This is a section from a paper written with, and for, Literature Wales which will soon be available in full on their web-site.
Wales has a long tradition of writing, both in English and Welsh. Contemporary writers continue to turn a mirror on our society, and to distil, critically examine, and discuss Welsh experiences. In so doing, they contribute to the debates of the moment, offer knowledge of shared experiences, and make the familiar unfamiliar in a process of disassociation which forces us look again at things we take for granted.
In our industrial past, Literature had an important role in raising the spirits and consciousness of our forefathers (and mothers) whose pennies raised libraries throughout the Valleys. Their discussions centred on the Bible as a text, but also on novelists, such as Dickens, and poets, like Tennyson. Henry Vollam Morton, writing in the 1930s about his travels around Wales, was surprised to hear miners discussing the writings of Einstein and Alexander Pope. In his study of working-class reading The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, Jonathan Rose lists books by Dickens, Ruskin, Rossetti, and Shakespeare, which were available, and read in working class homes. Rose quotes a miner of the 1930s as saying that:
“At such times [when reading] we did not feel we were colliers doing menial and dangerous jobs in the bowels of the earth, but privileged human beings exposed to something extraordinary” —Welsh miner, quoted by Jonathan Rose
The reason for reading – worth remembering – is that such practice allowed people, like Aneurin Bevan and Vernon Hartshorn, to develop the linguistic abilities that enabled them to discuss, evaluate and make sense of the world, and thus genuinely contribute to a democratic society.
The power of Literature to expand the mind, and give people dreams and aspirations cannot be underestimated. We are once again increasingly faced with widespread and increasing socio- economic deprivation in Wales. Schools are rightly concerned with closing the gap for children born into poverty. Glan Usk Primary School teacher Rajvi Glasbrook-Griffiths has spoken of her impoverished background and how the school library was “my salvation”. That word is significant as it points to the transformative power of Literature in raising aspiration, and allowing people, as Welsh writer clare e. potter states, to “escape and connect”. Former American President Barrack Obama has talked about feeling like an outsider as a child and how:
“The idea of having these worlds that were portable, that were yours, that you could enter into, was appealing to me” —Barrack Obama
The point is that however impoverished your background, learning to read opens up new worlds of possibilities. Children in Wales are entitled to be pirates, explorers, Twm Siôn Cati, or Blodeuwedd, and they can be, through books and other texts.
Poet and performer Aneirin Karadog has described how his reading of Welsh literature, and of Welsh writing in English, has increased his knowledge of the world, Wales, Welsh history and the issues surrounding Wales. It is important to remember Jane Austen’s description of literature as:
“some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” —Jane Austen
An inevitable by-product of reading is greater knowledge and understanding. In Wales, we have a richness of Literature in both languages, which should be accessed by all, as our writers help to define us as individuals, as communities, and as a nation. To lose access to this is to undermine who we are personally, culturally and nationally. It is also, however, the duty of teachers to provide access to the best that has been written in English, Welsh, and other languages, so that pupils may embrace their place in the world as a whole, and open their minds to an interrogation of viewpoints, perspectives and ideas.
In Wales, literature is inextricably linked to the cultural narrative. In many places, literature is embedded in everyday life – the eisteddfodau and National Eisteddfod, community-led spoken word slams and writers themselves are very present in the cycles of daily life. This is exemplified by the Writers on Tour scheme, managed by Literature Wales, which has been running for over 30 years. However, there are still far too many places where the particular literatures of Wales aren’t reaching. The role of schools and libraries should be central in ensuring that all young people have equal access and opportunity to encounter and enjoy our literary heritage.
In preparing to introduce Donaldson’s 2016 proposals, we have been given an opportunity to re- align and re-focus our attention on the reading of texts. English and Welsh, as subjects, are uniquely placed to contribute to the four purposes of the curriculum. Literature, however, also contributes to the Expressive Arts Area of Learning and Experience and to Humanities. This testifies to the power of Literature as an educational force, and it is why Obama has described reading as the “gateway skill that makes all learning possible”; why George RR Martin has asserted that “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies”.
Welsh children from our most deprived areas are still struggling with language acquisition and reading skills. It is more important than ever that children in Wales, whatever their background, have access to appropriate reading materials, and that they are motivated to improve those skills. Wales has a unique situation, since it has Welsh publishers who publish reading material for schools, and a wide variety of writers in both English and Welsh. We have a strong tradition of oratory, and one of Cicero’s stipulations for success in speech-making was to have at one’s fingertips quotations from favourite writers. So equipped, it was thought, a successful speech could be extemporized.
We no longer have traditions of pulpit oratory, Bible study, and such textual analysis, and communities are becoming increasingly fractured and distanced from their heritage. It is even more important, at this crossroads, that the power of reading to shape minds, hearts and imagination is rightfully acknowledged. As Aristotle asserted, ‘Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.’