I know that Jane Austen’s novels have much literary merit. She confronts social injustice with a sensitivity and occasionally very subtle and sardonic humour that few can match. She is justifiably considered to be one of the pre-eminent minds of her time. Even 200 years later, in countries and cultures far removed from Victorian England, she has an enormous cohort of fans who can read and reread her stories with awe and delight. I just cannot number myself among them.
The chief deficiencies in any one of her novels could easily be addressed by the addition of an actual plot. Many of her admirers seem quite content with her decision to dispense with this trivial aspect of fiction writing. I am less forgiving. Once you remove from her novels the 300 pages dedicated to taking long walks, the 100 pages dedicated to drinking tea and the 50 pages where the characters – evidently after a sudden rush of blood to the head – play cards, you really are not left with many conversation points.
Personally, I would have opted for a zombie apocalypse. Nothing gets the blood pumping quite like hordes of the undead cutting a swathe of destruction across the English countryside. I can imagine a gallant Darcy dashing through Hertfordshire to rescue the Bennets from flesh-eating monsters, and having Elizabeth decapitate a few with a crochet needle before triumphing in a final showdown with a ghoulish overlord. At the very least, Ms Austen might have made the tea a fraction too hot or had one of the characters sustain a nasty papercut while playing cards. But, tragically for the literary world, it was not to be.
So it surprises me greatly that so many teachers of literature opt to prescribe her novels. Of the countless stories at their disposal, Pride and Prejudice is the one they settle on. Really?! I am sure that a good teacher can find ways to allow pupils to connect to pretty much anything. But Austen? Surely there are better choices.
I believe that education should be learner-centred. In other words, when – as an educator – I design a curriculum, I ought to do so with the learner interests (not my own) as my starting point. When I am dealing with stories as my primary mode of negotiating meaning, then the responsibility is that much greater. Stories, after all, are at the heart of our meaning-making. We make sense of who we are and our place in the world through the stories we tell ourselves and the stories others tell about us, about themselves, about life. The sciences speak to the head, but stories speak to the heart. And humans – even the scientists, although they try to deny it (science is, after all, another type of story)– are moved to action and belief through the heart, first and foremost. Our lives shape our stories and our stories shape our lives. Those who work with stories have a certain responsibility.
So I see the merit in Austen and in Shakespeare. But I do not believe they have a place in a 21st Century school curriculum. They ought to be studied at universities, yes. And they can be placed on supplementary reading lists. But to prescribe them as mandatory setworks for teenagers is – if I may be so bold – irresponsible.
While the academically-inclined learner may connect, most teenagers will not. And if a novel does not afford the majority of learners in a class the likelihood of a connection, it is not a sound choice. Simply speaking, we cannot manufacture ways to have art speak to children’s hearts unless we can find ways to let them connect to the art. Austen and Shakespeare – through language barriers, cultural barriers or plot barriers – prohibit connection for too many.
If you want to explore issues of prejudice and social injustice, Othello and Pride and Prejudice are powerful choices. But they are also elitist choices. There are thousands of alternative texts that will achieve the same end but which are vastly more accessible. Choose those instead.
But I know teachers will battle to let go of the classics in the school classroom. Maybe because we love them so much, it becomes unfathomable to us that others may not. Maybe it is because there are so many resources on these texts that teaching them requires less work, and that is a real consideration in a profession where administrative burdens can easily devour time that could have more valuably been spent on curriculum development. Perhaps it is because society equates studying these texts with “maintaining standards”, and schools (erroneously) pander to the whims of a public that really doesn’t understand education at all.
But it is becoming more and more evident that we need to be more conscious in making such choices. It’s an old quote, but still a good one:
“No assessment system is merely a matter of technique and know-how. It is always saying something about the world that the assessor is seeking to bring about” Dave Allen, 1990
The scary thing is that we are starting to see – in the corruption that permeates every sector of our society – that education is failing. When we study novels and poetry, drama and art, science and mathematics only so that we can earn grades, we lose sight of their real value in shaping not only thought, but – more importantly – hearts. When assessment grades become the goal of education, rather than character and ethical reasoning, then the consequences can only be disastrous. We create adults who can think but have no internalised value systems. What do you get when your leaders are educated but have no morals? Watch the news and see.
And the solution will have to start with teachers. They spend more time with young people than anybody else. They are instrumental in deciding what form our future will take. And too many teachers don’t see that. Too many are sinking under a load of paperwork that obscures their vision. Too many are being asked – by the public, the government, even their bosses – to place the focus of their endeavours on meaningless things. They are tired and unappreciated, lost and leaderless.
If you are a teacher, and you have the privilege of connecting children and stories, may I encourage you to take heart. More, may I ask you to start by thinking of what world you would like to bring about. What texts could you choose that would afford the greatest opportunity to the learners of connecting to your vision? Last, in an act of defiance, may I urge you to put Jane Austen back on the shelf (where she belongs) and venture into less comfortable and more dangerous territory.