My job is to show the student what a literary text means

No it’s not – chiefly because you probably don’t know what the text means.

I’m not saying that all answers about a text’s meaning are equally valid,  just that too many English teachers have an exaggerated sense of their own expertise when it comes to the significance of texts. I once read a popular educational consultant’s blog on this topic, and the sage was complaining about a student’s lack of understanding of Romeo’s position on being exiled from Verona. Apparently, this would have pretty distressing for Romeo since, as our expert informed us, he would not have known anybody living elsewhere. The poor oik in this scholar’s classroom was moronic in believing anything else – thank heaven our expert was around to put him bang to rights.

This struck me as funny, given the way the Italian elite in the late medieval and early modern period were constantly moving about between each other’s cities and…er… marriage diplomacy, anyone? Chances are, Romeo would certainly have known folk – even relatives – in neighbouring cities. The whole plot of The Two Gentlemen of Verona depends on a young, rich Veronese man being sent to live with connections in another city state. Romeo’s exile would still have been distressing, and the student’s indifference regarding Romeo’s fate was indeed a result of their misunderstanding of the text, but the expert’s so-called hard knowledge was not the crystal pure stuff – it was sixth-form grade, functional gruel (and in danger of detracting attention from the key point: Romeo’s wild and arguably imbalanced passion to be near Juliet).

Now don’t get me wrong, functional gruel is in most cases good enough – for the most part English teachers are not experts in Literature, and nor should they be expected to be: experts in Literature are experts in Literature. This means that the best you can ask of yourself is to raise your students’ capacity to interpret texts from where it was when you found them – all the while maintaining a pretty powerful humility about how much you yourself don’t understand. And this in turn means accepting that when they go wide of your mark, you need to be pretty sure of yourself before you start getting excited about the size and rigour of your great big powerful knowledge weapon. Under pressure from datacrats, who really struggle with the idea that teaching may not have its sole purpose a positive number at the bottom of the spreadsheet, English teachers are increasingly casting themselves as state-appointed decoders of texts, whose official business is the marshalling of their students towards the little-black-numbers-at-the-bottom which line up precisely with theirs.

A far better approach is to build students’ vocabulary for describing the ways that people have approached, not just literature, but life itself. Literary interpretation, at school at least, should then be an exercise in practising these positions. Teach your students how liberal humanists see the world, how mystics, or tragics, or the politically engaged do, and then encourage them to think about what might be significant in a text. If they get stuck, do a bit of a modelling (“well, for someone with tragic viewpoint, Romeo is seen primarily as a victim of…”). Encourage them to play around with these positions, and argue – some of them may end up forming composite ideas for themselves from these foundations, and the ones that don’t will at least have been given some starting points from which to understand both literature and life. That’s what’s truly meant by a liberal education: inducting students into a conversation – not telling them what they have to say.

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