Former Chief Inspector of Schools Chris Woodhead has called for children to be taught literature uncritically.


"They should not be encouraged to express their opinions on the texts. Who cares what they think or feel?" he wrote in the Sunday Times.

I'm not sure I have ever heard this Stalinist idea of education expressed quite so clearly and openly before. 

Of course there’s always been the harrumph tendency.  Woodhead’s column starts off as though it’s just another example of that. He’s replying to a reader who complains that her secondary school daughter is being taught "critical thinking skills" and the teacher is using The Simpsons in the six week course.

"Am I being unreasonable when I ask for stronger content? Perhaps, a book"? asks the parent, archly. 

You get a lot of that.  If The Simpsons was the only literature being taught in her daughter’s school, she would have a strong case for complaint. But that’s most unlikely to be the case.  Books are undoubtedly also used, but she doesn't mention that.

I’d expect Mr Woodhead then simply to respond by laying into the old Aunt Sallys. Critical thinking, harrumph.  Popular culture, harrumph.  Classics of literature, good. 

He does that, of course.  He attacks with heavy-handed irony that those who think literature more than a century old should not be taught because it’s irrelevant. And if anyone does think that, well, they’re mistaken – he and I can agree about that. 

All that’s fine.  It’s simply the traditional ground on which the likes of Woodhead have always fought. It’s not even 100 per cent wrong, though it’s ludicrously simplistic. I too would like to see more exposure in schools to the writers Woodhead mentions – Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen. I just don’t see why that means you can’t mention The Simpsons in the classroom.

No: what marks this out from the usual harrumphing crowd is the extra step Woodhead takes, of saying classical texts should be taught uncritically, and the extraordinary comment about children: “Who cares what they think or feel?"

Literature is subjective, or it’s nothing.  It’s not like mathematics, where there is a right and a wrong answer.  Woodhead and I are both baby boomers, and I am sure that he, like me, had the benefit of debate and discussion in the classroom about the texts we discussed. My A-level class divided sharply into those who thought Jane Austen’s Emma cynical, interfering and egocentric, and those who thought her thoughtful and caring, if accident-prone.

We were even allowed to say we didn’t think much of a text. I had a rather low opinion of one of our set Shakespeare texts, Much Ado About Nothing (I still do.) My teacher didn’t agree, but it never occurred to him or me or anyone else that I shouldn’t argue my corner.

Take that debate away and you’re left, not just with a poorer learning experience, but with a school system designed for dictatorship, not democracy, in which children should be told what to think and not encouraged to question it. Shakespeare good, Simpsons bad.  Got that? Chant it together, and write it out 100 times.  Then stand up and salute the flag. Who the hell told you to think?

It’s another example, it seems to me, of a man of the baby boomer generation trying to claw back all the advantages we had when we were young. I’ve written a book along those lines.  It’s called What Did the baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?