Gary Day

February 16, 2007

I did something terrible the other day. I taught a group of students. I gave them a new interpretation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four . I know I shouldn't have done it but, the thing is, I know more than they do and, even if guided, they would never have discovered it for themselves. For we are dealing with people who can't even read handbooks, let alone novels. Well, some of them. Such as those who send me e-mails beginning: "Hi, I'm confused about what we're supposed to be doing this week." If they can't even follow the course programme, what hope is there that they will be able to cope with the complexities of Orwell?

Or maybe I am doing them an injustice. Maybe they are practising their skills of literary analysis on the handbook, teasing out its warring significations until they eventually confront what deconstructionists call the aporia, that moment where meaning is radically indeterminate. But I doubt it. When asked if they could see any connections between Nineteen Eighty-Four and our own society, the best they could come up with was that both had prostitutes.

This is why I have some sympathy for the proponents of teaching and learning. The students I am describing come from non-traditional backgrounds and require a lot of support. Many do not have - or even aspire to - the cultural capital that students had when entry to university was by competition, not government diktat. Most who do our first-year drama course have never been to the theatre. So I am always ready to listen to suggestions on how to improve - with the proviso that those who dispense the advice have experience of teaching and researching in English. "Begin where they are," I have heard it said. Well, we won't get very far if we do that. It's where we're going that counts, not where we start from. Of course, we never arrive at enlightenment, but we may shed a few bad habits along the way.

Sadly, knowledge is out of fashion these days, thinking even more so. This is partly due to the rise of self-styled experts in teaching and learning. They are not interested in ideas but labels.

Apparently, there are seven types of learner. Of course there are. It's a significant number in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, too. And we mustn't forget the contribution of quality assurance to the current state of higher education. If only we could improve things by filling out forms. But, like Orwell's Newspeak, documentation narrows the range of thought and its logic resembles doublethink: only by lowering standards can they be raised.

It's quite scary, really. Especially as these aren't the only parallels with Nineteen Eighty-Four . Winston Smith, the hero of that novel, spends his time trying to remember the past that the Party is constantly revising to fit with its view of the present. We haven't reached that stage yet, but there are many in higher education who cannot see the relevance of studying history. And one final resemblance: the Party has destroyed all forms of literature. It recognises that the personal life is a threat because it can't be easily policed. Deprive people of words and you restrict their thought, deprive them of imagination and you diminish their possibilities of life.

It's happening now. Literature is disappearing from the curriculum in schools.JAnd it's on the way out in universities. During the 1980s and 1990s there were plenty of people only too happy to say there was no such thing. Usually professors of English. But now the bureaucrats have picked up the baton and are saying that skills are more important than subject matter. Such statements undermine our professionalism. They diminish the very thing that defines us as academics, our knowledge and understanding of our discipline. We hand over responsibility for what we do to consultants and then complain when business offers to run our courses.

I am not perfect, but I do care about my students and my subject - more than those who look at them from a distance, who obfuscate the obvious and come at thought with a slide rule. They view teaching as the application of a method, not a vehicle of inspiration. Well, I want to stir my students up, to take them to a higher level of confusion by demonstrating that not everything yields to pair or groupwork, which is often nothing more than an opportunity to catch up on gossip. I want them to understand that in a culture of visibility some things are hidden. It takes time to move sleeping images towards the light - a useful lesson in the audit age, whose default assumption is that none of us can be trusted. Big Brother must therefore watch over us. And the young are too busy ogling Jade and Shilpa to even notice. Or care.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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