If you’ve seen the Netflix series, ‘Pretend it’s a City’, you’ll have heard Fran Leibowitz discuss reading and say ‘A book is not supposed to be a mirror. It’s supposed to be a door.’ I cheered when she said that because it summed up my philosophy of English teaching throughout my career. It addresses the age-old complaint from teenagers that this book has nothing do with them: ‘where are the people like me in this book?’ ‘This book is ancient’. And, while you might think these are fair questions, our job as teachers is to explain why they are important. And to open the door for them and send them on their way as readers.
The problematic ‘canon’ encourages a healthy debate, but when it comes down it, we teach books which we think we lead on to other things, ensuring an engaging study of language and good writing along the way. And, yes, as teachers we are the ones who can recognise what good writing is. It is not our job to close off potentially uncomfortable subjects because the current time makes them so. It is our job to open up a discussion about why such views are out-dated and to challenge them with further reading.
Over the course of my twenty-odd years in teaching there have been many new texts which have appeared: some of them actually endure. I’m thinking ‘Skellig’ by David Almond or ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness. There are others. There are also many which appear fleetingly: departmental budget busters which appear with a movie and then are forgotten; dust catchers, weeping quietly, gathering dust in the text cupboard. There is a very good reason why we have a core of texts to which we regularly return. And not merely because we have them already in our departments. They are building blocks for young people to use, providing them with the tools to go on and read whatever they want.
To think of not teaching texts because we think they discuss out-dated views is tantamount to banning books. In that context, who would feel comfortable? It would make us no better than those states in America who banned Harry Potter because it encouraged witchcraft or ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ because it has swearing. As English teachers in Scotland, we are fortunate enough to have the freedom to choose the texts we take into our classes so, by all means, do or don’t teach something as you please. But it troubles me that we would even have a conversation about dismissing great writing, without even using the word ‘banning.’
So I’m proud to have taught books like ‘Of Mice and Men’ in both my first and last years in teaching. I’m proud of the time I’ve opened up discussions with young people about racism and the language used in the book. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve moved on to discuss Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement to Black Lives Matter this year. Not to mention topics on the role of women, loneliness, austerity. The only way we, as teachers, can begin to tackle racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia is to open the discussion of challenging views. To do so through Literature has been the greatest pleasure and privilege of my life.