From Shakespeare’s ‘rude mechanicals’ to ‘illiterate peasants’ we are used to the notion that education is a guard against ignorance. Perhaps the more apposite pithy statement though is:
Knowledge is power.
And received wisdom (I suggest) is that those who do not ‘understand’ or ‘appreciate’ ‘great literature’ are ignorant. But who determines ‘great’ or even ‘good’ literature?
In Scotland, for example, The ‘Scottish Renaissance’ laid down the law (basically) that modernism was the way to go and anything that didn’t fit into a ‘canon’ developed pretty much by a bunch of 1920s poets wasn’t fit for purpose. [Obviously I’m generalising, simplifying and provoking in this statement but think about it please!]
In early 21st century Scotland I suggest we have an urban centric, academic elite (who deny they are such) who dictate what is ‘good’ and what being ‘educated’ means.
My problem is that often those urban folk are ignorant of the rural landscape and culture. Thus they misidentify it or misinterpret it.
This is part of a general problem framed as a question thus:
What are we to make of those intellectuals or academics who know all about x but can only interpret y in terms of x even when it is inappropriate?
This question brings me back to one of my favourite conundrums: What is ‘good’ writing?
[We could just as well substitute well educated for good]
The statement is:
Good writing = x
(where x means ‘obeys the rules and shows the marks of all that we bring together under the set (or label) x’)
Writing outside of this set or label (we shall call it y, but it could be z or a or any other sort of thing) cannot, by definition be ‘good’.
However, from this problem, the question arises:
Who determines the rules? Who sets the rules?
And here we find ourselves addressing Hierarchy as power.
To resolve this we have to sign up to the following:
Do not call an apple an orange or a banana. Do not blame a chocolate bar for not being an apple. Both have their place in our diet. [I like to use food analogies where possible, though it pains me, especially if writing before dinner]
If a ‘good’ diet is a balanced diet, then we might consider the same applies for writing. We should not simply go for the fibre, or the caviar, or the Michelin starred food any more than we should gorge ourselves on fast/junk food. There are degrees of subtlety in everything. And so with literature and/or fiction.
It is too easy for the academic or the ‘intellectual’ or the ‘educated’ to set rules which are effectively just their opinion/bias/prejudice or indeed lack of understanding of that outside their experience. Thus it was that Scottish fiction of the 1890s has been labelled ‘Kailyard’ [insinuating poor/common]. The irony is that now we know Kale is a ‘superfood’ (in other words, it’s good for you). Yet the educated elite find it harder to accept that fiction which does not deal with either urban industrialisation or post war or post modern concerns has either value or a place at the table. [however, since they find it hard to accept that they are an ‘elite’ at all I suppose it’s not that much of a surprise. People do not always self-define accurately – perhaps not often.]
Let’s look at it from another angle:
Can you compare Scott with Welsh? I mean ‘Sir Walter’ with Irvine of course.
The answer, as to all interesting questions is yes and no. But you have to determine on what grounds (or rules) you are drawing the comparison. And that’s when we get back to the education debate. If only those in hierarchical power (academic elite or indeed publishing marketers) tell us how to draw the comparison, we will get a limited set of rules.
Hierarchy does not support diversity. Hierarchy is about those at the bottom feeding those at the top. The majority may feel they are ‘ruling’ but they are actually only supporting the elite who actually rule. This is a feature of representative democracy, that we give up our ‘real’ rights to choose, allowing others to make that choice for us. And guess what. They choose what they like or what suits them. So if they are urban-centred, intellectually biased – to say nothing of wanting to promote an agenda of hierarchical power – then anything outside this will be labelled ‘bad.’
And guess what? Literature is a great way to control. If your agenda is to promote (say) capitalism and or ‘talent is the result of genius’ or ‘only those who are educated are capable of saying anything worth reading’ then you can simply knock anyone outside this criteria out of the park by claiming the ‘authority’ to state that they are ‘bad’ literature.
And your job is done as long as people read like sheep and do what they are told and remain happy in the ignorance of representative democracy. I’m not suggesting totalitarianism or even autocracy is a better option to democracy. I’m not promoting fascism or even out and out anarchism (depending on your definition) but I am pointing out that unless we actively engage we tend to get fed an unbalanced diet. So that unless we step outside of whatever our ‘comfort’ zone is as regards definitions of education, and ‘quality’ in literature we are not really giving ourselves the chance to be ‘educated’ in a broader sense. Knowledge is power. Abdicating a level of personal responsibility towards ‘what we know’ is the thin end of a slippery wedge!
Just a thought.
Don’t believe everything you are told by people who tell you they know better than you.
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