Chris Woodhead vs The Simpsons

Chris Woodhead used to be the Chief Inspector of Schools. Bear this in mind as I continue.

Woodhead has written in today’s Sunday Times, and I quote, that when teaching literature, ‘the aim should not be to develop ‘critical thinking skills’ and [children] should not be encouraged to express their opinions on the texts. Who cares what they think or feel?’

Chris Woodhead used to be the Chief Inspector of Schools.

Before I’m criticised for misquoting, I’ll describe the context in which he is writing. Earlier this week it was reported that children at a school are studying ‘The Simpsons’ in their English class. A parent of one of those pupils has written to The Sunday Times saying they have complained, and asking ‘Am I being unreasonable when I ask for stronger content? Perhaps, a book?’

Chris Woodhead’s response is to sarcastically suggest that a book would be a ‘radical thought’, before arguing that since pupils can watch ‘The Simpsons’ at home,¬†‘in English lessons they should be studying the classics of literature they may otherwise never encounter’. He then goes on to make the comments about how students do not study literature to ‘think critically’ but to ‘appreciate something of the greatness of, for example, Shakespeare’.

The first point to make is that surely we DO want to teach children to think critically in ALL fields? No matter what they are doing, surely we want children to think and not simply engage in rote-learning about how great classical literature is (for example). Surely an education system which doesn’t care about what children think is profoundly flawed at the most basic level? What happened to freedom of expression? Such questions are, in one sense, stupefyingly big, and to go into them in full is to invite a philosophical debate of such magnitude that it should be discussed perhaps separately.

Let’s also first be clear as to what the school is doing. It’s not replacing classical literature with ‘The Simpsons’ wholesale. Instead, pupils are studying ONE episode of the show as part of the media module of their English course. Joseph Reynolds, quoted by the BBC, calls ‘The Simpsons’ a ‘weaker programme’ than the ‘stronger’ classics of literature. and that the kids are simply being taught it because they like it. But ‘The Simpsons’ is not just any kids’ TV show, in fact it’s not even a kids’ TV show. It’s often regarded as one of the, if not the best TV shows of all time. It’s easy to dismiss it as a kids’ show because it’s animated, but to do so is extremely reductive. Yes, it’s a TV show which kids enjoy, but it’s also a show which embeds satire and moral stories into a show which has equal appeal to people of all ages.

Chris Woodhead, however, is saying that it’s simply a TV show that pupils can watch any time, as contrasted with the classics of literature. The implication here is that TV is for leisure, and literature is for study. Here, then, two deep questions arise. The first is this: is the media simply for leisure, or is it worth studying? There is a serious problem with those who distinguish books as worthy of study, and media as being mindless and vacuous entertainment. Media of any sort is worth studying because it utilises a series of codes and conventions, it has its own grammar, it tells stories, it conveys deeper meaning and ultimately, is a creative cultural construction – a text. That books are words printed on paper does not inherently make them more worthy of study than TV shows, films or even video games, and to claim so is patronising towards those who put massive amounts of work into creating the latter and whose creative minds are as brilliant as any writer. Of course not all media is good quality and creative, but the same can obviously be said for books.

The second question is whether¬†books are apt for study in class simply because they are deemed ‘classics’, and whether you can ‘learn’ a text without thinking critically about it. Before anyone suggests that I’m denying that Shakespeare, for example, is a classic text, I’m definitely not. I’m instead making a philosophical point. What makes Shakespeare a classic is not because someone has told you that it is – you can’t ‘learn’ this. Instead, it is through your own ability to appreciate his brilliant use of language across a huge variety of works. Woodhead wants children to be taught to ‘appreciate something of the greatness of, for example, Shakespeare’. By all means, but the way to do that is to discuss it, to think about it, something which Woodhead seems to oppose. Children won’t really find it great by being told that it is. They need to work it out, to discover it for themselves. Appreciation can’t be dictated or enforced. For children to simply be able to repeat that Shakespeare is great is nowhere near enough – if they truly think it’s great, they will espouse it to others themselves, they will awe at his use of language, and they will actually want to read more. Woodhead, however, wants children to be told that Shakespeare is great, without allowing them to really discover it for themselves. Discussing it is crucial to do this. More importantly, the parent of the pupil being taught ‘The Simpsons’, seems to be suggesting that studying it means that the children are not reading books. But of course, these are not in principle or practice mutually exclusive. To examine the media in class does not mean that books are kicked off the curriculum, and certainly does not mean that studying books has become ‘a radical thought’ as Woodhead sarcastically suggests. Books still make up the vast majority of any English literature course. However, it is vitally important for children not to simply be confined to the study of books but to study the full range of media texts available to them.

In fact the importance of studying the media extends beyond understanding examples of great TV shows. Through studying the media, we can also ensure that children do not take it at face value. We can teach children not to trust advertisers’ claims – to break down the visual grammar used in adverts to sell their products. We can teach children to understand that the news can be overdramatic in its presentation. And we can engage children with issues of censorship – what level of violence is suitable for them to see in the media? These are all very serious, very real discussions, and are a whole separate arm of the vast scope that the study of the media can entail. So let’s continue with the example of ‘The Simpsons’. I’ve already pointed out that it’s a deeply satirical show and one which tells many moral stories, and these are worthy of discussion because they enable children to think about what they are watching. Episodes have dealt with everything from marital problems to creationism in its long history – there’s no shortage of material to discuss. ‘The Simpsons’ has also always satirised absurdly violent cartoons very effectively with its ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ cartoons, which represent a brilliant combination of satire and slapstick. I can’t think of a better TV show to study in class. Here I turn to Stephen Fry, who summarised the point brilliantly: ‘What kind of illiterate morons would object to their children being taught The Simpsons? … One despairs.’ And in a 140 character tweet, Fry has managed to express what I have throughout this entire blog.

PS I have an image of someone reading that last sentence, fuming, saying ‘Oh and I bet you think Twitter’s worth studying too!’ Well funnily enough I do, but that’s for another day …

  • I’ll start with a character assassination by throwing the Woodhead spanner in the works about his old scandal – that he slept with a sixth former whilst being a teacher and once it was unearthed, not only did he not concede any regret, he posited that, generally, such relationships can be instructive for both participants. He practically advocated it. It’s alarming that he is even being given column space.

    Onto this – well written as usual – I can certainly agree with you about the need for critical thinking across all subjects. At the same time, I can appreciate the sociological repercussions of this for those who aren’t liberal minded students but are parents etc – we live in a deeply fractured society formed upon taken-for-granted latent divisions; any government would encourage initiative and critical thinking skills, but they would have a lot to lose if the majority of young people became astute critics of the status quo. But me personally, completely with you: the next few decades are so uncertain that the best form of education would be to enable students to entertain new ideas, shape new concepts and to deal creatively with whatever the economy, the job market and society can throw at them.

    I find the whole idea of prescriptive reading lists really difficult to entertain: it reminds me of the puritan blacklists. Having said that, I enjoy the fact that the books we were encouraged to read through school were quite wide-ranging, despite being taken from a state-endorsed list of ‘approved texts’. The lists spoke of diversity, multiculturalism, injustice as well as love, conflict and the universals. I would fear such prescriptions if they went against my own politics though – focusing on ‘the classics’ could very easily glorify the ‘classic’ modes of society – the good old days of empire and so on.

    I can see that I am rambling incomprehensibly now, so I will just say that pupils should be encouraged to discern for themselves what constitutes good literature – many ‘classics’ fall into this bracket, but as you stated, it would be better for the kids to reach this conclusions themselves, rather than passively bestowing the second-hand prestige to those texts simply because they have been encouraged to do so.

    • Kenichi Udagawa

      Ah, good old character assassination! I’d forgotten about Woodhead’s … old scandal. I have to admit that his ‘Answer the question’ column in ‘The Sunday Times’ is a guaranteed weekly corner of wrongness, and is therefore a source of much amusement and anger (simultaneously). This time, however, pushed me over the edge and into this rant. Perhaps I’ll try and make it a weekly habit.

      Oh and good points, well made, especially about the tension between avoiding being prescriptive, and ensuring children experience a broad range of texts. I shall muse upon that one …

  • While it would perhaps be unfair to argue that this position alone is reflective of a belief that schools should dictate facts on a predetermined narrow minded of education and that the mere absorption of these facts can be used as a indicator of a persons apptitude, Chris Woodhead’s career as head of Ofsted and many years directing a education strategy of jumping through hoops in an examination system which increasingly was designed to be prepared for and whose statistics were used to condemn schools whose circumstances provided challenging evionments, perhaps it is not surprising for him to take a reactionary tabloid-esque slant against the critical analysis of modern media and to lead children powerless to examine issues which drive them.

  • How’s this for critical thinking? “Woodhead was over-promoted. 6 years as a classroom teacher and reaching no higher level than Head of Department was just not enough. Out of his depth, he made himself appear a fool frequently in both speech and text, and managed to discredit both himself & the quango ‘Ofsted’; indeed the entire teaching profession. Quite an achievement.”