[An open letter to my fellow English teachers near and far.]
Thought flows in terms of stories – stories about events, stories about people, and stories about intentions and achievements. The best teachers are the best story tellers. We learn in the form of stories.
—Frank Smith, Canadian psycholinguist
As the IBO prepares to join the crowd swimming downstream and dilute its English A1 course by splitting it into two ‘options’, one for Language and the other for Literature*, the Wiser Voice in my head says to me, “It’s over. Just shut up.”
But of course I won’t.
Humans are the only animals that tell stories. The most important stories we tell delve into the most profound questions about our existence, the questions at the heart of life and learning: Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing, and what should we be doing?
We do not, contrary to the inane compartmentalizations of The School, tell stories only in English class. Religious beliefs consist of a series of interconnected stories: how the world was created, who created it, for what purpose, why we suffer, how we should live, etc. History (another core subject that has been devalued by the utilitarians and dethroned in the curriculum by “social studies”) is collective storytelling. Scientific theories are, at their core, stories explaining how things work. Even mathematics is based on certain ‘stories’ that assume, for example, that space is three-dimensional and parallel lines don’t meet.
We think in metaphors, and metaphors are nothing but little stories, or the germs of stories, or comparisons rooted in a certain story about how things are. This, we say, is like that.
Drawing on philosophy and linguistics, cognitive scientists have begun to see the basic metaphors that we use all the time not just as turns of phrase, but as keys to the structure of thought. By taking these everyday metaphors as literally as possible, psychologists are upending traditional ideas of how we learn, reason, and make sense of the world around us.
(“Thinking Literally” http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/09/27/thinking_literally/).
It is virtually impossible to think without using metaphors, and thus storytelling is at the very heart of how we understand the world and ourselves. Any curriculum that makes the study of history and literature into ‘options’ fails utterly to understand how human beings live, think, and learn. If students do not become adept readers of stories, how can they ever hope to critically analyze and respond to the stories that will be thrown at them all their lives by politicians, by governments, by marketers, not to mention friends, family members, and perfect strangers?
We should keep the study of stories at the heart of education, and we should keep the most important stories at the heart of our curriculum. As Goethe wrote,
Anyone who cannot give an account to oneself of the past three thousand years remains in darkness, without experience, living from day to day.
How can one possibly give an account of the last 3,000 years without knowing history and literature? When I began teaching nearly thirty years ago, students in my high school whose skills were poor were shunted off into courses with titles like “Writers’ Workshop”. These students were not taught Shakespeare, because it they were thought to be incapable of understanding Shakespeare. I argued then that this was a terrible policy. One can teach Shakespeare in a variety of ways. His original audiences, after all, included large numbers of illiterates. To exclude students from the study of Shakespeare is to commit a kind of cultural apartheid. The bizarre twists and turns of American ‘culture wars’, in which the multiculturalists go to battle against the misogynistic, Eurocentric ‘canon’, should not be allowed to infect our thinking and distract us from our essential task. The culture that we have inherited from our ancestors belongs to all of us, and it is immoral, in my view, to say to a student, “You are not good enough to be part of our cultural inheritance.” It is tantamount to saying to them, “You are not good enough to be considered fully human.” It is our duty as teachers to educate children, and that does not mean simply teaching them to “decode” language and numbers. It means transmitting to them our common cultural inheritance. One cannot be considered an educated person otherwise.
This duty weighs even more heavily on secondary teachers than it used to, because colleges and universities have, with a few noble exceptions, largely abandoned any effort to provide a liberal education to their students. If a student doesn’t read Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens in high school, it is quite likely she never will.
I earnestly hope that whatever new dispensation arrives from whichever curricular source, we will hold firmly to the conviction that the study of storytelling is at the core of any good education and must not be marginalized. All students should study history and literature, every year, and any curricular options should be considered only as additions, not as substitutes, for those core subjects. In the upcoming revision to the IB Language A1 offerings, if we have a choice, we should choose not to offer the Language option. If we must offer it, we should vigorously advise students to choose Literature, not Language. And if, as I understand is the case with the new IB Language A course, we have a choice of including more literature or less**, we should include as much as possible.
Notes, Clarifications, Corrections
*The two options are actually (a) Literature, and (b) a course that is half Literature and half Language.
**I am now not sure this is the case.