Tuesday, 24 March 2009

On the Belgian Youth Book-week

‘The Youth Book-week has taken off. Today is the beginning of a three-day event with more than a thousand participants, teachers and library-people. The question: what do we give our off-spring to read?
It is all a little confusing: the Youth Book-week lasts more than two weeks. And The Day of literary education’ lasts three days in turn.
But that is because there is a lot to tell. Dispersed over three days, there are close to a hundred seminars and workshops. All concentrated around the question: are we going the right way about the literary education of our youth? What can we do differently?
The organisers of Canon Cultureel (with the support of Locus and Boek.be) make it a book festival. As the focal point they flew over British success-writer Anthony Horowitz to Gent. Beside him there are Kader Abdolah, comic strip illustrator Conz, writing games doctor Jan Van Looy, and poet Peter Holvoet-Hansen.
In a cynical mood one might consider this three-day event as totally superfluous. At the end of last year the curriculum and goals for ‘reading comprehension’ and ‘listening comprehension’ were tested. They turned out quite alright. They found themselves at least on the same level as they were five years before.
89% of all students reached the norm for ‘reading comprehension’. Girls even turned out a little better – but the weak sex is always the strongest, that is a well-known fact. ‘Listening comprehension’ was also very good: 87% reached the norm there. Continue on the same road, one might think, never change a winning education team.
But it is not that simple. How come that the numbers of the French Community are higher [than the Flemish]? And even though we do well in European rankings, we cannot forget that goals and norms are minimal criteria.
But foremost: there seems to be a gap between families where Dutch is traditionally spoken and families where that is not the case. Of all children who are educated in a different language at home, only 70% reaches the norm for ‘reading comprehension’. For ‘listening comprehension’ it is even more worrying: only 55% reaches the norm. The minimum.
So we have to do our best more? Research shows that reading to our children and telling them stories diminishes dramatically once kindergarten is over. So we could try to do more of that.
Or we could try something else. That is what Caroline Janssen will profess during the next three days. As professor of Arabic Language and Culture at the University of Gent she is not an expert on educational matters or reading. Her ideas (‘fantasy’, she calls them herself) are also not limited by an existing framework. And just because of that they are so refreshing.
‘Literature in school is an inherent part of the various language subjects,’ is her starting point. ‘In the classes Dutch, English and French, students get the most important works of those languages to savour. Because of that we are looking through too small a spectrum. If we only touch upon authors of the same culture it is as if the surrounding cultures do not exist. In schools with a diverse population it could be worthwhile to offer something of other cultures.’
That of course demands another type of organisation. Instead of fixing literature in the language subjects it could become part of a subject ‘world-education’. ‘Such a subject does not exist yet,’ says Janssen, ‘but it could be one in which the student learns to understand other cultures. What are their realities? What are their goals? How do people live in other religions? It could be something like ‘Antics’. We have that as well, no?’
Examples are there by the bunch. [Janssen’s] group put together a bundle of ‘broken hearts in Oriental cultures’, texts about heartache from Mesopotamia to Japan. All cultures equally beside one another, linked by heartache.
‘There are loads of African, English-Indian texts at our disposal,’ says Janssen. ‘A novel like The Yacoubian of Alaa al-Aswani has a lot of potential. It tells the history of a building in Cairo, but on the side touches upon themes like corruption, sex or recent history.’’

I see Janssen’s point, but I think such a subject of ‘world-education’ would pass its aim or would not reach the aim that is assigned to it. The problem now, in my view, is that literature, arts, music and political history are not connected. Political history, in the best case, we get in the history class. I say ‘in the best case’, because, in Flanders at least, we get Western European history, which touches upon the most important things like the Greeks and Romans (no Celts, I’m afraid due to lack of time), the Germanic invasions and the fall of the Roman Empire, the development of cities and trade, medieval structures, the establishment of Islam, the discovery of America and the times of trade and colonisation, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution/Restoration, the 19th century and its Industrial Revolution, WWI (the establishment of the Soviet Union) and WWII (the Warsaw Pact), the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union. But, of course, all those different countries, have their own history, like France has its history before and after the French Revolution which made a large impact on Europe as well. The history class of course is not long enough to touch upon all those countries and their own history, but it is just that that shaped their arts, literature and music. After the political history, we get arts and music in the Aesthetics class. But this class, is only 1 hour per week and is only given during the last two years of education (16 to 18). It needs to cover all arts (painting, sculpting, graphics, photography, architecture…) and music from the Classic period, through the Middle Ages to modern times (installations). Celts, again, are not really touched upon, although a case could be made for Celtic knot-work in manuscripts from the early Middle Ages and on buildings, because this type of art lives on in for example Welsh love-spoons that are still given for weddings in Wales and no doubt modern artists of those parts have had those influences… Suffice to say that the class is a little short for all that. Even if the teacher knows what he is talking about and that is not always the case (as the class can be given by anyone), then still, to cover everything that is In the Louvre in Paris (and there is no music involved) one hour a week is a little short.

Now back to literature: literature class is part of the respective language subject, as Janssen said. Even if the teacher knows what he talks about, which is not always sure in my opinion, it is foremost important that the student knows the structure of the language, can talk, write and understand before he goes on to reading more lyrical things. Yet, of course, reading is also understanding. But, good literature, adult literature, is not read by 13-year-olds. On top of that, English, French and German are taught as foreign languages, so 13-year-olds are not able to read good things like Dumas, as their level is not up to scratch. Although, of course, there are writers which are even used in education for French children, like De La Fontaine and his fables, La Ligue des rats being one of them. Or for 15-year-olds it should be interesting to read some fairy-tales of Perrault, for example: short and good for vocabulary. I personally got, as a first taste of real French literature, a poem of François Villon: La ballade das pendus (the ballad of the hanged). For those who (do not) know their French literature, François Villon was a medieval poet… Tell me, a 13-year-old who has only been learning French for the last two years with maybe two hours a week on primary school level and with no knowledge of Latin, or a very limited one, what is the chance that he is able to understand medieval French? The chance is even smaller than a student who has been learning English for two years, two hours a week, is able to understand Shakespeare or Chaucer… Not… Structure is strange, vocabulary too difficult, and words strangely spelt… Fontaine was touched upon in the smallish ‘history of French literature’-part of the class, but not used. Although he is much more entertaining than hanged people, and much more easily comprehensible. Perrault was also touched upon. Not so easy to understand, and a little longer, but comprehensible nonetheless, if only for the fact that everyone knows what happens to Red Ridinghood or Le Petit Chaperon Rouge.

Further on in secondary education, books have to be read. Two a year. For every language subject. Mostly, for the foreign languages, the class starts with reading the same book… My first French book was a disaster. I didn’t finish it because I found it amazingly boring, dumb, badly written. Not that my knowledge of French was great, but I still remember that it was a ‘story’ in detective style, with a finger that was missing… I couldn’t give a damn about what was happening… It totally couldn’t appeal to me. I was not at all captured by detective stories and certainly not by bad uninteresting ones. It was only later that Agatha Christie appealed to me when I saw David Suchet play Poirot. Anyway, bad impressions last a long time. After that we got a list… A big disappointment, as big as the list. During the third, fourth, fifth and sixth year of secondary school (so for the whole period I had to choose a book from a reading list) I never encountered one that took my fancy, apart from once! It is sad to see that there was no Dumas, no Hugo (for the ones that actually were able to read him), no Molière, no Corneille, no Racine, no Fontaine, no Perrault, no great names on those lists. More unfortunate however, was the fact that there were no subjects apart from psychological problems, anorexia, incest, violence, abortion, rape, sexual abuse, and of course, the unavoidable, the Holocaust (mainly then about helpless Jewish children which the French have a great trauma about). Nothing against the Holocaust, the trauma it caused in society made it forever a subject in literature and art, but if half of the booklist every year consists out of that subject you really have done with it! In all those years, I read one good book: Un Allé Simple by Didier Van Cauwelaert. A story about a Moroccan boy, abducted by gypsies and arrested as an illegal immigrant on the eve of his engagement party. He is assigned someone to make sure he gets on the plain and stays on the other side. A man who has problems of his own (can’t recall what just, but I think something to do with his marriage). The two find each other in the book, a little like in the film Le Huitième Jour where a man gets out of his hole by the character of a boy/man with Down-syndrome and his ever positive look on life and the world in general. Twice I went to ask the respective teacher to read something else than was on the list: once Molière’s Avare and once I was offered another book of Van Cauwelaert which was equally interesting (a story about a family told by the father who had just died in his caravan that stood in the garden in order for him to be able to live with his mistress). For the rest, we busied ourselves with - apart from the usual grammar and exercises (which are indispensible for a good structural conception, the effects of the lack of it being illustrated by the English’ knowledge of French and other languages) - texts out of the textbook. Let’s say that they were not the most interesting and most useful ones… I do not consider an interview with the CEO of Club Med interesting and useful for a 17-year-old. And texts about judicial things like inheritances and other legal stuff are also not really to the interest of a teenager. Songs were also part of the curriculum, but although there are French singers as Gainsbourg, Brel, and other chansonniers that sang meaningful texts we got boring things of Jean-Jacques Goldman (the equivalent of Barry Manilow). For a teenager that is really not on. Two plays we did: Le Malade Imaginaire (The Imaginary Patient) of Molière at 15, which was not read in class, but only seen on stage at school. It is clear that Molière, for such a low level, must be read slowly before seeing it. Otherwise half of the text is not understood… Admittedly we did actually read excerpts, but in my view that is not enough. In the last year we did Le Rhinocéros (The Rhinoceros) of Ionesco, a Romanian-French absurd playwright. A little the same concept as Becket. I still cannot make out if the teacher actually knew what it was about, I still can’t (maybe because of the lack of explanation), but we went to see the play during our three-day trip to Paris (which made it a little clearer), which was crammed with art and architecture from morning to evening. Even for a routine art-looker-on like me (because my parents took me to most major exhibitions they wanted to go to (Magritte, Delvaux, Memling in Bruges, and others), and even to the world exhibition of modern art: the Biennale in Venice which they still go to every two years) it was just too much. I still remember the first day: leaving at 6 o’clock in the morning from Leuven (25km to the east of Brussels, on the E40), to Paris, there at about noon or 1 o’clock, see La Défense (the ‘newly’ built mainly business area of Paris, started in the 70s or 80s?), then moving on to the Musée d’Orsay (museum for the arts of the 19th century) and then off to the Centre Pompidou (centre for modern art). That was at about 6 o’clock in the afternoon. I have to say, already in the Musée d’Orsay, I couldn’t be arsed… The interest was there, but just not the energy… I would have loved to look at all those paintings and sculptures maybe even the most of my group of about 100 students, but I just didn’t have the energy. By the time we entered Centre Pompidou and I saw the fountain of Tinguely and his wife Niki de Saint-Phalle for about the fifth time in my life, I couldn’t find the energy to admire it again. I cannot remember anything from that point on. Although we still went around Paris until 11 at night, we went to eat spaghetti in some place, and we must have admired the Eiffel Tower from the Bateaux Mouche, but really from 6 in the morning until 11 in the evening… Overload. The next day, we went to the house of Rodin, which made an impression, I have to say. And then we were allowed to go round a little by ourselves, if I can recall rightly. All this, of course, is useless if one has not had some art history class or understanding. Fortunately, through my music education of about 7 years, I did have a conception of art history. Also through all the exhibitions my parents took me to (I am still thankful for that) I had an understanding of the Flemish Primitives, medieval art, the Renaissance, Baroque painters as Rubens and later ones as Rembrandt (although my father finds him absolutely ghastly), the 18th century, and the 19th century with Delacroix and David, Monet and the impressionists, and the later fashions as surrealism, expressionism and modern installation, abstract art and conceptual art. My classmates though, did not have all that and I doubt whether they were able to place things somewhere and see them in their context and not only see the outside. And so was and is it with books. How can students be taught something serious if it is not put into a framework?

This was as far as the French class went. The Dutch class was of course easier, concerning literature at least, as we were part of that same culture we were going to read about… Although, Flemish students do not only read Flemish books. Fortunately… I say fortunately because there is not a lot of greatness in the Flemish part of Dutch language literature. As we have long been dominated in Belgium by the French-speaking (and no hard feelings here, because I find that that problem drags itself on too long) one of the first real prose works was Hendrik Conscience’s Lion of Flanders (1838) (probably unknown by everyone who does not speak Dutch, or even is aware of the Flemish existing, if there is a case for that). After that a lot of other works, by other writers have been published, but I have the impression we never got out of the ‘poor little Flemish oppressed person’-mode. Not at least for most of the 19th century. Novels were about poor farmers, the Flemish cause (in true 19th century style), the Germanic ideal (as featured in Wagner’s operas and the Germans’ return to the supernatural and the old culture of fairies and magic). After WWII there was of course the trauma of collaboration, colonisation and the blacks that were murdered in the Belgian Congo. On the Dutch side, there was a lot more to be read, but of course, the Netherlands are not Flanders and so the East Indies is a new subject for a Flemish teenager. I savoured it through Couperus and Multatuli, but I don’t know if anyone else was really interested in it… It is striking how different the world perception of those two countries is in the 19th century: the Dutch are occupied with the bourgeois part of society that lives in the cities (in true English and German style), while the Flemish are occupied with the poor farmer who needs to fight against society to be allowed to live… A vast difference. When Hardy was writing about his sad characters, Zola in France was doing the same, Emants was doing that as well in the Netherlands and 20 years after, Buysse wrote a play about a poor family of farmers that was laughed at by French-speaking land-owners (there are the Walloons, or nasty French-speaking Flemish again)… In the 90s, Claus still wrote about the trauma of collaboration during WWII in a style worse than death… I once tried one book of his, after one of Saramago’s… With every Nobel Prize impending shortlist the Flemish made themselves strong about Claus being in the running. It of course never happened and it will never happen because the man is dead by ‘euthanasia’ or helped suicide because he did not want to end up totally senile after having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Although he is dead and one should never speak ill of the dead, I would have considered it an insult for every writer who has won the Nobel Prize if he had been awarded it. Because his style is absolutely beyond all imagination. If he had been part of a bigger market, he would not have been awarded the right to publish… The contrast was heaven-wide with Saramago's book... The height of Flemish literature in the 90s was a contraption of Tom Lanoye, a reworking and 'translation' of the kings’ dramas of Shakespeare (as if those masterpieces need reworking). A twelve hour long (true!!) piece of theatre, that was put on stage during one whole day (with several breaks I hope and suppose) and where prince Edward (which number I cannot recall) every five minutes says ‘fucking’. This is no joke. We read an excerpt in class of it. When the teacher asked us what we thought of it, she fortunately picked me. I said I was mortified, Shakespeare revolved in his grave (we were just reading or had just read Romeo and Juliet in the English class). She sadly thought it was brilliant… Mr Lanoye clearly did not fathom English culture and certainly not Elizabethan culture for that matter. Shakespeare might have invented the word ‘ass’, but the word ‘fuck’ was certainly not used to put in between words every five seconds! But there were other authors, Flemish ones, that were not so bad: Louis Paul Boon, for example, I enjoyed reading. He was mostly concerned with social issues, being a communist, but wrote in true sixties style: with his own spelling and sometimes in patchwork format. He wrote about the vile side of society, but with style. Unlike the sad dwelling on the past of Claus, he was able to capture the attention of the reader for repulsive acts of incest, murder, paedophilia, voyeurism and social deterioration. He went inside the minds of people like that and found out why they did it and how those acts shaped the rest of the lives of the others who were involved in them, he did not dwell on the thing that happened itself… Willem Elschot is another of the ones who made it with absurd stories of people in the 20s and 30s who want to get somewhere but somehow can’t because of their own weaknesses. In a style that is easy to read and imaginative alike.

The English class was altogether different from the time we were 17… Before we were reduced to read little texts or dialogues and make endless exercises on the tenses. But all that changed when we ended up in the one-before-last year of secondary school. All of a sudden the textbook was interesting: articles about phobias and their background, English society, sleep (REM and non-REM), sleeping positions, statistics on education, short-stories… But foremost we had a teacher who knew what she talked about when she taught us books and poetry (because she was also our Dutch teacher at that time): a woman named Vanh. . If she ever recognises herself here, she will be pleased to see that my English has dramatically improved (partly due to my husband), that she was the one who at last featured a good book list for English, and that it was her who consequently triggered my love for books. Everything was on that list: Agatha Christie (all!), Hardy, Orwell, Dickens (all or nearly), Wilde, Eliot, Brontë (Charlotte, Emily and Anne). You name it, it was on it. The year after, we had to read all the same book: Huxley’s Brave New World. My conclusion out of the contrast between the booklists for French and English is that there is mainly one reason why only certain books are taught and why there exist only certain lists: because, like you and me, the teacher has a taste, and the teacher has a level, the teacher has to read the books that are on the list, and foremost the teacher cannot afford to be put right by a smarter student. The impressive booklist we got for English that year, which counted at least three pages with codes of difficulty on it and the number of pages (in contrast with the French, one or two in big print) implies a teacher who likes to read, enjoys it, and feels confident enough to get challenged by her own students. I in the end stayed modest and took as my first book A Christmas Carol by Dickens, which appealed but might have been a little difficult to capture Dickens’ true style. Anyway, my second off that list was Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray which did appeal thoroughly to me (although during my exam I said that the book was mainly about idleness, meaning vanity, but idleness sounded the same as the Dutch word ijdel, years after I realised why my teacher smiled when I said that word… ), my third was Greene's Mr Fischer or the Bomb Party. My parents were sensible enough to give me Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and the good impression lasted. ‘Hey, I can understand this’, rather than the French ‘ugh’. I graduated from secondary school in 2000 and then I went on to study Germanic Languages, Dutch and German (no English as I wasn’t confident enough). German books went down well (one of the most cultured peoples in Europe), but sadly I wasn’t able to continue my studies due to personal problems. I had a disgust for reading for a while because of the overload in university, but in 2005 I picked up Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo in the original French (!) version. I have loved him ever since and in the meantime have finished his trilogy of the musketeers: The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years Later and The Vicomte de Bragelonne. I cannot see how it is possible that an author like that, who is not terribly difficult - unlike Hugo I admit (whom I have tried and successfully finished his fantastic masterpiece Les Misérables) – was not on any booklist. Admittedly, his books are long. But is it not more important to leave people the choice than to thrust things they do not like upon them? In all those four years I did not finish one book for school for French off those lists, with the one exception stated above. I just could not spend my time on them. If they had allowed me Dumas, it would certainly have tickled my fancy. All three English books I finished and read more in my spare time. But of course, the teacher should be prepared to spend his time on those books. Unlike the English teacher Vanh. , the French teachers were apparently not so keen on reading great authors. Hugo, I can imagine, is too difficult, but still for the French speaking teenagers there could be something in that. Dumas is totally not difficult. I could read him before I went to uni in 2000 and I was bad at French. I started on Monte Cristo, but then my courses started and I was obliged to quit because there were other books to read. Why not allow students funny things by Fontaine, or even excerpts from Dumas? Perrault? In stead of dwelling on anorexia and rape? The life of a teenager is depressing enough without being made aware of other people’s problems as well… But all those books were thin ones… Not for nothing I expect?

So in order to feature, like Janssen says, other cultures, it is essential that teachers are interested in other cultures and their texts. It is totally useless to have some Chinese students, Moroccan students, Turkish students and so forth, in a class and a teacher teaching them texts that are an inherent part of their culture, with the students knowing the surrounding culture better than the teacher… Another possibility is of course to have the students teach the other students, but then we are reduced to the cultures present in the school or class and students are no teachers. In Brussels such presentation by students could be ok because of the variety of nationalities, but I doubt whether in other areas we would not be largely reduced to Flemish texts. Texts, as Janssen says, are part of a culture and as such that culture must be understood in order to teach those texts. It is totally useless to teach Buddhist texts by someone who doesn’t have a clue. For the English, just think about everything that has been written about Victorian literature. That is only about one part of English literature. If the English were to understand everything straight away because they are ultimately of the same basic culture as the English 200 years ago, all that shouldn’t have been written. Yet it is, so there is something to understand. What is the chance that someone of a foreign culture will understand Victorian literature to the full if no explanation is given? It is totally useless for that matter to have literature taught by someone who doesn’t have a clue, or even worse, by someone who thrusts his own (ghastly) taste upon his students. The list of Vanh. might have been canonic, but at least there was everything from Austen to the twentieth century on there. What was sure was that it was good, whatever you chose. As such, she accomplished her task as a teacher: to know, to offer and hopefully to convince. The French teachers might have known, but certainly did not offer and they did not convince me. I was convinced by Dumas in 2005. The German teacher did her best, even with the low level she reached in four years, two of which with one hour a week and the two last with three hours a week (only because I was in the Modern Languages section). We read one book with her, which was equally bad as the French one and I couldn’t be arsed to read it. As I was a good student with straight 10s (out of 10) all the time, or at least 9s, I could afford what I did: to refuse to answer the questions for homework and get 1 out of 20 for my opinion that was the only thing I really had written myself. I copied the rest from my friend, like two other classmates. With the difference of course that I had a reason not to do that homework: I could read Goethe and was not going to be coerced into reading a book I did not like about a poor handicapped boy. I told her straight in my opinion. I offered to make whichever punishment she wanted to inflict upon my friend myself. She took my point, punished the others for their laziness and acquitted my friend who only supplied her homework to copy by me (entirely) because I wanted to have something to give the teacher. She and I knew that I could afford to have the marks of my next test halved. The others had been lazy. During the next great summer holidays, I read Goethe’s Leiden des Jungen Werthers and no problem. Absolutely beautiful writing. Too difficult for a first book for the rest. My teacher knew that as well and was aware of what I and my friend could read and could see my point and why I did not want to read the book she supplied. I accepted the 1 out of 20 and had still great marks with the next report…
So, what needs to happen in order to have our children read more and better? To link political/societal history, art history and music in a class of maybe indeed ‘world-education’, but taught by someone who knows his stuff. If then, the language teachers would do one project a year about one book and its different facets, we might get somewhere. Allusions can be addressed, additional texts or excerpts can be read (if not too difficult), style in itself can be addressed, and foremost, the greater themes linked with society and morals could be looked at. As such the students would get offered a way of reading and would not be left to their own fantasy. Foreign texts (not part of the studied language subjects) could be taught In the mother tongue, in maybe a separate class, but also by a properly trained teacher. For Chinese books, it is interesting to look for example at Chinese society, history (Maoist revolution, the cultural revolution) and its effects now. For Scandinavian books it is interesting to look at the Swedish oppression of Norway, the fascist regimes in WWII, their way of life, their belief in trolls. There seems to be a very strange quietness or openness/vastness in all their books. Why? Offer the students a way of understanding literature and they will be able to link what was taught to them with other arts and architecture. The vast side of early romanticism features in Friedrich’s German paintings and Doré’s engravings. The early historic novel like Scott’s Ivanhoe is not limited to literature, but that principle also features in neo-gothic architecture of prisons and town halls like Manchester's. The realism of Dickens features in paintings of the time. The links are endless, and all that came out of and influenced politicians' choices. The philosophy of Enlightenment influenced the French Revolution, which in turn, brought on the Romantic movement. If that were taught in schools, savouring art and history would be much easier for students, also in the future, but for this concept we need teachers who are prepared to study and not only to teach. And schools must be prepared to offer those teachers and their students the proper material.

The article from De Standaard was faithfully translated from this link: http://www.standaard.be/Artikel/Detail.aspx?artikelId=5C283PFM&subsection=4

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