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.
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.
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