When we consider Prometheus, the titan who created mankind only to be eternally punished for his benevolence towards us, it seems easy to see how Shelley might consider Dr. Frankenstein a Modern version. Both have given animation to the inanimate matter before them, and both suffered for their labours. However, the clear intimation of difference lies in how Dr Frankenstein turns his back on his creation, perceiving the great ugliness of appearance, and this exclusion then leads to a string of unfortunate deaths, culminating in the Doctor’s sacrifice and the subsequent suicide of the monster. How different it would have been if the monster had been accepted by the blind man’s family in France, or even by the Doctor himself, for the ‘monster’ displays an unavowed beauty in his learning of literature and his love of ‘Paradise Lost’. In the parallels the monster draws with Adam, we see the desire for an other who can also be the same, yet it is a shame how he sees such a contrast in Adam’s physical beauty when the monster is so much more beautiful inside.
Now the reason for the above analysis is that for the past year I’ve been conducted a reading scheme with a group of gifted students. Rather than the strict levels and numerical progression that is the hallmark of the ladybird series, this was intended to give students the opportunity to explore independently great works of literature, and present on what happened and how it changed them, or whether they were worth reading at all. Thirteen year old students read Anne Karenina, 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, A God of Small Things, Crime and Punishment, Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, and so many others. Rather than the usual teacher-led analysis of the text, or even the class reader, students were at liberty to choose any book, read at their own pace, and present the key ideas of their text to interested peers.
The results have been striking and humbling. When one student said ‘Anna Kerenina has changed my life,’ this somewhat ambitious project began to seem less like an exercise in futility and more as something which had given these students an excuse to embrace an experience they would otherwise have ignored for now. Next time, I intend for these data to become quantifiable, and for the project to have goals or a purpose beyond simple gratification. Yet for now, as the pursuit of literature becomes increasingly about passing examinations within the current testing model, it’s been a delight to see students reading, discussing, and loving great literature beyond the classroom. It’s always interesting to note how successive governments in the UK class for a return to classical literature, leading to the inevitable debate as to what entails a classic, and whether there is merit in forcing every child to read books. This debate is for greater policy makers than I, but maybe this model can go to show that we should never presume what students will or won’t like until they’ve tried it for themselves, and maybe not every literary pursuit requires national assessment.
This week I read in the Guardian one teacher who felt hypocritical for asking students to love literature, when their reality was that they had no time to read. It reminded me of meeting Phil Beadle after a conference once, the most enigmatic English teacher I’ve ever met, and putting a similar question to him as one concerned English teacher to a more experienced mentor. He said it was about priorities, and to put your feet up int he staff room and read is as vital a part of an English teacher’s work an inputting progress data. I took it to heart, and have tried to read daily ever since, and it was wonderful to share my reading progress through Moby Dick, Magic Mountain, Faust, and re-reading Frankenstein, with the students.
There are no doubt many ways this idea could be adapted, and many professionals who are doing something similar, but all I can say is that in this case, the post-modern Prometheuses were the books themselves. The creations of previous masters bringing animation into the eyes of these gifted students is an experience I’ll treasure, and look forward to initiating, in a likely more structured manner, in the future.