Should it be troubling to hear an experienced and influential English teacher-educator, one who has written thoughtfully about students’ engagement with literary texts in the classroom, say that ultimately he doesn’t much care about the study of literature? That he thinks school students can get sufficient imaginative sustenance from TV dramas like The Wire?
Well, it does trouble me.
Last week I gave a couple of presentations as a keynote speaker at a combined national conference, held in Adelaide, of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE, whose members are mostly secondary teachers) and the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA, mainly primary school teachers). Another keynote speaker was a British guest, John Yandell, who in the course of one of his talks made the remark I’ve quoted.
John is a respected figure in the field of English education. He taught in inner London schools for 20 years before moving to the internationally prestigious Institute of Education at University College London, where he has worked since 2003. John edits the well-regarded journal Changing English (to which I’ve contributed this year) and is the author of The Social Construction of Meaning: reading literature in urban English classrooms – a persuasive ethnographic analysis of ways in which multi-cultural working-class groups of students interpret the writings of Shakespeare, Arthur Miller and others. John’s work is always stimulating.
I can’t convey here a properly judicious indication of John’s views, either as distilled in his publications or as expressed orally at this conference. But his startling remark quoted above is well worth pondering, even out of context. It’s a salutary provocation, at least. Could it be true that some of us care too much about literature? Perhaps, having grown up in the days when the printed word was still unchallenged as the dominant storytelling medium, we’ve remained unduly attached to assumptions about its enduring primacy?
Certainly it would be perverse to deny that contemporary TV and cinema often present exceptionally compelling drama. The best of it grips my attention as strongly as anyone else’s. John Yandell mentioned The Wire, and there have been many other unforgettable films and mini-series in recent years – often made overseas (such as The Bridge in Denmark, Broadchurch in the UK and Homeland in the USA), though the ABC telemovie of Peter Temple’s novel The Broken Shore is an outstanding local example. Is John justified, then, in suggesting that these powerful stories can provide a substitute for literary texts, and in seeming to imply that the latter no longer need figure in the English curriculum?
There’s no doubt that the screen medium gives ample scope for complex characterisation, lively dialogue, suspenseful plotting and memorable visual imagery. So why am I troubled by a proposition that the experience these offer is equivalent to the best work in literary genres – the poem, the novel, the short story, the memoir and the rest? Because the primary medium of screen drama is the visual image, while the primary medium of literature is language itself. Words constitute the foreground, the focus. And more than anything else, it’s with the subtleties of language that school students most need to engage. Language is power. In being encouraged and helped to understand its liberating potential, students will be better equipped to take control of their future lives. Through the reading of literature, they can become attuned to the full range of linguistic resources. Literature embodies language not just in the form of fast-paced dialogue accompanying spectacular screen events and effects, but also in other forms: quietly meditative language, stylistically ingenious language, rhetorically elaborate language, rhythmically forceful language, the language of nuanced narrative exposition, language that is lambent or shadowy, supple or tight-packed, allusive or elusive…
Am I mistaken?