… at least according to the renowned British/Scottish educator AS A Neil.
He wrote a wonderful record of his time as a “Dominie” [Scottish teacher] in three volumes (“The Dominie Books”) setting out the experiences and thinking that helped form his work at “Summerhill” as a revolutionary approach to creating positive learning environments for children.
“Deadwood Dick” (Wheeler, Edward Lytton) was the hero of a series stories, published between 1877 and 1897 that were considered to be ‘pulp fiction’ and not ‘worthy’ of notice by teachers. But AS Neil saw them as a wonderful resource to draw his students into reading, along the way to developing their skills and interest in a broader range of writing.
In this extract Neil is both formulating his ideas and trying to demonstrate the ‘wrong headed’ thinking of his friend.
‘. . . . suppose you have a school of your own. I presume you’d teach the English yourself?’
How would you do it?
I thought for a while.
‘I’d reverse the usual process, Mac,’ I said. ‘Usually the teacher begins with Chaucer and works forward to Dickens; I would begin with Comic Cuts and Deadwood Dick and work back to Chaucer.’
‘Oh, do be serious for one,’ he said impatiently.
‘I am quite serious, Mac,’ I said. ‘the only thing that matters in school work is interest and I know from experience that the child is interested in Comic Cuts but not in the Canterbury Tales. My job is to encourage the boy’s interest in Comic Cuts.
You see, Mac, what you do in this: you see a boy reading Deadwood Dick, and you take his paper away from him and possibly whack the little chap for wasting his time. But you don’t kill his interest in penny dreadfuls, and the result is that in later years he reads to Sunday paper that supplies the most lurid details of murders and outrages. My way is to encourage the lad to devour tales of blood and thunder so that in a short time blood and thunder haven o more interest for him. The reason why most of the literature published to-day is tripe is that the public likes tripe, and it likes tripe because its infantile interest in tripe was suppressed in favour of Chaucer and Shakespeare.”
‘But ,” cried Mac, ‘isn’t Shakespeare better for him that tripe?’
‘Yes and no. If every poet were a Shakespeare the world would be a dull place; you need the tripe to form a contrast…”
… when this argument is not working Neil takes a different tack, and invites his friend to reflect on the gap between his espoused position as an educator, and his enacted reading habits.
‘Mac, have you read Boswell’s Life of Johnson?’
‘Extracts,’ he admitted awkwardly.
‘Bunyan’s Life and Death of Mr. Badman?’
‘Er – no.’
Swift’s Tale of a Tub?’
‘Would you like to read them?’ I asked.
‘I don’t think they would interest me,’ he admitted.
‘Then in heaven’s name, why expect children to have any interest in them? If these classics weren’t shoved down children’s throats the adult population of this country would be sitting of an evening reading and enjoying Milton instead of John Bull.’