Tag Archives: Michael Oakeshott

How to choose study texts in English: Part Two

In the Part One, I introduced the idea of satisficing: a decision making process that entails accepting choices that are ‘good enough’ for purpose, but aren’t optimal. I suggested that these choices are made when selecting texts to study because we base them on the false boundary of the fulfilment of the study, or to put it simply: the assessment.

My contention is that, if we remove the utilitarian boundary of the assessment, there are greater and more powerful attributes upon which to base our decision when choosing a text to study. And, importantly, I believe that, beyond this boundary, the goals of assessment can still be met with equal – if not greater – success. (English teacher Chris Curtis has written an excellent argument on why seemingly more accessible texts “do not naturally incline themselves for analysis by inexperienced readers”, and that complex texts serve them better. I urge you to read it.)

The attribute which I believe has the highest evaluability when selecting a text is the extent to which it gives pupils the ability to participate in what Michael Oakeshott calls ‘the conversation of mankind’:

“As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.”

Robert Peal explains in his book, ‘Progressively Worse’, how pupils can be denied participation in the conversation:

“People discussing a specialist subject, it is often remarked, sound as if they are communicating in a foreign language. This is the sensation gained when you hear Americans talk about a sport, as Hirsch demonstrates by writing the simple sentence, ‘Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run’. To Americans, this is an everyday explanation of baseball tactics, but to a British listener it is meaningless. Now, imagine if every conversation, television programme or news article you encountered, which covered history, economics, literature, politics, world events or science, left you with the same sensation. Condemned by your un-ambitious schooling, the common reference points of the well informed would forever be a foreign country.”

In terms of teaching literature, we have the opportunity to give pupils access to texts that will be referenced throughout their lives. Texts that have endured and seeped into public consciousness will offer us touchstones and reference points that help us contribute to and understand the conversation of mankind. They supply us with a shorthand to use and understand throughout every stage of our lives.

In reference to Oakeshott’s ‘conversation of mankind’, MP Jesse Norman calls education ‘an adventure’Martin Robinson takes up this argument:

“How refreshing to think of education, not as a journey but as an adventure; if we jettison the idea of journey and the obsession of getting somewhere ‘worthwhile’ and on time, we can also jettison such concerns as the need for grit and resilience to endure this journey. Yes, there may danger, we might have to take risks but we all have the wherewithal for adventure, especially when it is of itself and not a way to something else. This is an adventure, an exploration about what it is to be human.”

That “somewhere” that Robinson implies we often journey is perhaps, ultimately, jobs or careers. But it could equally be the false boundary of assessment. If we discard this boundary we can make choices that extend to informing the lives of the pupils and open up the ‘adventure’ of life. If we choose not to teach certain texts because of a falsely bounded rationality, we may deny our pupils participation in aspects of the conversation of mankind.

Here’s a reminder of the text choices offered by AQA for the Modern texts component of the new GCSE English Literature, the study of which begins in September 2015:

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Texts like DNAAnita and Me, The Curious Incident and Pigeon English, whilst arguably enjoyable, are hugely overshadowed in their contribution to the conversation. Books like Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm, however, give pupils threads which will return to them throughout life, through shared references that reverberate throughout society. We see references to both of these texts not only in other literature but also in music, movies and television. Other mediums make these references because they know they belong to a shared understanding. Whilst The Simpsons will dedicate an entire episode to a pastiche of Lord of the Flies, they are unlikely to do the same for The Curious Incident.

This is because there aren’t the widely shared reference points in The Curious Incident that Golding gives us. Take a situation in which a group of young people are acting out a power struggle and/or savage cruelty. Whilst Lord of the Flies and DNA both follow these themes, it is likely that people will make a reference to the former rather than the latter in succinctly expressing the politics and/or barbarity of the situationTake this, for example:

Or the way this visual reference carries connotations that tell us a lot more about Ron Burgundy and his news team if we’ve read Lord of the Flies:

Of course, I am not arguing that Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm are necessarily – to use Matthew Arnold’s phrase – “the best which has been thought and said”. The very existence of a short list of GCSE texts means that our choice is still bounded. But, within the boundaries the exam boards have foisted upon us, perhaps those texts are more prevalent in the conversation.

As such, references to these texts abound in popular culture.

For example, the television series Lost references Lord of the Flies not only thematically but also literally, with characters using it as shorthand for the atavistic behaviour of others: “Folks down on the beach might have been doctors and accountants a month ago, but it’s Lord of the Flies time now”; “They seem to have had a rough time of it. It looks like they went bloody Lord of the Flies out there.” On a simple level, Lost is actually a good example of the conversation of mankind in everyday operation, as it also references Animal Farm: “The pigs are walking,” proclaims one of the characters, expressing succinctly how the oppressed have become the oppressors. Of course, you can understand Lost without understanding these references, but it is like missing a part of the conversation or being left out of a private joke.

But these are only a few examples of how the references in these texts reverberate into popular culture. They stretch beyond that to permeate human experience. By satisficing when we choose our texts, by accepting bounded rationality, we cut pupils off from the touchstones of, in Oakeshott’s words, the “conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance.”

So, when choosing a text for study, avoid satisficing. Because one thing we shouldn’t give in to is satisf… wait, what is the noun we use for the act of satisficing when choosing texts to study?

Of course…


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