Warwick gave a talk in the CIRL Colloquia Series last year, on what we can learn about learning, creativity and innovation from Leonardo da Vinci. That talk and an interview with Warwick are available on our podcast.
This blogpost has one central argument. Given all of the ‘sound and fury’ surrounding the impact of Covid-19 on education, it is perhaps more important than ever for educators to focus on the core ideas that define a subject. At these crossroads, when re-evaluations are being made about why we teach certain subjects, we need to have clear ideas about what any subject aims to do and why is it important to study it. This is not simply to point our subject in the right direction of travel, but to give us the means to defend what we teach as a coherent discipline in its own right.
For a subject devoted to stories, astonishingly, English literature has yet to come up with a convincing narrative about what it is there to do. What follows is hopefully a reminder of why we bother with it, and a nudge for colleagues to look at their own subjects in similar ways.
The power of literature to drive learning
What does literature do for us as learners? The role of a writer is to make the reader hear, feel and see; to transport them into other worlds and project them into another person’s experience; and to enable them to think and feel outside of themselves. Through literature we try to come to terms with and ‘try on’ a world lived differently. By seeing through another person’s eyes, we can attend and notice more and perhaps discover our own peculiarities and similarities. We begin to see that the world inside our heads is not so unique. We invest in someone else’s interior voice. Someone else’s internal world transports us and can even become more important than our own, at least for a time.
In this way, books activate our compassion and lead us into alternative experiences that may change us. They offer us the opportunity to try out other people’s lives and connect with other humans through the exercise of imagination and empathy. F. Scott Fitzgerald commented that this is the beauty of all literature:
You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.
Reflecting our life back at us
Literature is there to help us to examine our loves and relationships, our hopes and our fears, and pretty much everything else we do. By reflecting our life back at us, texts do not just help us to see ourselves more clearly, in all our universality. They lead us, crucially, towards an understanding of others. We are invited into a story and become, in the process, agents, narrators and audience. Perhaps our compulsive need to be understood may also be gratified.
This is the point of English literature. Words shape our ideas and alter how we see our world and voice our insights. Our perceptions and our communications are all expressed through our language. It is too safe for students to spend much of their time in just one world. For those of us who teach English literature, it’s our job to make students take a look at other worlds and to introduce them to the possibilities and excitement of alternative existences.
Opening the universe
Knowing things, in Saul Bellow’s phrase, allows us to ‘open the universe a little more’. Imparting contextual knowledge through literature is highly significant. We cannot give learners shortcuts to cultural capital, but we can teach them how to decode the world around them. Unless they are exposed to a wide variety of reading experiences, students are unlikely to obtain knowledge in a way that significantly influences how they write and think for themselves. Introducing students to texts that require them to become familiar with ambiguity and uncertainty, and to engage with and experience moral dilemmas, is also significant in building their ability to situate and understand texts within other texts.
Through reading we develop, in Michel Foucault’s words, ‘a readiness’ to break from our familiarities and ‘find what surrounds us strange and odd’. Studying literature can support an intelligent contact with that otherness that writers and their stories offer to us.
Finding patterns in chaos
In a world that can seem haphazard, we all strive to find patterns to cope with perceived chaos and meaninglessness. What we need to do is to create and transform what seem to be random events into a shareable plot. In some senses our lives are lived in search of a narrative, our own story, which may begin to allow us a sense of control.
Writers find ways of transforming seemingly random events into a narrative that we might have a degree of agency over. The belief that art can only mirror nature is not sufficient. We need stories that invite us to see the signifying meanings and hidden causes of things. Our life needs to be narrated, as a narrator allows us space and poetic licence. Only then are we allowed to release our self-censors and say things that we might otherwise have denied feeling at all. Too many of our thoughts and feelings dare not say their name out loud, so we need to bypass our denial mechanisms, which perhaps in turn can enable us to more fully engage with our lives as they are lived. Perhaps we cannot tolerate too great an exposure to reality, as T. S. Eliot suggested in ‘Burnt Norton’; but through literature we expose ourselves to reality. When teaching literature, we can transform reality by lifting students out of their existing conditions of mind and frames of reference.
How does literature support diversity?
Literature needs to help students as they start the lifelong process of defining how they see their world, what they believe and, most importantly, themselves. Literature changes the way we understand the world around us and subconsciously reinforces the power of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that, ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. Simply stated, literature can offer our students a more genuine and open diversity than their real-life neighbourhood may provide – and allow them to fully appreciate and live lives they themselves have never witnessed.
This is supposed by Tim Gillespie when he says that although many youngsters’ lives are unfortunately circumscribed by issues such as poverty, discrimination, and cultural insularity, which may render them unable to see beyond the limits of their immediate horizons, literature cheaply offers ‘a vision of other lives and other vistas, and it enlarges a reader’s sense about the many possible ways to live’.
The question of how to tailor the texts we use in English to meet cultural needs and develop potential in all students is key, and that must mean offering all students, regardless of background, the opportunity to be challenged. This involves introducing students to texts that require them to become used to dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty, to engage with and experience moral dilemmas. We need to ensure that texts offer complicated problems and tough choices being lived through by characters with whom students can engage and perhaps identify. By doing this, we will move their learning forwards, rather than just offering them ‘more of the same’ texts with which they feel comfortable. Richard Wright makes the point well in Black Boy when he writes that he,
hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different … it was nothing less than a sense of life itself.
How does literature benefit learners who are disadvantaged?
Many highly professional and well-read English literature teachers we have worked with at London Gifted and Talented still question the point of students starting to read some books that they might not understand. They fear confusion and putting learners off reading, and deny that their students would ever ‘get into’ the great works because these texts are so far removed from their disadvantaged real lives.
This seems to suggest that only more advantaged students are capable of looking at material further distanced from their immediate ‘reality’. Surely this way of thinking patronises the very learners that it is somehow meant to protect? We all understand that people are not born into equal circumstances, but one of the purposes of education is to open up opportunities for all, regardless of their background.
As Alan Bennett comments, literature helps us all to feel: ‘Here is someone who knows what it is like to be me’. That ‘someone’ is reaching out their hand across cultures and centuries. Literature offers a vision of other lives and other vistas. One of its potential benefits is therefore to enlarge a reader’s sense about the many possible ways to live. But sometimes teachers can unwittingly restrict their students through the tyranny of alleged relevance. When Penelope Lively wrote that books freed her ‘from the prison’ of herself she seemed to be suggesting that all of us need to be delivered at some point from the tyranny of ourselves, too.
The goal is that we help our students to read themselves out of what we might call ‘a poverty of expectation’. The hope would be that this could, in turn, be the precursor for them to work their way out of the world they were born into. Bill Clinton never tired of pointing out in political addresses that it is impossible for children to appreciate and live lives they themselves have never witnessed. In truth, opening their minds to these other worlds, to their incongruities and ambiguities, often leads to more mess than mastery. But through literature we can surely help our students handle this mess and encourage further exploration and development.
An earlier version of this blogpost was posted on the London Gifted & Talented blog in April 2020. The ideas above are discussed in far more detail in Ian Warwick and Ray Speakman’s 2018 book, Redefining English for the More Able: A Practical Guide.
 F. Scott Fitzgerald, On Writing (ed. Larry W. Phillips) (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1986), p. 10.
 Saul Bellow, The Dean’s December (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 143.
 Michel Foucault, ‘The Masked Philosopher’  in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth: The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Vol. 1 (ed. Paul Rabinow) (New York, NY: The New Press, 1997), p. 325.
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (tr. D. F. Pears & B. F. McGuinness) (London: Routledge, 1974 ), §5.6.
 Tim Gillespie, ‘Why Literature Matters’ in The English Journal, Vol. 83, No. 8: ‘Literature, Queen of the Curriculum’ (Dec 1994), p. 17.
 Richard Wright, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (London: Vintage, 2000 ), pp. 272-3.
 Alan Bennett, Keeping On, Keeping On (London: Faber & Faber, 2016).
 Penelope Lively, ‘Reading and Writing’ in Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 196.