Battle in Print: The value of poetry

Michele Ledda, 5 November 2010

Whether poetry is relevant to the modern world poses itself most starkly in relation to the school curriculum. In other areas it’s easier to evade the problem. We can pretend the death of the critic, the death of the author and the various deaths attesting the modern flight from meaning, human judgment and intentionality are of no great consequence. Each can enjoy a poem according to his own taste, and our relationship to poetry becomes a private matter where a poem has whatever meaning we like.

In education, however, we’re forced to explain and justify the world to the next generation. We must ask what poems children should study and why. Not that we haven’t tried to evade the problem in education, too. A good attempt was made by the committee of educationalists chosen by the Thatcher government to devise the first National Curriculum, in 1989. They refused to list the best authors and devolved responsibility to individual schools and teachers.

Since those running the education system are unable to decide which authors children should study, but someone or something must, the curriculum is in practice determined through the ‘qualifications market’ - in Ofqual’s words. Examination boards sell their products to their customers, the schools. Both former head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority Mick Waters and educational publisher Philip Walters have openly stated what many pretend not to know: examination boards compete by suggesting their exams are easier to pass and will therefore give their customers a better chance of climbing the league tables (1).

However hard we try to evade responsibility for the school curriculum, passing it onto individual teachers or the invisible hand of the market, the question of what literary texts children should study keeps resurfacing. The quality of education depends on such choice to a much greater extent than on teaching methods, children’s diet or buildings design. Even good teachers, considered by many the most important variable in education, can only be as good as the quality of what they teach.

The usual arguments against the study of great literature

The latest controversy was sparked by the Education Secretary’s speech at the Conservative conference earlier this month. He said schools should teach more writers from the great tradition of English literature, and classic poets such as Dryden and Pope. In what sounds like the thousandth repeat of the culture wars, Guardian columnist Catherine Bennett replied that teachers have great difficulty convincing disaffected teenagers to read, and authors like Dryden might put them off forever. They should study relevant texts, more likely to instil the habit of ‘reading for pleasure’.

Bennett’s response is typical and encapsulates many trends of the modern philistinism of ‘relevance’. I see two main problems with it. Firstly, it expresses the abandonment by many on the left of any belief in the importance of knowledge and the intellectual capacity of children, working class children in particular: great literature is not for them. Bennett seems to know her Dryden and even shows off in her article, but assumes the knowledge enabling her to argue in public with her peer the Education Secretary is not for everyone. The modern philistine is usually reasonably educated, but thinks she lives in an altogether different, superior universe from the mass of the population, who have no hope of ever reaching her level of understanding. This attitude, incidentally, is typical of many a Professor of Education. 

Bennett resorts to the ‘Gradgrind argument’. Whenever arguing for great literature or rigorous courses and examinations, one triggers a Pavlovian reaction: ‘Gradgrind! Gradgrind!’ shout the contemporary philistines, like a chorus of frogs. Bennett calls Gove’s argument ‘instrumentalist’, yet her own position is more instrumentalist than traditional right-wing philistinism. Dickens’ philistine teacher, for all his limits, is inspiring in comparison. For Bennett, the example of Philip Green, the uneducated millionaire, shows you don’t need to study literature to be happy and successful.

The concept of ‘reading for pleasure’ - which means not reading anything too demanding - is popular among educators. But one finds a particular book pleasurable only after understanding it. That’s why children go to school – to be taught by specialists and acquire more complex formal knowledge and even, who knows, literary taste. The concept of ‘reading for pleasure’ shows adults indulging the fantasy they can bypass the problem of motivation. They only send the message literature is boring. The modern philistine is an ultra-utilitarian who can’t see beyond the pleasure and pain calculus. Classical utilitarians - particularly JS. Mill – weren’t so crude. Few people valued the acquisition of formal knowledge more than the author of Utilitarianism, despite the pain it cost him. ‘Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,’ he famously wrote.

Secondly, Bennett can’t see literature as a public good. Her privatised worldview assumes any attempt to devise a curriculum must be an imposition of the Education Secretary’s personal taste, almost an act of cultural imperialism against children. Every attempt to determine great literature smuggles in particular class, cultural or even personal values disguised as aesthetic judgment. Yet, whoever runs the education system has the responsibility to exercise good judgement. In practice, many texts selected by examination boards are good literature - a certain amount of aesthetic judgment is inevitable even though it daren’t speak its name - but the fact selection is justified through external criteria devalues these texts. Teachers must be sure they’re teaching great literature if they’re to find a way to motivate themselves and their pupils. Surely, it would be better consciously and unapologetically to select the very best literature, however controversial the notion of ‘best’ may be?

A double-edged defence of poetry

The tyranny of relevance manifested itself quite clearly in the (muted) reaction to the banning of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Education for Leisure from an education board’s syllabus after three people complained about its subject matter during a short-lived media panic about knife crime. None of the few commentators who wrote articles to protest against the ban defended the poem on its literary merit. Everyone insisted the censor had misunderstood the poem, which in fact carried the correct political message, being pro-education and anti-violence.

Only poet Billy Mills pointed out in an online Guardian debate that something was seriously amiss when even ‘the children’s laureate [thinks] that poems exist so that “children” can talk about “issues.”’ ‘As soon as the teaching of literature becomes instrumental rather than an end in itself,’ he continued, ‘you invite this kind of decision [ie. the ban]. If poetry is seen as a way of inculcating values, someone will want to decide which values get promoted.’

Mills is right. Literary works that have been banned in the past were often successfully defended in court, not on the grounds they didn’t offend contemporary moral values, but that they were works of literature and therefore valuable and worthy of protection – under the First Amendment, in the case of James Joyce’s Ulysses. But this seems too grand a claim to make nowadays in favour of any literary work.

The value of poetry

Our society’s increasing inability to value poetry - and more generally any higher human activity involving the expression of meaning, intentionality and free will - has a long history. This concerns the crisis of the humanities, which means the only truth we recognise today is the truth discovered through the method of the natural sciences. If we can’t measure something mathematically, ‘objectively,’ then it must be ‘subjective’ and therefore it can’t lay claim to truth.  Since truth is only understood as something independent of human intentionality and free will, found in the regularity of natural laws, many human activities previously strongly associated with the pursuit of truth, such as poetry or philosophy, suffer from a loss of authority. As George Watson pointed out recently, already in 1825 Macauley identified the increasing importance of scientific language as a danger for the language of poetry.

Although poetry does not provide ‘objective’ truth, it is not irrational at all. On the contrary, human reason is capable of understanding a lot more than scientific concepts. Science is a limited form of rationality, which has been fantastically successful at understanding natural phenomena. It owes its success to the limitations it imposes on itself, and can be seriously mistaken when it doesn’t respect such limits.

Science is perfectly suited to understand natural objects, which have no consciousness and behave according to predictable laws, but it can never understand human beings in all their complexity. It cannot cope with consciousness, free will and human action. Human sciences such as psychology, sociology and economics, insofar as they try to imitate the natural sciences and produce objective and replicable results, cannot fully understand human action. They’re unable to measure human beings. Scientists, of course, since they are human beings themselves and therefore endowed with more than scientific rationality, can understand free will, but when they do so they are philosophers, rather than scientists. ‘All science is a Turing machine’, says scientist and literary critic Jacob Bronowski, a close or axiomatic system, which is too consistent, and as such it cannot progress without external, non-scientific rationality. ‘As soon as the system runs into a fault, into an inconsistency, the human mind, unlike the machine, has the ability to throw the whole thing away and start building up a new axiomatic system. This is the way general relativity has taken the place of Newton’s system and no doubt something will take the place of general relativity.’

And yet ‘there are scientists much given to thinking of themselves as machines’ warned Bronowski in 1967 (2). Over 40 years later we witness the emergence of many disciplines, such as evolutionary psychology, behavioural economics, and even evolutionary literary criticism, that have either a diminished view of consciousness and free will or, in an attempt to ground them in biological phenomena, explain them away as nothing more than illusions and post-hoc rationalisations.

‘We live in an age in which most non-scientists are feeling a kind of loss of nerve’, says Bronowski (3). It’s this loss of nerve in the face of the alleged superiority of scientific knowledge that has long affected the humanities

Martin Heidegger describes well the loss of authority of the humanities in his Letter on Humanism. Philosophy, he says, has long been ‘in the constant predicament of having to justify its existence before the “sciences.”’ It believes it can do that most effectively by elevating itself to the rank of a science. But such an effort is the abandonment of the essence of thinking. Philosophy is hounded by the fear of losing prestige and validity if it’s not a science. Not to be a science is a failing equivalent to being unscientific. Being, as the element of thinking, is abandoned by the technical interpretation of thinking. ... Thinking is judged by a standard that does not measure up to it. Such judgment may be compared to the procedure of trying to evaluate the essence and powers of a fish by seeing how long it can live on dry land. For a long time now, all too long, thinking has been stranded on dry land. Can then the effort to return thinking to its element be called “irrationalism”?’

Poetry is also stranded on dry land when asked to serve an external purpose. Baudelaire provides a similar image of the poet who, like the albatross, is the ‘king of the sky’ but on land, in everyday life, is impeded in his movements by his ‘giant’s wings’.

Poetry is not just one kind of communication among others. It’s one of the highest forms of thinking, one of the highest forms of truth, and the highest form of language. And language is a constitutive part of human beings. Heidegger goes even further when he says it is rather ordinary language which is only a degraded, worn out form of poetry.  The study of English should privilege literature, and poetry in particular, above all else. Children who understand the subtleties of literary language will have no problems understanding any other form of language.

We should not have separate exams in English and English Literature. Children should not normally study commercial letters, The Simpsons, teenage magazines or advertising posters. They should not be tested on their understanding of a British Heart Foundation leaflet on the health benefits of cycling (GCSE 2001) or an extract from a Jamie Oliver book (GCSE 2003). Such junk food for thought should have no place in English education.

I find it astonishing that, with English being the international language and the tradition of English literature indisputably one of the very best in the world, neither is promoted with greater enthusiasm by politicians and educators who talk about ‘a world-class education’. English literature has accumulated a body of work containing one of the most important forms of truth about human experience over the centuries. If this is not worth teaching our children, what is?


Michele Ledda, co-ordinator of the Civitas Supplementary Schools Project, Yorkshire and an organiser of the Leeds Salon.


(1) Exams system ‘diseased’ and ‘almost corrupt’, Hannah Richardson, BBC News, 17 September 2010
(2) Jacob Bronowski, The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1978, pp85-86.
(3) ibid, p119

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