker across the shopping list... "This-is-a-poem! This-is-a-poem!"

Of course it would appear so to a non-human life form with no concept of literature. The shopping list is perfectly suited to the Dalek English syllabus because it exists in order to be ticked. How can we limit the power of these limited minds?

Well, we have the Tardis. A classroom is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

No one has complete control of us there. Remember that, as the sky fills with Daleks again this summer. It is impossible, for now, to take your Tardis of schoolchildren on the ride of their lives. But you can still show them glimpses of other worlds. Open that marvellous, mute, miniature Tardis, the book. For an instant, they can be out there, beyond the Daleks, among the stars.

Next week: Genevieve Fay on the trouble with promotion

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