The Blog

What the Dickens Are We Doing to Our Children?

Perhaps, as the bicentennial year draws to a close and we move into Dickens' third century, there is something else the Victorian author can teach us - and that is not to teach him to our children.

I learnt many wonderful things at school, such as how to make friends, how to understand probability and how to splutter my way through a conversation in French.

School also taught me to hate Dickens.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth, and for months England has been full to the brim of Dickens exhibitions, festivals and TV programs. Rightly so; we should cherish and celebrate one of our greatest literary exports, whose lessons about society and humanity seem as relevant today as ever.

But perhaps, as the bicentennial year draws to a close and we move into Dickens' third century, there is something else the Victorian author can teach us - and that is not to teach him to our children.

I first read Great Expectations when I was 11 years old. When I say read, I mean I was handed a sticky-back plastic covered copy of the book by my grey-haired teacher, instructed to plod through a few chapters a week at home and then subjected to the laboriously slow reading aloud of my fellow classmates. Needless to say, my expectations of the English Literature syllabus quickly plunged below great.

To continue with the example of Great Expectations - because there are several other books which were ruined for me when I was forced to read them at too early an age, including Jane Eyre and 1984 - it is not the content of the novel which I find to be unsuitable for young people. Though some might argue the story of an orphaned child, who meets a convict in a cemetery and throughout the course of his life is racked with debt, disease and abusive friends, is inappropriate for an 11-year-old, this is not my main concern.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the movie adaptation of which was recently released in cinemas, is one example of an excellent young person's book which addresses mental illness, suicide and child molestation among other difficult issues. Lord of the Flies, a high-school staple, follows a group of boys as they descend into savagery, butchery and insanity.

Nor is it the length of Dickens' books which is off-putting; I have seen children plough through 700 pages of Harry Potter in just a few days and, on reaching the final page, be thirsty for more.

My gripe is that Dickens, as an author known for his wordiness, elaborate vocabulary, anachronistic characters and intricate plots, is an awful choice with whom to inspire a love of reading in young people. For my 11-year-old self, for probably the first time in my life, reading alone became a chore and reading in class became a bore.

Earlier this year, Claire Tomalin, author of the biography Charles Dickens: A Life, said of her subject, "Everything he wrote about in the 1840s is still relevant: the great gulf between rich and poor, corrupt financiers, corrupt members of Parliament, how the country is run by old Etonians - you name it, he said it."

You could argue that Dickens' exploration of these topics is particularly relevant now as people struggle to regain financial stability while bankers continue uncastigated, as the British press comes under more scrutiny for the close relationships between media owners and politicians and as the government is run by a largely Oxbridge-educated Conservative majority. But what 11-year-old cares about or relates to any of this? I certainly did not.

Admittedly, it's tricky - if not impossible - to prescribe a book that a whole class, or a whole country, of 11-year-olds will enjoy. And I agree that we should not bring the class down to the level of its lowest participant, nor underestimate the intelligence and capability of children and teenagers.

But the point of English lessons is not to squeeze as many novels - rated as all-time favourites by adults, not children - into the mental library of students. School is not about cramming as much information into pupils' heads; it's about equipping them with the skills and the thirst to continue learning outside the classroom.

As Rudolf Flesch wrote in Why Johnny Still Can't Read, an examination of illiteracy among children, "Learning to read is like learning to drive a car. You take lessons and learn the mechanics and the rules of the road. After a few weeks you have learned how to drive, how to stop, how to shift gears, how to park, and how to signal. You have also learned to stop at a red light and understand road signs. When you are ready, you take a road test, and if you pass, you can drive."

You do not teach a person to drive by starting them off on the motorway, or by speeding through all the most famous roads. You give the young school child Goodnight Mister Tom, or The Butterfly Lion. Then nudge him on to Holes, or Alice in Wonderland. Hand the 14 year old Animal Farm and The Hunger Games. Nod him onto Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. The sixth-former might enjoy Wuthering Heights and Madame Bovary - and, before too long, will read Charles Dickens of his own accord. These are some of my favourite novels, because I learnt to drive before zooming off in a Porsche.

If we accept that nineteenth century novels - the so-called "classics" - are not the be-all and end-all of English literature, are not written for children and do not address the most relevant issues in young people's minds, we can cater our school curriculum to the taste and interest of students. We might then yet again instil in our children great expectations of literature.