A literature curriculum offers a strong moral element that students should not be denied. That moral experience, however, must be tempered by the school context and the teacher’s professionalism. This post is in response to a recent conversation about the extent to which literature teaching should address moral questions.

The first and most important moral aspect of a literature curriculum is that it should sow intellectual seeds and guide curiosity towards powerful knowledge. This is not just a plough through textual study and exams, although emphasising plot knowledge and exam practice are essential. Primarily, the choice of choice of texts encourages this. Alas, the choice of texts themselves is incredible contentious in some areas of Britain, especially if (like me!) the position of the students and the teachers in society isn’t high. If you read my essay on cultural capital here you can see my thoughts on the social effects of anti-canon sentiment and of the effects of the voice discourse that developed in response. That Gartman (2017) links political will to the lack of explicit grammar teaching in schools (my grammar knowledge is almost entirely self-taught) is as shocking as it is naïve. Powerful knowledge must be taught, even if those who learn it may not initially, or perhaps even ever, take full advantage of it. There are many twitter users I follow who propose a knowledge-based curriculum, often engaging in contentious debate (with ire on both sides). I would say that leading a curriculum with any ideology requires some compromise, and I’ll address some of the pragmatic concerns a little later. I remember reading sometime in the past that taking a lesson out of a school curriculum to nod towards emojis is inherently laughable. While knowledge must be prioritised, other streams of language and culture can be judiciously aired in the public discourse of the classroom. No curriculum plan can be that tight.

A curriculum plan as to what aspects of language and culture should be met in the classroom is a moral judgement. And, of course, most people exist outside the stratified concerns of canonistic writers. But that isn’t to say that canonised writers shouldn’t be read: they reflect European consciousness that binds threads that make us who we are today, in our complexity. While we shouldn’t leave the canon, we cannot escape the politicised condition of the canon. I have taught with a range of teachers who have decidedly mixed views of teaching canonised texts (or even any pre-1980s texts, for some…). My first response to anti-canon thought is that what we teach should always be up for negotiation. From that, I would say that the European consciousness for many canonised writers saw itself ‘as is’, and that its values and philosophies, like that of any culture, were supposedly universal. Values aren’t entirely universal, of course, as all cohesive thought and philosophy needs to be entirely situated, both culturally and logically. Read Goeth, for example (as I did this weekend), and you can see a thinker very much concerned with the bourgeoise experience of love. Peasants do not factor into his comments on the human experience beyond imagining an idealised pastoral yearning. However, even though I am socially very far from being a European intellectual, let alone owning a house with a large garden, I can appreciate his thoughts. I can separate the politics from the philosophy.

Even though there is a benefit of accepting canonised writers in their own context, it is important for teachers to be politically neutral. To elucidate this I want to talk a little about how I teach the knowledge of newspapers/sites. Broadsheets generally strive for more objective reporting than tabloids; tabloids are purposefully biased and sensationalist. However, The Guardian is entirely open in its values, as is The Times. Being open in our values, as those papers are, allows others to understand our situated response, with both its necessary limitations as well as clarity.

This openness doesn’t always transpose well to classroom teaching. Let’s take the hypothetical situation of a student learning about Thatcher from an anti-Thatcherite teacher. One of her teachers had taught her about Thatcher’s neoliberalist philosophy, and the very real effects on the communities of England, especially in the North of England. She learned that the effects on the North were dire, although in some ways a horribly necessary and inevitable response to world-wide economic and political pressures of the 70s. She asked if Thatcher had any redeeming qualities. She was told no. She asked if anyone thought she did. That was not forthcoming.

Morally, we cannot ignore the damage done by neoliberalist politics to Northern communities in England, especially the communities that relied on mining. That happened. Equally so, as teachers we must educate ourselves in different schools of thought and belief. Be open in our values so that we might situate knowledge (and in doing so make it interesting!). Yet from this be intellectually cosmopolitan and explore other views; be as contentious to your own culture as others might be. For example, neoliberalism is massively popular amongst most working people despite the fact the freedoms it promises tend to empower the powerful more than the weak, and that its free is primarily economic. Such social freedoms don’t sit well with a Western social justice agenda, especially if communities are unravelling and social media and targeted advertising become increasingly ubiquitous. These are arguments beyond the scope of a teacher in a classroom: to raise the argument from the text (hence con-text) and to outline the positions is morally right if we want our students to engage with them as adults.

To realistically raise these arguments therefore requires careful framing of the classroom discourse. I wrote at the start of this academic year ago that I wanted to prize dialect. The best points this year were when students were engaged to debate positions separate to their chosen beliefs. Nothing fundamental was questioned: only chosen culture such as music taste and literature characterisation. Such negotiation, sharing and affirming of different values is really about intercultural thinking: all best experienced through face to face public speaking.

To reiterate, there are obviously many debates that are not the territory of the classroom: they are better suited to academia and the fiery thrust of such debate. They require a maturity of thought and a mutual respect (that isn’t always present in those institutions). A teacher is morally obliged to make the classroom a safe place.

I also think that certain people (i.e. me) are not always happy to be contentious in our debating. Indeed, I have in my career been forced to tackle students who have taken a debate forum too far with antisocial commentary or ad-homien attacks. I remember what it was when I was young to enjoy contending others and to critique from a position of youthful exuberance (and maybe irresponsibility…). My position, as I think it is for many others, is that I think contention needs to be invited. It is in that space that I do admire De Bono and his thinking hats and PO-word. See here for more information.

Although the status quo is to deride him, De Bono’s contrivances can work in their intended contexts. Being able to engage in dialectic without fear of personal judgement is essential, and the secondary classroom is full of judgement for teenagers. Indeed, we rely upon social judgements continually to make people more social. (Alas, some schools suffer the opposite: that social judgments on teenagers make them antisocial!). It is powerful to contrive consciously strange conditions that allow a contentious statement to be made without judgment. One such statement is this: women in 2018 experience sexism in the workplace. For children with powerful and empowered mothers, this might seem a bizarre claim. They just don’t see it. For girls who are called ‘bossy’ rather than ‘leading’ when they try to lead a group, this claim is pertinent. I see boys and girls alike uncomfortable contending this claim: to explore it in all its nuance leads to powerful knowledge, and is a moral experience.

I should say that some teachers don’t seem to need an invitation to be contentious: they thrive on it. They seem to feel that expressing a sound argument (not necessarily a moral or a righteous one) is acceptable at all times. The secondary classroom is not, however, the university seminar room. And culturally, not defines an argument that way.

Of course, all this ideology of promoting moral thinkers should be tempered by the pragmatic need for students to gain qualifications. Students and teacher also need to know how to be good with institutions. Kant and Foucault, famously contentious thinkers, spoke and wrote many times about the need to be good with institutions. Montaigne wrote in a wonderful dog and carriage metaphor… Read De Bottonabout the misdirected time and effort spent railing against institutions in the West. Teachers need to ensure students function in the institutions society has set up to benefit the whole. Therefore, I have planned, and believe in, a curriculum that allows hardworking students to get better. By hardworking, I’m really meaning the extraordinary efforts I have truly dedicated students give: 4-8 hours a day of study with very few if any breaks. For those students, I believe in planning reading programs, and in foregrounding their efforts of those students.

It is moral to foreground the opinions of the most read students in the discourse of the classroom. The loudest and most charismatic with naturally be the most noticeable. The teacher needs to structure this otherwise. Without such structure, the literature classroom risks becoming a kind of weak and directionless reader-response experience whereby the easiest ideas and contentions are consumed. This will not be the experience at university.

Finally, if we are talking about pragmatism in the classroom, then some will want to talk about teacher accountability. At the heart of accountability is expecting classroom teachers to set work and mark it. This is a very low expectation. We cannot necessarily measure how much a teacher makes their students think: encouraging considered thought in young people should be the moral baseline for a literature teacher.

Before I sign off this post about the moral elements of teaching literature, I wanted to address the element of transgressive literature (Burroughs, Welsh etc.) Such literature is that which is purposefully profane, vulgar, or even politically and socially contentious. Such art has its place in Western society, although perhaps not officially in an institution, and almost certainly not in the mainstream secondary/high school literature class. If anything, positioning transgressive literature in the public forum takes away its purpose. If such literature is to offer moral thought for us, the battleground of the university seminar room are the ideal arenas for that discussion.

Ultimately, we should want our students to access the kind of knowledge will empower them. It is not feasible to complete this ambition in the drops of time offered in the literature classroom: instead we should nurture a respectful and inquiring disposition by modelling one ourselves.