Friday, 19 September 2008

Michele Ledda asks: with friends like these, who needs censors?

The censoring of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Education for Leisure’ is a disgrace, but so is the instrumental use of poetry. Poets, critics and educators should know better.

In the current controversy over Duffy’s poem Education for Leisure, censored by the same bureaucrats who had chosen it, it is hard to tell which is worse: the argument of the censors and their (few) supporters that discussing the poem could lead pupils to dangerous copycat behaviour; or that of its defenders, such as Michael Rosen, Francis Gilbert and Mark Lawson, that the poem is a wonderful opportunity to get kids to discuss such a topical issue as knife crime.

The ill-advised and panicked reaction of the examination board AQA to just three complaints - leading them to censor a poem that has been read for years by most GCSE students without controversy - is likely to backfire and show the country what kind of philistines are entrusted with the important task of shaping the English curriculum. Yet the arguments put forward by the defenders of the poem essentially mirror AQA’s reasons for banning it. Both represent a diminished, instrumental view of poetry and education.

AQA justified its decision with the need to strike a ‘difficult balance between encouraging young people to think critically about difficult but important topics and the need to do this in a way which is sensitive to social issues and public concern’. In other words, we must use poetry to discuss social issues, but we must ensure that the message is right for our easily-led and vulnerable teenagers and that the discussion is handled with extreme care by their guardians in the classroom. AQA clearly has a low opinion of the average pupil and teacher.

However, those who defend the poem only disagree with the censor about its message. Their implicit argument is that if the poem had been ‘dangerous’, AQA would have been right in banning it. Worse still, they think the poem should not be studied for its intrinsic merits, but used for an external purpose.

‘Of course we want children to be talking about knife crime, and poems like these are a terrific way of helping that happen,’ says Michael Rosen, the Children Laureate, while English teacher Francis Gilbert finds the poem ‘a marvellous springboard for a wider discussion about the causes of violent crime.’

Mark Lawson concedes that fiction is dangerous, as ‘any text can be lethally misunderstood’ if read outside the classroom, away from the watchful gaze of the teacher, but he thinks it can be a useful tool if the teacher, by challenging any ‘perverse interpretation,’ ensures that only the right message reaches her students.

Even Duffy’s literary agent, Peter Strauss was unable to say that ‘Education for Leisure’ is a great literary achievement, preferring to state that it carries the correct political message: ‘This poem is pro-education and anti-violence. It is not glorifying violence in any way,’ he told BBC Radio 4's iPM programme.

While the belief that poetry will instigate children to commit crimes is paranoid, its mirror image, that through the correct political message it will reform disaffected teenagers, is delusional. More importantly, this instrumental view of literature, which unfortunately is widespread in policymaking and educational circles, seriously demeans literature and education. In this discussion we seem to have forgotten what literature lessons should be about: literature.

Students of poetry should be free to discuss all sorts of issues and the socio-historical context, so that they can understand the meaning of the text. If they concentrate on studying poetry as something worth knowing for its own sake, children will indeed learn about the world, refine their moral sense, sharpen their analytical and linguistic skills, and expand their imagination, because this is the very stuff of poetry and education.