Tuesday, January 22, 2013
It seems that as we all slowly realise that modern life is rubbish we seek answers in the past.
This is why there’s a proliferation of TV programmes suggesting we combat the credit crunch by whittling sticks or making a patchwork quilt or melting down old bars of soap to make a new, really horrible bar of soap.
Everything was better in the past, we think, so if we do all the stuff we did back in the day, everything will be better now. Except, of course, it won’t: it will be the same, other than that we will be washing ourselves with whittled, patchwork soap.
Michael Gove, who seasoned readers will know I refuse to trust on the basis that he has the soft, yielding mouth of a serial killer, is keen to jump on the bandwagon and bring some basics back to the classroom to Make Everything Better.
His ideas include forcing teenagers to learn poems by heart for a nationwide competition – the top prize being ridicule from all other teenagers who are busy doing the things normal kids do, like telling their parents they hate them, eating everything in the fridge and complaining that life isn’t fair.
He also wants imperial measurements back on the syllabus and hopes to implement compulsory rickets, witch burnings, needlework classes for girls only and for everyone to pretend there is no internet.
While everyone of a certain age believes that their education was more rigorous, more testing and better than that offered to young people today, I’m not sure any of us want to go back to the dark days where we had to learn John Donne’s The Flea, with its plethora of suck’ds and know’sts and triumph’sts.
To be fair to Mr Donne, on the plus side for teenagers, The Flea is about a bloke trying to persuade a young lady to relinquish her “maidenhood” in a far more romantic manner than by offering her a bottle of cider and a drag on a jazz cigarette. It is a bit racy. It is also a nightmare to learn off by heart. The problem with poetry when you’re at school is that teachers will insist on you analysing the bejasus out of it to the point where you forget you’re reading a poem entirely and instead believe that you’ve stumbled into some kind of terrifying English literature/maths hybrid lesson.
Bringing formula into English lessons is like kissing someone who, every time you surface for air, sprays your mouth with disinfectant and gives you a swift rub-down with anti-bacterial wipes. As the daughter of an English teacher and a crossword maestro, I am hard-wired to love words and yet even I struggled as I pondered yet another of Thomas Hardy’s dirges about the domestic misery he and his wife enjoyed in the latter days of their marriage.
At the age of 14, my idea of brilliant, soul-searching poetry was Last Christmas by Wham!
I could relate to that: man meets girl, falls in love, girl bins him, man finds someone else and gloats about it while on a festive skiing holiday with Andrew Ridgeley. Simple. Had George Michael written a song about his wife dying and him feeling a bit guilty because he’d been a rubbish husband, I might have paid a bit more attention – not least because George prefers boys.
The very worst thing about studying poetry at school in my day was that we had to learn it by heart – the literary equivalent to times tables – not that any of us put our heart into it, quite the opposite. It is poetic justice that the educational study of poetry leads, on the whole, to an all-encompassing hatred of poems by the young.
Really, poetry should be an easy sell: we grow up on a diet of nursery rhymes and Dr Seuss but the key is that our parents generally don’t ask us to dissect the fun out of it by discussing the themes, symbolism and imagery in Hey Diddle Diddle.
Good luck to Mr Gove if he expects my kids to be able to remember entire poems – they can’t even remember where the washing basket is and they have to pass that every day (that said, they can remember my pin number and I only told them what it was once).