Remarkably (or perhaps not) – and I don’t think I’ve misremembered this – I managed to reach the age of seventeen before I read a whole novel from the literary canon. I read a limited range of disparate extracts during my GCSE years – chapter five of Frankenstein, three stanzas of In Memoriam, and the opening pages of Brave New World – but nothing in its entirety. I don’t think it particularly bothered me at the time, but I remember getting to university and feeling embarrassed at my lack of what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called cultural capital. The point here isn’t that I wanted to loudly proclaim my love of Tennyson’s poetry to any poor sod that happened to be kind and patient enough to listen, more that I just wanted to be able to contribute an informed opinion. I wanted the cultural confidence that many of my peers seemed to possess.
The easy option here would be to blame my parents, both of whom didn’t attend university and rarely, if ever, read for pleasure – but that would be unfair. Equally, I don’t blame my poor English teacher either, who always did his best by me and the rest of the class. He faced many of the same struggles that I do now as a teacher myself. However, looking back, I wish I’d been given more guidance by someone (anyone) on what to read. No doubt, I wouldn’t have particularly appreciated it at the time, but that’s important too – I also needed to be taught to work at reading and to defer gratification.
Many people question the value of reading literature from the canon. It’s clearly an important debate to have, but one that’s very hard to engage in without having an appreciation of – Bourdieu’s words again – legitimate culture in the first place. This is one of the reasons why I believe that the author Samantha Shannon is wrong to dismiss the importance of ‘the same classic books’ in her article published earlier this month:
We keep covering old ground when it comes to the notion of a ‘must-read’ book. There’s nothing new, no sense of exploration or departure from what’s come before – and in the case of lists for children, they don’t always reflect what young people are actually reading for pleasure. By recommending the same stories, over and over, we’re not creating fertile ground for the idea of a modern-day masterpiece.
Clearly, students should read widely – modern texts and all. However, as teachers, I think we disadvantage our wards hugely – particularly the most underprivileged and vulnerable – if we don’t openly promote and engage with literature from the canon. It’s not about indoctrination or even enjoyment (at least initially) on their behalf: it’s about equipping students with the knowledge to be able to confidently make their own choices and join in the debate. Declaring that you hate Dickens is absolutely fine, but it isn’t fine to be unable to articulate the reasons why. Without familiarity with legitimate culture in the first place, no meaningful judgements can be made on cultural value.
Students from culturally enriched backgrounds have significant advantages over those who do not. They are, for example, far more likely to achieve better grades at school and, indeed, go on to university. Beyond this, there’s also the thorny issue of class and perceived status, which is tied up just as much with cultural capital as it is with economic capital. In the future, as is the case now, students who are able to knowingly manoeuvre with confidence and ease between reference points from high culture and popular culture are far more likely to be linked-in to wider and richer social networks; they are far more likely to have access to greater opportunities. Fundamentally, it’s empowering to possess knowledge. And it’s for this reason, in addition to quite a few others that, in my opinion, we have a responsibility as teachers to get kids reading the classics at school.
I won’t dwell any longer on this point…. Instead, I’ll sign-off and cowardly point you in the direction of James Theobald’s excellent post, which can be accessed here, where he furthers the case that I’ve tried to make.
Thanks for reading –