I’ve been listening the Western Tradition this week whilst I’ve been travelling inordinate distances and relying on failing tech. 

I was struck Ambroise Pare’s approach to creating knowledge (link at the bottom). Effectively he says we should use past knowledge from others to see further than we can do without them. However, when that knowledge does not make sense to us, or (more ideally) we disagree with it in our context, then we contest it and create our own interpretations. It is at that point that we might create personal interpretations. 

From that desire to read first then create later, I was reminded of why the classroom teaching of history can be so tedious when life is presented as a serious of dislocated and definitive facts – historical or political ideas are at their most potent when interpretations are set against each other in dialectical tension. For examples, there are some who believe that an alliance with the Nazis in WWII would have been an ideal thing. A more literary example would be from those who believe that Orwell is a terrible novelist with tedious and unimaginative plotting. The power of Grecian logic is that it compels to make intellectual choices and not just sit on the fence. 

I think that students who can understand past ideas, understand how to frame (construct) how those ideas exist in content, and decide their (flexible!) position on such a continuum, will be empowered and will score highly on an exam. 

In practice, a teacher will have to frame some dominant interpretations of a text. 

I think, if we take 1984 as an example, these are perhaps best expressed as contesting interpretations of the quality of the text rather than just treating the characters are moral beings. So for example, rather than only discussing whether Winston is a coward or not (something I would definitely do in a classroom), I would have students discuss whether the vast tracts of Goldstein’s biographical interlude are ideally place and reduce the narrative power of the text in comparison to expectations of a novel. 

Students who struggle with literature would, I imagine, focus mostly on interpretations of characters or narrative scenarios (e.g. the mother’s care of her son in our course’s poem). However, all deserve exposure to framed interpretations of literary effect, and to be compelled to defend personal interpretations of that effect. Hopefully these will move them beyond ”making the reader want to read on”! 

I think this is more in line with what students would do in a year’s time in an extended essay or EPQ practice. I also think that BigTech (e.g. Century Learning, GCSEPod) would love the idea that students overpriorise personal interpretations that bear no reading of what others might have thought before. That suits their business model!