‘Why should I care?’
I had a student ask me this during a small group session with some of their class’ lowest ability students. With their exams only a couple of months away, I was trying desperately to engage these kids in what they were learning - cracking some jokes with them, allowing them the freedom to dictate the direction of their creative response, all in an effort to help them engage with the complex nature of the tasks. To my joy, and admittedly my surprise, it seemed to be working. For a split second, I dared to dream.
Then, one of the young women in my group turned to me, blatant defiance in her eyes, and, staring me full in the face, simply said ‘I don’t care.’
I was stunned.
Initially, her response angered me. Did she not realise what a privilege her education – her FREE education - was? Did she not know how many girls her age across the world would give anything to be in her position? Did she not see how important these exams were to her future?
And then I realised. To her, they weren’t important. It wasn’t that she simply couldn’t do it, it was that she didn’t want to try, because to her, writing stories or analysing texts wasn’t a priority. I naturally didn’t share her mindset, but the more I pondered on it, the more I realised I could empathise. To her, it wasn’t important because she didn’t see the bigger picture. Education runs the risk of becoming narrowly focused on test results and obscuring the real purpose of education; to provide students with the skills they will need for the real world. If critical skills are squeezed out of the curriculum in favour of a “coaching for the exam” approach, then students may leave school thinking the numbers on their results paper will determine the rest of their life. Grades are meant to reflect the underlying reality of knowledge and skills in a given subject. Pursuing grades as an end in themselves is a classic case of tail wagging the dog.
So, if I could go back to the moment where that defiant, headstrong young girl glared up at me, I now know what I would say to her:
I understand how school has been designed for your generation, because it happened for my generation too. School often feels like it is simply trying to cram your head full of facts- full of methods and equations and dates and quotes that, quite rightly, will likely not impact your life in any way after you leave here, unless you plan on pursuing further academic study in that field. Those of you who go on to work in retail, in the service industry, or who run your own businesses - physics equations and solving quadratics will likely never be a problem you have to face again. I will admit that. However, whilst it is unlikely these specific problems will crop up again, it is important to see how the ability to manipulate numbers quickly and efficiently can be generalised across a whole range of real-world tasks. Whether that’s calculating a tax return, budgeting a household or cooking a roast dinner. There are, of course, arguments to be made in favour of just getting the qualifications themselves - it makes you eligible for better job opportunities, you can earn more money, it means you will be able to access higher education further down the line if you choose to- all of which are perfectly valid reasons as to why you should care. But that is down the line- why, at 15 or 16, should you care about those things?
Well, the reason I believe you should care about English in particular is this. In this day and age, we are bombarded with words every single day. Every time you look on social media, you are greeted with words. Every time you read a poster or a billboard, there are words. As recently as 150 years ago, if you wanted to access the fictional written word, you had to buy an expensive, physical book, which few could afford, and which would likely be written by a select few authors who had the authority within the literary world to be widely published. Whereas now, words, and especially news, is everywhere. The vast majority of people carry a smartphone, which allows them to express their views and communicate with people across the world in the blink of an eye. Now, you have access to the views, opinions and stories of practically every person on the planet. In seconds. That, to me, is a miracle.
Yet this miracle also comes with a stark warning label. Because everybody now has a voice, and a platform on which to express it, there is nobody regulating the views and stories you may come across. Which, in some senses, is great- nobody has a dinosaur of an editor hanging over them, and everyone is free to express themselves however they choose. However, as the old saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. And you, as young internet users, have a responsibility to now question everything you read. Nobody is checking that the words people are using are correct and appropriate to the context of the story (take people describing someone they simply dislike as a ‘nonce’ even when there is no evidence they are anything other than a bit confrontational). You as a reader have to be aware of the fact that people may exaggerate, use persuasive language, or throw out facts and statistics to shock you into believing that what they say is true. This era of fake news and cancel culture means that you must question everything you read, down to each individual word. Everything.
And that’s why you should care. Because in English, we help you to understand those things. Through analysing Shakespeare, we are trying to teach you to search for hidden meanings in the words people choose to use. We want you to think about the various ways your own words could be interpreted – or misinterpreted – by those who read them. By looking at poetry from a huge range of authors, we want you to question how people use a small amount of words to convey meaning to the people who read them. These critical skills can then be applied to looking at tabloid headlines slamming a celebrity, or political campaign broadcasts put out by various political parties. By looking at the characters and events in texts, we are trying to get you to reflect on the real-life events going on all the time around you. We want you to question the people you meet, think about what might have influenced their character and the words they choose to use, and analyse how and why you respond to them in the way that you do. And by getting you to write creatively, we are trying to get you to develop an authentic voice, to think for yourself, to choose words you want to use and to understand how those words may impact your readership as a whole, and as individuals.
In the end, the important thing is not the number of quotes you can remember. It’s not about knowing the plot of A Christmas Carol, or Blood Brothers, or Romeo and Juliet inside out. That isn’t the important stuff. What is important is that you leave here with the ability to question the stories you are told. The shrewdness to pick out when you are being persuaded, when you are being targeted, and when you are being lied to. We want you to have the ability to understand that words are meant to have an impact, and that the ones you write yourself will in turn have an impact on others. In the words of Albus Dumbledore, ‘In my not-so-humble opinion, words are our most inexhaustible source of magic.’ Words have power. And you have the responsibility to understand that power, and to wield it with strength, as well as caution.
And that’s why you should care. So, tell me then, what does the image of a lion suggest about this character…