03 September 2012

On instrumental learning (pardon the digressive memoir)

I passed the local branch of a chain bookshop on Saturday, now featuring the "back to school" window display. Prominent was a "study guide" to To Kill a Mockingbird --presumably a set text again for some exam or another.

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, is 86 and reclusive*. I wasn't surprised to see a "study guide" in the window, but it did set me thinking about what had been made of her wonderful story, whose very accessibility and gentle power has conspired to its reduction to a commodity--knowledge about it can be traded for exam credits, while the point is lost.

I'm not merely speculating here. Robert Westall was my art teacher at school. We became friends and remained so for thirty years until his death. (He was my son's godfather and I was privileged to be an executor of his will). As the link shows, he was a wonderful author of stories for children and young adults, acquiring many awards for works from his debut novel The Machine-Gunners in 1975 to posthumous publications. The Machine-Gunners was serialised on BBCtv in 1983 --and of course found its way to being a "set book" for 16+ examinations...

I don't remember when it was first set, or when the first cribs came out (for examples of current stuff go here and scroll until you get to the title--I make no comment at all on the quality of the resources offered. They are simply an accessible example of the kind of material on offer.) But I do remember discussing it with him.

I congratulated him. He'd really made it! And--since he was always something of a contrarian--I didn't really take it seriously when he said he wished it hadn't happened, and that perhaps he had a right to be consulted about it. (As far as I can remember, the first he found out about it was from his publisher or his agent, because they had been warned to increase print runs and approached about annotated editions. But then, most set authors are dead already, so...)

But his argument was persuasive. He did not want young people to see his work as "the kind of stuff they made you read at school." Once they saw it in that light, he would have lost them.

And of course he was right.

Yesterday I was in Waterstone's--the last remaining book-focused chain in the UK--and a woman approached me, holding two paperbacks, face out. "Excuse me," she said, "I'm a visiting author, and I wonder if you would be interested in these novels..." To my shame, I was rather brusque. (In the unlikely event that she reads this, I apologise. I can't identify her because Waterstone's website does not mention previous "events". Sorry!) "I don't read novels." I said.

And I don't. The last novel I read all the way through (as opposed to started and abandoned, of which there are dozens) was Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go", which remains utterly haunting, but that was about 2006.

It was studying literature at university which did it for me, despite the quality of the courses and the teaching (memories and tributes here and here). I was fed up with reading literature instrumentally --for the sake of writing an essay or taking an exam or being able to escape humiliation in a seminar discussion.

Incidentally, in those days we took "Finals" at the end of three years. If we passed "Prelims" after our second term in the first year, there was no more summative assessment until then, when our degree classification was based entirely on --in my case-- thirteen three-hour unseen examinations over three weeks. And I tripped up. On the very last exam, I committed the silliest mistake. I did not read the instructions, and I only answered three questions instead of four... I only realised in the post-exam chatter, and I was devastated. I already had my rail ticket back home for that afternoon, so I went to the station bookstall to find something totally non-literary to take my mind off self-recrimination for my stupidity which robbed me of a first-class degree (as I later discovered). I picked up a pulp science-fiction paperback by someone I'd never heard of, called Isaac Asimov. This was 1966. Not a great stylist, and not strong on character, but the stories were amazing!

It was almost a decade before I went anywhere near mainstream literary fiction again.

In the early '70s, a friend let me in on a secret. Jane Austen is funny. How had I managed to read all her novels and volumes of critical appraisal of them, and write essays about them, and miss that fundamental point? I forgave her, as it were, but I couldn't extend the pardon.

I've since read a few recent mainstream novels, not totally contaminated by the academic stance/ frame/ discourse/ lens/ perspective or whatever bullsh*t term (I use the adjective advisedly following Frankfurt 2005) is current, but I can no longer recapture the innocent suspension of disbelief which is a prerequisite of sheer enjoyment. For a while I immersed myself in science fiction and fantasy, until the academic poison spread to "genre" fiction.

Why am I telling you all this? I hear you cry.

Because studying something instrumentally is quite different from immersing oneself in it expressively. Learning something in order to achieve something else is quite different from discovering that you have incidentally acquired enormous knowledge and skill --because you were just absorbed in something for its own sake.

And that has enormous implications for those of us who presume to specify what other people should learn.

(And just for the record, this is the 700th post on this blog.)

*  The website www.harperlee.com carries a disclaimer if you dig far enough; "Please note that harperlee.com is a private website, unaffiliated with Harper Lee or her representatives. Her reps cannot be reached through this site and we cannot forward messages to them."


    1. Very interesting - I wrote about the suspension of disbelief today too (how it may be essential to the enjoyment of fiction but detrimental to the identification of truths).

      Critical distance can be a real killjoy sometimes can't it? and definitely pollutes the enjoyment that many students bring to their studies? Is it a failure though if students leave education with less passion for their subject than they had when they started? I’ve claimed so in the past but I’m no longer so sure - John Stuart Mill presumably didn't think so:

      “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”

    2. “Happiness is the perpetual possession of being well deceived.” -Jonathan Swift


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