George Lucas doesn’t need an introduction but just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past forty years he’s the man responsible for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars e.g. entire childhoods. So what’s he got to do with Nottingham, literature and a graphic novel involving the undead? Nothing really, other than I’ve been reading a lot about his ideas regarding visual literacy because they’re a little controversial yet strangely pragmatic. To understand why, let’s turn to the received wisdom of Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister.
Last year the Conservative MP for Bognor Regis capitalised on the Charles Dickens anniversary celebrations, declaring: “We need – if you’ll forgive the Dickens pun – much greater expectations of children in reading.” He then drew on some miserable facts: One-in-six pupils struggle to read when they leave primary school; one-in-10 boys aged 11 has a reading age no better than a seven-year-old; at 14, six-in-10 white boys from the poorest backgrounds are still unable to read properly. Gibbo’s solution was hit them with ‘more complex’ texts before they leave primary school and hopefully this will help resolve the real issue for the government: more than four-in-10 employers are unhappy with levels of English among school leavers (survey by Confederation of British Industry)
We can debate for ever whether a child needs to read Charles Dickens, Shakespeare or Tolstoy to become more literate and intelligent. But what is more relevant is how you engage readers with an ever decreasing attention span. Which is where Mr Star Wars comes in.
Lucas believes the education system is caught in a time capsule and based on nineteenth-century ideals and methods that privilege the written or spoken word above other forms of communication. Technology has helped create a more “visually sophisticated world” and therefore graphics, music, cinema et al require equal attention. To see these various forms of nonwritten communication “as some type of therapy or art, something that is not relevant to the everyday life of a student” is simply wrong.
At this point I would expect Nick Gibb to suffer a bout of canonical turrets, spitting out Dickens! Dick ends! Dickens! How can you possibly measure the competencies of something as abstract as visual communication? It’s utterly preposterous you leftie.
Mr Star Wars believes this is possible because all forms of communication have grammatical rules. In film, language is expressed through a particular shot or angle; in art, through use of colour and brush stroke. You get the point. Essentially this isn’t anything new. It’s the world of textual analysis and Cultural Studies, those populist subjects that are so unpopular with our current government. (No points for guessing my degree…) As you would expect from a man who made his fortune focusing on a galaxy far, far away, there are many forces at play when it comes to education.
“We need to look at the whole world of communication in a more complete way. We need to take art and music out of “the arts class” and put it into the English class. For instance, the various forms of communication form a circle. On one end of this circle is math, the least emotional of all forms of communication. It’s very strict and very concise, and has a very precise way of explaining something. Then you start moving around the circle, and you get to the other end, where we have music, which primarily appeals to your emotions, not to your intellect.”
Lucas’ biggest fear is that we obsess on the intellectual elements of communication to the detriment of our emotional needs. This creates an imbalance in the universe.
“The bigger picture is that a country survives on its educational system. Go beyond that: The human race survives on its educational system. That means that a country with the best educational system becomes the prominent country or society. The society that has a great educational system becomes the prominent society because that’s the way the human race survives.”
If we start to think inside the circle and not get boxed in to particularities such as ‘more complex’ books for children, we might just have a better chance of engaging readers. I’m hoping that Dawn of the Unread will engage readers emotionally and intellectually by exploring a wide variety of styles of illustration and colour, through debate in public libraries with featured writers, by creating literary walks, games, animations, digital interaction across media platforms and a creative space for readers to share their own ideas. By combining all of these gradients of expression and communication we might just entice a small minority of people to read books inspired by the project.
And before you accuse education of turning to the Dark side Gibbo, this isn’t selling out, pandering, dumbing down or a compromise. It’s not a replacement for books either. It’s about finding a place for reading within the circle of communication. It’s not just a case of giving someone a book and telling them to read either. Most of the classics I was given at school were dull. I couldn’t relate to them or the language. Now they have a place in my life as I can better appreciate and understand them now that I’m a more developed and confident reader.
The remit of Dawn of the Unread is not to thrust ‘complex’ books on people to read. It’s to create a thirst for information. To tease, tantalise and inspire. To use digital technology to enable numerous routes into literature knowing that our reading paths are ultimately solitary and taken at different speeds.
- Quote of the Day | Neil Gaiman on serialized storytelling (robot6.comicbookresources.com)
- Charles Dickens on the brutality of the Tories (beastrabban.wordpress.com)
- Life on the Screen: Visual Literacy in Education (edutopia.org)
- Graphic Language: Christopher Niemann (learning.blogs.nytimes.com)
- The Illusion of Education (aakashtyagi.wordpress.com)