Our relationship with media is changing. As the fictional and the genuine bleed into one another, critical skills developed through the study of literary narratives become more vital than ever before.
Yet, in our classrooms literary texts are – bizarrely – approached with the black-and-white rigidity of basic facts, as the strictures of the Leaving Cert compel students to passively absorb and reproduce preprepared analyses of fictional texts.
This approach is not the fault of their teachers or, indeed, of the students, whose educational aims in the area of literary criticism are shaped entirely by the demands of a six-hour written paper that awards marks for purpose, cohesiveness, language and mechanics .
What’s missing from this list? Creativity? Analysis? Critique?
One teacher described this process in relation to teaching Macbeth: "I'd still be going back to the handout, because for me it's very much they have to have it, they have to learn it, and they have to be able to reproduce it."
Time and again, students perceived that there was only one way to understand a given text, and rarely questioned the consensus. This was exemplified in comments from students engaged in the study of Macbeth.
“When we do it in school, I’m just looking at the exam. So I don’t really, like, put my own opinion on it,” said one. Another said: “The teachers pretty much tell you ‘okay, this is what this character is about and this is . . .’ and you pretty much write it down word for word what she says or he says, you know?”
Macbeth is a rich and complex work, rife with ambiguity. Its many layers are open to multiple interpretations. In Irish schools, it is dissected into rigid themes to facilitate memorisation.
If the intricacies of Shakespeare are presented with true-or-false simplicity, how can students be expected to develop the skills to survive in a world characterised by uncertainty? How will they discern fact from fiction in a post-truth world?
The trend for rote learning dominates almost all areas of the Leaving Cert exam. Criticism of this is nothing new. Its limitations have been debated for decades. Still, the Leaving Cert has seen no meaningful change.
What has changed elsewhere? Almost everything. In the age of print, understanding the information we consumed as either fact or fiction was relatively easy. In the digital sphere, the fictional and the real sit side by side and are frequently interchanged.
In journalism, we are increasingly seeing an amalgamation of forms more traditionally associated with imaginative storytelling: a departure from the sober reportage of facts towards carefully constructed narratives designed to appeal to emotional and personal beliefs.
In addition, algorithms running on websites selectively expose us to information that mirrors our own beliefs based on our previous browsing, location and sharing history, among other things. In this “filter bubble”, we are isolated from differing opinions.
These factors underline the urgent need to reassess our relationship to the media we interact with. This begins in the classroom, instilling in students the skills to critique, to analyse, to research – and thus to recognise the very many ways they can be manipulated.
Meaningful engagement with literary works can hone these skills. The bitter irony is that while our “real” stories behave increasingly like fiction in the classrooms, fictional narratives are understood to have a single correct interpretation.
Obviously, this denies students the opportunity to develop increasingly vital expertise. Worse, it trains them to accept the information they encounter unquestioningly. This leaves our young people vulnerable to information that is biased or utterly false.
Moreover, rote learning cements the idea that there is only one correct answer to a question. This notion implies that differing opinions, perceptions or beliefs are inferior or just plain wrong. If we can dismiss alternative views, how can we hope to respect cultural perspectives that diverge from our own?
The inability to compare and assess a variety of interpretations is significant because it raises serious questions about tolerance and prejudice. The implications of this in light of recent political events are obvious.
Our relationship with media isn’t just changing. It’s changing us. The ever increasing levels of unreliable information leaves us vulnerable to varying degrees of manipulation. As the consequences of this become more acute, failure of the Leaving Cert to respond isn’t just inept or even ironic – it’s utterly irresponsible.
Ellen McCabe is a PhD graduate from NUI Galway specialising in narrative literature and education.