I read on the train –how/where else?– John Berger’s brief novel From A to X: A Story in Letters (2008) and I’m moved as I hadn’t been in a long time by what I can only describe as its exquisite prose. Some readers, as I see in Amazon, are annoyed by Berger’s vagueness about where and when exactly the story takes place but I am, unlike them, totally enticed by this. I don’t really enjoy love stories but I fall for this one maybe because I find it convincingly sad, coloured as it is by the palpable threat of the ugly politics that ruin so many lives anywhere in the world.
Being, as I am, a Literature teacher, I immediately feel sorry that there’s no room in our very few subjects to teach Berger’s novel. Why am I sorry? Well, because I feel that as a teacher I can provide an audience, limited in numbers as this may be, for books I love and that I think deserve more attention. It happens every time I read an interesting book, and I’m sure we all have the same feeling. In a few rare occasions, I’ve managed to get hold of a particular subject just to teach an author I admire –Alasdair Gray, Terry Pratchett, Tom Stoppard, Barbara Ehrenreich– but it’s not easy at all. This, by the way, seems to be the main function of elective subjects for teachers: provide breathing room.
I’m writing this entry, besides, the day after we discuss in a teachers’ meeting how we can possibly fit into just 7 compulsory semestral subjects the whole History of English and American Literature, a list of canonical texts of all genres and tutorials to teach academic writing. In a way, it’s great that we argue ourselves hoarse defending the merits of Oliver Twist over Great Expectations because this means we do care passionately about what is best for our students’ education. What is frustrating is how fast the number of possible set texts is diminishing as students cannot simply cope with as much reading as in the past (see my many complaints about the shortcomings of their secondary education). Where we could in the past teach 5 books, now the figure is down to 3. More or less.
We get actually entangled at a funny (as in peculiar) point, for I’ve been asked to introduce other genres than fiction in our Victorian Literature subject. Wilde is smoothly back onto the syllabus but when I try to explain that we only have four sessions to teach short fiction, poetry and the essay pandemonium erupts. A friendly one. A colleague thinks we MUST teach Victorian intellectual issues, by which he means not just mention Darwin or Ruskin but have students read something by them. Fine, indeed, but this ‘something’ will be just passages, maybe up to 20 pages in total. No more. Another colleague claims students MUST read Tennyson, Browning… and Gerald Manley Hopkins. Fine, I invite all my colleagues to see what happens in the classroom the day we teach Hopkins (have a look at “The Windhover” at https://www.bartleby.com/122/12.html). My guess is… pandemonium. An unfriendly one. We still don’t know whether this colleague was joking.
So, here I am, caught between Scylla and Charybdis, between what I MUST teach (but know that won’t work) and what I CANNOT teach (and might work but I’m very unlikely to teach). Why, in the end, Hopkins and not Berger? And what will students miss if/when we drop Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?
Maybe we should supply a list of what in each teacher’s opinion is worth reading, apart from what we manage to teach in those meagre 7 subjects, once students get their degree. It’s an idea. After all, they have the rest of their lives to read.