What’s the main task of a school English teacher? Is it to ensure that the personal experience and familiar environment of students should be at the centre of their learning? According to a book published half a century ago but still influential, the answer is emphatically yes. While there’s some truth in that principle, the matter – in my view – is not so simple.
The book I’m referring to is John Dixon’s Growth Through English (1967), which has continued to motivate countless teachers since its first appearance. It took shape as a report on a famous trans-Atlantic conference held 50 years ago at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League institution in New Hampshire. This Dartmouth symposium brought together leading educators from England and North America to consider a perennially vexed question: What is English?
John Dixon’s book argued that English teaching should focus on ‘culture as the pupil knows it,’ affirming ‘attitudes to experience…[shaped by] family and neighbourhood.’ It’s easy to agree with him – up to a point. Certainly no teacher of English will cut much ice with students unless their classroom welcomes the personal knowledge, tastes and perceptions they bring to it from their own background.
Yes – but… Is that the be-all and end-all of English teaching? I don’t think so. Encouraging students to draw on what they already know and feel and think is part of the task. On the other hand, if their ‘personal growth’ is to be a meaningful goal, it’s just as necessary that a teacher should help them go beyond the familiar, reframing their experience of their own world by introducing them to worlds elsewhere.
Often in the lives of most present-day adolescents there is much that confines them narrowly within the preoccupations, ideas and idioms of their own here-and-now milieu. To recognise this constriction is not, of course, to dismiss their world or the kinds of texts that mirror everyday realities and topical tribulations in which the young students are already immersed – stories that engage directly with their own experience, their own values. No doubt such stories (whether told on the page or on the screen) may contribute to clarifying what they feel, alleviating their worries, freeing their imaginations. But surely it’s at least equally important for a teenager to enter richly imagined worlds elsewhere through the doorway of well-crafted narrative that is not set in their own time and place.
Consider how important this factor was in the early life of Charles Dickens. He grew up as a sickly and neglected child in an impoverished family, but literature enriched his imagination. His father had acquired a set of cheap reprints of prose-fiction classics, and young Charles read them avidly, as recorded in an autobiographical fragment on which he drew directly for a memorable passage in David Copperfield. David, exactly like his creator, devoured stories about worlds elsewhere: tales of Don Quixote, of the Arabian Nights, of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Fielding’s Tom Jones, and (in his words) ‘a glorious host’ of other writings. He goes on to describe how he wandered around the house impersonating his favourite characters and embarking with them on voyages to exotic destinations. His comment about the value of those imaginary excursions is simple and eloquent: ‘They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time.’
For Dickens, personal experience could be stifling and cheerless; but reading literature could be liberating. So too for many school students today – yet this is something that the author and disciples of Growth Through English don’t always acknowledge sufficiently. Dixon was critical of what he labelled a ‘cultural heritage’ attitude to literature, arguing that it tends to be a dead hand on the young learner’s imagination because it gives priority to the written word rather than to speech. Well, doesn’t that depend on how it’s taught and studied?
An earlier blog post of mine provoked lively debate about some of these issues, and you may find the exchange of comments worth reading. Two respected British educators, John Yandell and Monica Brady, both broadly aligned with Dixon’s position, thought that I was attaching undue significance to the study of literature in English classrooms, and failing to recognise the need to engage with popular texts (e.g. films such as The Wire) closer to the students’s current interests. I contended that, while it’s vital to encourage personal responses to diverse texts in different media (as I’ve argued in many publications over a long period), it’s also vital to ensure that literature doesn’t get pushed aside, because it can use language in distinctively valuable ways.
Thanks partly to John Dixon and to others who have reinforced and refined his arguments, most classrooms these days do place much more emphasis on the individual learner’s experience, language and values than was the case before the late 1960s. This is potentially a change for the better – but it can also be for the worse, if it deters teachers from challenging students with a rich variety of textual experiences that take them outside the comfort zone of their home territory.