‘TEACHER, HOW MUCH SHOULD I LEARN?’: ON SETTING LIMITS TO ONE’S OWN EDUCATION

This is one of the entries left in my inkpot because of the student strike last March. I realise now that it makes a good companion to my previous entry, so here it is.

Any Literature teacher knows that it’s never enough (“until your heart stops beating” – extra points if you catch which lyrics I’m quoting…), hence my trying to read Parade’s End no matter what: to fill in a gap. When checking on its fame as a masterpiece, I chanced upon “1000 novels everyone must read: the definitive list” (https://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jan/23/bestbooks-fiction), a definitively not definite list that The Guardian had the guts to publish in 2009, when time apparently stopped. Curioser and curioser, I did check what I’d read already, and it turns out I’m 647 books short. How embarrassing! (I decided not to keep that list close by, fearing another Miau case –see the previous entry).

Picture now one of my most motivated first-year-students asking me a few weeks ago how much of the background reading to drama included in our handbook Introduction to English Literature she needed to learn: ‘Do I just read that or learn it?’ I pretended not to understand the difference between ‘reading’ and ‘learning’, but I feel I was not stressful enough when I told her that ‘the more you know, the better’ as I added ‘for the exam’. Silly me. The book in question includes 12 pages about 20th century British drama, by the way, it was never a question of her reading volumes to accompany our fitful teaching of Look back in anger (fitful because of the strike). I suspect that the other book we have included as compulsory background reading, The Edinburgh Introduction to English Literature is simply not read, as we don’t test students on it.

I would have stripped myself naked in class rather than ask one of my own university teachers how much I needed to read from a particular book –stripping being the less embarrassing option. The right question was (and should still be) ‘what else can I read?’, always. In my time, gosh what an oldie I’ve become, it was understood that students ought to read as much as possible, leaving no minute of their lives empty. Lectures were just the tiny tip of the iceberg. Of course, many approached this in a pragmatic way and regulated quite nicely, often at the bar, how much time the library deserved. They were the ones happy to get just a pass and move on. The others, us bookworms, knew that no library is small enough to gnaw your way into –consider how The Guardian speaks of reading 1000 novels just like that, when truly devoted readers read about 100 books a year, average readers (in Spain) less than 20…

The baffling exchange with this student shows me something I’ve been suspecting all along: our youth are pragmatic and candid (I thought they were cheeky). Candid, as you can see, because they don’t realise what a faux-pas is asking a Literature teacher about how little will do, instead of how much more. The same applies to the handful of English Studies students who tell us to our faces that they don’t like reading, without seemingly realising this is not the way to earn the sympathy of a Literature teacher.

What worries me much more is why the message that at university one ought to read non-stop, particularly in the Humanities, has been blurred or lost. I don’t know what my colleagues do, but I make a point of telling my students how recently I’ve learned this or that, or how much I still must read, for them to see that learning is a lifelong process. Ignorance is bliss for too many in our classrooms, whereas it should be a blessing spurring all of us to move on.

So… my dear student, if you read this, learn what those 12 pages have to say and use our reasonably rich library to learn much, much more, till you realise how little even the most learned know.

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