Thursday 31 December 2015

What is Children's Literature III

In 'What is Children's Literature II' I raised the question of 'introjection' and self-blame in relation to 'Hansel and Gretel' and 'Where the Wild Things Are'. My view is that this is the key process by which we perceive ourselves as individuals, and the key process by which we accept or acquiesce in the matter of how we are ruled. I think that our systems of nurture and education - including children's literature - are necessary components in this process. By 'necessary', I don't mean 'desirable' but 'necessary' in the logical sense: without such components the process of ruling would not be so easy or possible.

First a clarification: in any power relationship, the less or least powerful might 'introject' the views of the more or most powerful. That's to say, the un-powerful view the world or their own lives from the point of view of the powerful. This may or may not lead to self-blame. I think I could make an argument for saying that we are living in an era of introjection. In the handling of the economy since the bankers' crash of 2008, we have been on the receiving end of multiple messages from the most powerful media outlets which have 'explained' that 'we' are the problem. It is our services and welfare that causes us to be 'living beyond our means'. To my mind, this is a classic case of the media asking of us to take up the point of view of those who rule us. That viewpoint is not a universal one. There are others such as: a state borrowing money is not the same as a household living beyond its means; the huge amounts of untaxed wealth in the possession of a tiny minority would enable us to relieve any deficit problems we have; if the government invested more in projects which had the potential to grow the economy, this would shake out as increasing government revenue through taxation and/or relieving the tax burden of paying for the unemployed, underemployed, underpaid. Without me (or anyone else) agreeing with those views, I want simply to say that such views exist as alternatives. They are also not ones which ask people to introject the view that 'we, the people' are to blame for the crisis.

To illustrate how introjection and self-blame is enacted, I can tell the story of listening to the radio and hearing how the commentator was asking a low-paid worker about the 'deficit'. The low-paid worker was saying that she wanted and needed more pay. The commentator 'explained' that the deficit had to be reduced. In other words, the deficit (deemed, without dissent as 'the problem') was ultimately a problem that could only be solved if the low-paid worker remained low-paid. Presumably, if the low-paid worker became even marginally less poorly paid, then any problems the economy might face (again, as deemed by the ruling consensus) would be this low-paid worker's fault. The interviewer was, in effect, guiding we listeners to thinking of ways in which we too might be to blame for these perceived difficulties.

Anyone reading this might well be able to think of other examples in this era in which the poor and vulnerable have been used as examples of 'the problem', rather than the fact that it being the system that is making them poor and vulnerable. I'll offer another: the system allows for or enables various kinds of 'relief' for the well-off in terms of taxation. One way to describe these could be to call them 'benefits'. Well-off people benefit from various kinds of tax-relief, tax-avoidance, tax-efficiency and tax-dodging. Meanwhile, some poor people receive 'benefits'. The whole conversation about 'benefits' has been aimed at presenting the benefits as a problem: people receive too much, there are too many people 'on benefits', it's unfair on those who don't receive benefits, people who receive benefits are lazy and unworthy, the benefits 'bill' is causing the 'economy' to go down. Meanwhile, the well-off are also receiving benefits. As these result in the government receiving less money, surely these 'benefits' are just as much a 'problem' as any actually or ostensibly caused by the poor receiving benefits. Apparently not. That's because the process being put in action is introjection and self-blame. The system is asking poor people to accept the view that it is the relatively tiny amounts of money they receive that is the problem.

I also think that integrated with these examples of introjection and self-blame are certain (not all) aspects of our nurture (including education) systems. English schools have increasingly become exam and testing hothouses. In the wake of high-stakes, centrally run, public exams and tests, many schools implement a teach-test regime. To be clear, this is not to blame teachers. Of course teachers do this, because the apparent wisdom suggests that the more you teach-test, the better the results at the end. (By 'teach-test', I mean the process by which teaching is seen as coming in short chunks of knowledge-transmission, which conclude with a test which proves whether the chunk of knowledge has 'stuck'.) The exam system claims to be fair because it supposedly shows who has acquired the knowledge and skills and who hasn't. The system says that we need to know who can and who can't acquire knowledge, otherwise (in the famous analogy) we would have brain surgeons who didn't know anything about the brain. Or surgery.

Now let's unpack some of this: in the lead-up to exams, it's the job of the teacher to suggest to all the candidates that they can all succeed. So, the teacher does all she can to help the pupils do well. She breaks up the knowledge into parcels that, she thinks, will enable the pupils to recycle as answers in the test. This is in reality 'the knowledge' being passed on. It is specialised parcelled-up exam-ready chunks of knowledge. These chunks may or may not have much to do with the knowledge required in building better lives for the people acquiring the knowledge or indeed by future society. The only importance lies in acquiring it. However, it's quite clear that the pupils don't and won't all acquire it. In fact, it pans out that every year, more or less the same distribution of pupils across getting all of it, most of it, some of it, very little of it, and none of it, occurs. It's as if the script has already been written. But the rhetoric around exams is precisely the opposite: you can all do it, you can all do well, you can all succeed if you try. So, what are we to make of the situation after the exam when people discover that they didn't succeed? (Let's leave the successes out for the moment!) Surely, if I don't succeed, I can only come to one conclusion: it's my fault. After all, I was told that everyone can succeed if we try hard enough. And yet the system is created which means that that is impossible. The long and short of it is that introjection and self-blame are built in to the system - at the very least for those who fail. And, given that only a tiny few succeed in all exams, most of us experience some self-blame in relation to some exams.

Now, we can shrug our shoulders and say, 'Well that's how the system works: like it or lump it.' Or, we might at the very least imagine a world in which this was not so deeply ingrained into the daily experience of education. We might imagine systems of assessment geared to improving education rather then incurring self-blame? We might imagine a much lighter touch (basically, fewer) high-stakes exams. We might imagine education which rewarded and affirmed non-examined work - projects, publications, productions - across the arts, humanities, technology and science. We might imagine education which rewarded and affirmed co-operative, collaborative ventures of many kinds. The social and psychological burden of self-blame could at least be relieved without any erosion of knowledge- and skills-acquisition. In fact, quite the opposite: crucial and necessary forms of knowledge and skill are acquired through non-examined, non-examinable activities like these.

So, both on a national level in terms of how we view ourselves in society, and on an educational level, it is easy to see how introjection and self-blame work on us. Now, my question is whether the literatures that we offer children and young people contribute or counter this? I don't think there is an easy or obvious or simple answer to this. It's quite possible that they do both, sometimes within the covers of the same book. So, again with 'Where the Wild Things Are', the book invites Max (and the reader?) to speculate about how they themselves can be an 'agent' (take action) in their own destiny. On the other hand, as I have tried to pointed out, any possible cause for Max's crisis outside of himself are invisible. He is the sole author of his own state of mind. So, the book conveys introjection  and self-blame whilst suggesting that it's possible to overcome this all by oneself.

This is of course only one example amongst thousands. What other models are there? Are there books which avoid introjection and self-blame? If so, how?