Why are difficult texts necessary?

‘A copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations was thrown at me inscribed with the message: “Dive in and dig deep, in here is everything you need to know.”’

This is surely just too pretentious for words… except when you realise that the thrower of the said text was one Danny Baker, and the recipient was Chris Evans. Neither are particularly known to inhabit cloistered and privileged worlds with ready access to the groves of academe.

Inverted snobbery

In an interesting article published recently Chris Evans bemoans his inverted snobbery against all things literary:

‘I was a bright lad. I should have read more. And I didn’t… And the sad irony is, everything I loved as a kid came from great ideas. Which is what writing is: the joining up of ideas with bridges of colour, plot and consequence… All perfectly crafted. My anger eventually grew to incendiary proportions… People like me didn’t “do” arty.’

He then comments on how lucky he has been to be find people later in his life who introduced him to foreign films and great novels. It has changed the way he understood the world around him. As a direct result, he has launched a 500-word short story competition via his Radio Two show.

Jacqueline Wilson gives her ‘number one tip for writers’ as ‘read lots, because it teaches you how to create’.

Some teachers deny that their kids would ever ‘get into’ the great works, because these texts are so far removed from their disadvantaged real lives. Others question why some writing is thought to be ‘better’ than others and what the point was of students starting books that they didn’t understand.

Words as possessions

One of my responses to this line of argument is simple. There is no requirement that students have to understand texts the first time that they read them. They don’t have to ‘get it’. Not yet. In fact, my argument would be that not getting it may be the very incentive for further investigation and exploration.

The additional depth and variety that other minds, through their writing, can bring to the customisation of meaning for students is vital. For the language we use, the words we have at our disposal, don’t just reveal our identity – they actually influence how we think, and even what we may become. Our 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.

As Stephen Fry commented, ‘We may be what we eat, but we most certainly are what we say… It seems most certainly to place us in the world like no other property or quality we possess.’

Words that we learn become our possessions, and literally become a part of the way we piece the world together. They have been called a ‘fantastic filament’ that stretches between all of our minds and that connects us not just to each other but also to our own past and future. They matter.

Yet how rarely are our students taught which words and which texts matter most. Which ones punch well above their weight and why. And even more rarely are they given the opportunity to play with words, doodle with language, and discover that meaning is a highly negotiable process. What makes meaning meaningful? What brings our words alive? What do we need our words to do for us?

Words need to help students as they start on the lifelong process of defining how they see the world, ideas and most importantly, themselves. Words should require them to understand concepts that matter now or will matter soon to them, and to put them in a position where they need to take a viewpoint. They need to see wild words in action for, as Keynes noted, ‘They are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking.’

The vital role of stimulating curiosity

Curiosity is at the very heart of learning. It’s what drives people to want to learn more about something. William James (1890) pointed out two kinds of curiosity. He emphasised the biological function of curiosity as a mechanism of instinct-driven behaviour that serves in approaching new objects. The second kind of curiosity pointed out by James is ‘scientific curiosity’ and ‘metaphysical wonder’ with which ‘the philosophical brain responds to an inconsistency or a gap in its knowledge’. This is supported, slightly more recently, by Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development theory – that we need to push students slightly out of their comfort zone for them to learn.

Once that initial spark of curiosity happens, the next step is to investigate more thoroughly. That investigation then leads to wanting to wholly understand it – to unravel the mystery of it. And of course, that’s where learning comes into action. Great texts withhold immediate meaning. They have to be worked on. Students of all ages get too few chances to pick on them, examine them, stick sharpened matches between their pages, interrogate them and question them about what they are for. They are difficult, and puzzling over them requires engagement. When students have to immerse themselves in a text (such as when they are asked to write a parody or rewrite key passages in the style of a particular writer) they are required to think and explore new perpectives, to look sceptically at approaches and devices and to examine their own craft and intuitions. If they are asked to try to write like Austen, Angelou or Amis, Faulkner, Frame or Fitzgerald, they are effectively hooked into authorial intention and impact through their empathy. They begin to hear the music in other writers’ words, and are encouraged to find their own.

It’s too safe for students to spend much of their time in just one world; it’s our job to make them take a look at other worlds and to introduce them to the possibilities and excitement of alternative existences. One easy way to do this is through reading diverse, challenging texts with them.

In truth, opening our minds to these other worlds, to their incongruities and ambiguities, often leads to more mess than mastery. But it is how we help them handle the mess that helps to encourage further exploration, and thereby, development. And if on that messy journey we can also offer our students some inside track informative and transformative insights on language, and get them prying into everything, we will have succeeded.