Learning for school is necessary for others; learning for living is essential for you

 Learning literature in school necessarily focuses on external performance measures: what tasks have you done? Can you measure them? Can you apply a formula for ease? There are, of course, many righteous criticisms of schooling: Ken Robinson criticises the focus on external performance measures in the video that made him famous which is skilfully contested here.



 Learning literature for life, in contrast, is focused on enriching internal perspectives. Being aware of different disciplines – such as psychology, sociology, philosophy, politics, history and the classics – allows you to appreciate how types of knowledge affects perspective. Literature lays between history and philosophy, taking its ideas from philosophy and its framework from history. This is a lifelong mission, though, No school can offer an ‘efficient’ flightmap through a study of culture, and certainly not one that exists in the fleeting hours offered in school.

It is because of the finite amount of time dedicated to learning literature in school that the following statement needs to be made:

Succeeding in an exam does not mean that you understand the subject

Succeeding in exams is an essential passport to the next step in your education. However, even from this functional view, you still require cultural and social capital to transform grades into occupational success (and we will talk about that in the next section).

Social capital = your networks of people who can help you in society through getting jobs or offering support.

Cultural capital = your accumulated and internalised ability to ‘know the rules’ of different cultural groups, usually through awareness of ruling class culture. While many might twitch when we hear the term ‘ruling class’, this really means culture from a top-down perspective. By itself, such perspective cannot rule effectively; the culture of all points of view in society is necessary.

Moreso than that, taking exams is becoming our rite of passage in the West. While some cultures once demand their youth slay beasts or foster rich inner-visions, Western rites of passage seem to involve taking an exam (and eventually moving out of your parents’ house). Taking a literature exam merely measures external performance and is a very shaky shapshot of your inner-life at best.

It is possible to pass an exam in literature with the highest grades and not really understand that discipline. That is not a cynical view of teachers or students; outstanding undergraduate study would still make you a patchy novice in your field. Even at PhD level (where you are aiming to a peer to world-experts) a due humility is needed as you dabble in other disciplines. A literature researcher like Helen Zhang classifies undergraduates as novices in terms of responding unseen poetry: while they have dialectical intelligence (the ability to argue well), they lack the cultural capital and grammar of the subject.

At this point I should point out that an inner-life can be full and interesting and beyond the remit of formal university education. See my gaming and football metaphors later for how being connected to world-class standards need not undermine you. 

Although schools and parents almost always go beyond their duties to provide social and cultural capital, it is up to you to enrich yourself where you can. A teacher cannot really give you cultural capital. You need to foster curiosity and interest in the world outside you.

 A teacher’s prime accountability is to show you the language of the exam. Yet even this you can see for yourself with a modicum of searching on the internet. My experience of exams range from the British domestic exams via the AQA to Cambridge and EdExcel iGCSE and the IB. The demands of these are distinctly different, and any student needs to learn the language of that exam. This website aims to help you with that, as well as linking to others that do the same.

 A teacher is also responsible for motivating you as well. However, of course, you need to be able to motivate yourself to take charge of your learning and to be independent. I’ve experienced lazy teachers and feckless tutors in my time. Yet fostering the discipline to learn yourself is an important, adult skill to foster.

 So, learning for school is necessary to move onto the next phase in your life; learning for living hopes to instigate a desire to truly educate yourself in the humanities outside the remit of school (through seeking cultural capital).

 The main difference between great and mediocre education is how YOU engage in cultural capital inside and outside school

 The main difference between a great education and a mediocre education is the cultural capital that a great education can stimulate. Of course, though, this is… not something that can be easily taught; it needs to be learned. By its nature is can be difficult and outside your experience. As a young person, especially nearing 2020, there are increasing demands on your time and attention. But you need you need to learn the grammar and knowledge of a subject.

 Students who from time to time desire functional teaching (focusing on the grade over an enriched inner-life) can in very rare cases dislike the learning of cultural capital. 

Kowtowing to what students want in this instance is an irresponsible compromise. Refusing to teach even very basic trends in Victorian society and culture – such as the increasing distrust in authority, and the disorientating wonder of technology – isolates young people from what they are experiencing now. Experientially, students can engage with such concepts via youth low culture (I am sure you can find many examples of fragmented authority in any songs you hear now) but without even a very basic framework of the disciplines in the humanities, it is especially difficult to become educated. 

So with this in mind, I teach the kind of education I want to have myself. It’s difficult to teach literature with credibility without doing that. 

It must be said that there are many stories about how learning cultural capital can separate you from certain cultures (see Education Rita, or The History Boys). If your peers do not have a thirst to understand culture outside your immediate circles, that could lead to difficult experiences and accusations of abandoning low, immediate culture for higher, more intellectual climes. 

As Alan Bennett wisely purports, both high and low culture have value when combined. It is no good being educated in the humanities if you don’t bring some of that wisdom to bear on human events. 

Finally, and sadly, cultural capital is expensive. While libraries are free, it is only really when I had enough money to purchase books on my own terms that I really found I could educate myself as I desired. 

No-one really knows what learning is: so how can we do it? 

I teach a session where I ‘teach a wastepaper bin to whistle’. After hamming this up, praising my outstanding teaching, I show a wastepaper bin that (obviously) cannot whistle. I perniciously defend myself by saying I only said I would teach the bin; I didn’t promise that it would learn. 

Just because you have been taught does not mean that you will learn. 

In this computerised age, ideas of cognitive science make sense to us. When we actually think about literature, when we have brain activity relating to a concept, it is that which we remember that is learned. Dan Willingham says that memory is the residue of thought. 

Watch out for a literature classroom where there is a culture of just doing stuff. Of producing things. Without any reflection on what you are doing, there can be little learning. 

So, say, a teacher requires you to make a PowerPoint about the oppressive opening descriptions in Great Expectations, you might end up spending 80% of your time and thought deciding the colour scheme and picture choices in your presentation and your remaining energies on the content itself. Here, without guile, your learning is lessened even if you produce a wonderful PowerPoint. 

As part of remembering, you need to create social experiences in your learning. Social experiences charge your learning with… and are known as constructivism. While this is a tremendously important aspect of making your learning stick, you of course need individual effort and grit to understand the foundations of a subject at the same time. 

Above all, teaching and learning literature requires a sense of wonder and inspiration. Not all the time; just enough. And that remit is yours as much as anyone’s. 

Learning literature for life requires YOU to create a curriculum beyond the remit of school 

So knowing how learning literature for life demands commitment from you outside of school, and a willingness to engage with somewhat distant culture, how should such a curriculum be organised? 

Firstly, you need to bear in mind that the vast majority of time inside the classroom will be framed by the literature exams. It is up to you, with informal exchanges with your teachers and peers (and family), to seek out a wider literature curriculum. 

Such a literature for life curriculum can be organised in various ways. Should it be chronological? Should it be based on key texts? How about based on topics? It certainly won’t be organised via assessment objectives. 

Currently, I think that a broadly chronological framework into the major literary epochs from 500AD onwards is useful. Within that, I recommend a body of literature, games and film that grant experience within all of this. 

I am beginning to make this here. 

The persona of The Quill Guy is of someone who made his own curriculum of literature outside the remit of school 

I think telling you a little bit about me will make you understand why I teach as I do. When it came time for me to choose my focus education my in 1990s England, I took the humanities route. My decision framed literature as the glue that held together human understanding and that I would get more to 

I achieved in school and university, played in rock bands and ran for my county. I enjoyed a range of activities and experiences yet found increasing gaps in my knowledge, not least because my previous exam success gave me false certainty in my knowledge. 

I remember at university, I encountered TS Eliot who begat Nietzsche who was influenced by Heidegger who also influenced Andre Gide. Without any kind of framework beyond the texts I learned at A-Level (to A-grade standard of course), I was lost. It took some time to understand that to understand literature, you must have some awareness and reading in politics, sociology, psychology, history, philosophy and all the other humanities subjects. There are some tremendous books that I have found now that have given me a framework. You can read these in the literature for living curriculum here. 

You can be educated as world expert and still have significant gaps in your knowledge. 

I teach now, therefore, as I want to have learned – with an eye of providing a framework for how the humanities fit together. 

As a busy teacher with a full life, I want my study to be efficient. When I see the notes I used to make, I wince. Despite reading a healthy number of books on how to study, it is only really recently that I feel happy with how I read and study. You can read some of my thoughts on studying for school and studying for life here. 

Learning seeks to be efficient but everyone knows that life is busy, and it is not easy to be efficient. 

Gaming culture is the next development of literary experience 

I grew up with gaming culture, owning an Amiga, a Playstation and then a PC. I have seen gaming culture develop, and see its potential for experience and education. Grand Strategy games educate the player as they play, while platform and phone games are largely written by behavioural psychologists who want to keep you playing more. 

Alas, I have seen some terribly flawed uses of gaming technology in the classroom. Without naming some, I saw a Macbeth walking simulator that involved no more than a generic FPS (First Person Shooter) with symbols relating to Macbeth. This is not very different to just looking at the symbols themselves. I have also seen an RPG (Role Playing Game) used in the classroom to encourage teamwork via characters and points. If a classroom, which is formal at the best of times, requires such constructs to create teamwork, then there are issues. 

If you, or your child, likes games, and you are worried about the amount of time they spend on them, then read my Amazon book where I recommend useful gaming experiences. 

In the curriculum for life, I also suggest games that offer particular experiences of historical and cultural events. In themselves, they can be twee entertainment at best. However, when combined with film and literature and other experiential mediums, then they enhance an education. They cannot replace disciplined study. They can certainly, though, make it more experiential. 

For those who deride gaming culture – often only knowing about Call of Duty, Dark Souls and FIFA – I direct you to… For me, the prime advancements in gaming are: 

  1. The social side.
  2. The appreciation of how other people are better than you. 

Football paints itself as an entertainment industry. However, losing a football match isn’t really very fun. Still, some of the most memorable matches I have seen have been losses (England vs Germany on penalties, more so than the 5-1 win). 

Technology can be magical; we are still some way off it being educationally useful and not just money in the pockets of industry 

I do enjoy electronics; there was a time when I would them with enthusiasm for the sakes of it, often with good results (for reasons other than technology). 

Having spent near on a decade with NATE’s ICT Committee, I am much more hesitant now recommending technology as the first solution. 

In a world of fragmented communities, advice YouTube can give us some of the skills that have been lost

There was a time where our communities and families would teach us to live in the world. Practical skills necessary to live in our communities were taught organically. Those times are gone. 1980s neoliberalism has fragmented us, making greed good. Technology can both bind us and divide us.  

Fiscal Education is essential for everyone who wants an inner life

Gatsby said Americans would happily be peasants, but not serfs. Fiscal education is poor on the ground. When I originally wrote this, The Money Shop sponsored my football team. Such disgusting money-shark firms prey on the vulnerable desires of the poor.  Popular financial advice recommends to farm people via buy to let properties, suggesting that people are not rich because they are lazy.

Ideas about financial acumen will be related here.