Must Criticism be Constructive?

There has come into being a widely held view, writes the philosopher Raymond Geuss, that ‘merely negative’ criticism is somehow defective or inappropriate. It’s not so much that I constantly come across enjoinders about the need to be constructive in my life as an educator. It’s more that I sense it’s just generally pretty well assumed – both by myself and my colleagues – that if we’re going to be critical of a pupil’s behaviour or work, then constructive criticism (insofar as this is possible, and in whatever way we care to offer it) is the best way to go.

What, after all, is the alternative? For any educator to refer to a ‘non-constructive’, ‘deconstructive’, or ‘destructive’ criticism they had just made of a pupil or their work would likely provoke misgivings. Aside from being rather unlovely phrases (is ‘non-constructive’ perhaps the least worst?), each of them suggests the kind of negativity whose supposed defectiveness Geuss highlights. For teachers, being negative might involve offering the sort of comment that is not calculated to build up, inspire or encourage; that does not aim to offer any kind of praise at all; and that is concerned only to illustrate shortcomings or problems.

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I want to suggest three possible contexts in which, contrary to popular wisdom, criticism of a negative sort can make good sense. The first two will, I think, seem reasonably uncontroversial; the third, perhaps, less so. In each context it would be a mistake to assume (despite appearances) that the negative framing of a criticism – and its consequent lack of ‘constructive’ emphasis – is the end of the story. Behind any given ‘non-constructive’ criticism (at least, that is, along the lines considered here) lies a hidden positive intent.

First, simple rule enforcement. The tie is not on; the shirt is untucked; the mobile phone is out; the teacher is being talked over; the chair is being rocked on. And so forth. Simple negative direct commands in such cases can be just that: negative. There’s nothing encouraging, uplifting or inspirational about telling a child to stop pushing into the lunch queue. Aside, that is, from a hidden positive intent: everyone will likely stand to benefit in some way from the relevant rule being followed; the child needs to learn about how to behave respectfully within a community. This point stands also in respect of more serious disciplinary matters.

Second, a sustained lack of effort. I think there must come a point when an alternative to positive encouragement and gentle supportiveness (most teachers’ default setting) is required in such a scenario. This need not take the form of the old-fashioned rollicking, but it could certainly involve pointing out repeated sloppy mistakes, false promises, opportunities missed, or a generally poor attitude – and doing so pretty pointedly. The general intention behind the criticism here will of course be to make clear that the individual in question could and should be doing a lot better. It needn’t follow, though, that an explicit statement to this effect is required. Leaving the point implicit might in fact have more of an effect.

Third, and finally, in the context of a given piece of written work that just doesn’t measure up (even though some effort may have been made and at least some marks have been awarded). This might seem controversial territory. Shouldn’t the point here be to build on what’s gone well and to suggest ways to address the less good bits? I wouldn’t at all wish to rule out the validity of approaching things in this way a good deal of the time – not least because I do just this myself! At the same time, however, I think something can also be said for adopting a more steadfastly negative line.

Sloppy errors of fact, culled from a notoriously unreliable source, that are presented without much care or thought in the context of an essay might deserve a negative response. So too might an assignment which has clearly been completed in a rushed or haphazard manner. So also work which simply sets down on paper a collection of irrelevant comments (or, for that matter, a slapdash summary of what a pupil happens to know already about a particular topic) which don’t engage with an essay question that’s been posed.

In each of these cases, a resolutely negative response often seems to me justified. I hope this doesn’t just show that I’m making good headway on the path toward an increasingly irascible old age. As already mentioned, the motivation underlying a negative criticism, even in this third category, can remain a positive one. Albeit implicitly, such criticism can make the point that better work could and should have been produced; that high standards need to be met and are attainable. Better this, surely, than airy comments that don’t take the trouble to pinpoint the clear shortcomings in a poor piece of work. Or a saccharine avoidance of any kind of reprimand. As long as praise is (or is known to be) forthcoming when exacting standards are met, it makes sense to employ the judicious use of negative feedback when they aren’t.

Completing any challenging assignment (particularly in arts and humanities subjects) ought to be, at least in part, about helping pupils to find their own voice, to wrestle with tricky and even intractable questions, and to read and write with clarity and insight. Negative criticism is a way of trying to jump-start this process. If a pupil is producing work that doesn’t offer anything by way of critical questioning, thinking outside the box, or self-aware thoughtfulness, the jolt of some negative criticism can offer a useful means of redress.

Ginsberg meets Ovid

The first part of my final lesson today took a somewhat unusual path. It began with an impassioned attempt on my part to argue that the translator of Latin literature should never give in to any temptation (exacerbated though it may be by the necessity of passing public exams) to treat Latin poetry as a jigsaw puzzle; a puzzle in which the only thing we’re really concerned with is how to solve a set of problems, how to spot and decode grammatical detail and structure, how to provide answers to technical questions. Translating Latin poetry is not, or should not be, just like solving an equation.

The immediate inspiration for this diatribe came, I think, from two sources. First, I had fresh in my mind two blogposts (one by Johanna Hanink, another by Joel at sententiae antiquae) which discuss the inanity of having to translate for a teacher who treated the Latin language in a particular way – as a context for exercising their own highly developed penchant for pedantry. Second, my own recent reflections about how poetry (in this case the poetry of Virgil) can offer a source of consolation in times of melancholy were fresh in my mind too.

And so I launched into a brief expostulation. The essence of my point was that (though this can seem unlikely to at least some of the gadget-obsessed teenagers I teach) poetry can and has really *said* something to people over the course of its millennia-old literary career. It can and has undercut and exposed the shortcomings of everyday speech and everyday patterns of thought. It has meant and made meanings that defy easy categorisation – meanings that have created space and freedom for people to be. It has done many interesting things in that strange grey netherworld between acceptable and unacceptable public discourse. And, moreover, it has laboured to draw its audience into questioning the mores of many of those who arrogate to themselves the role of defining what acceptable public discourse is.

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The poetry of Ovid (which is what the lesson was about) arguably possesses all of these qualities. Ovid’s is a poetry which can push at various kinds of boundaries, invite heartfelt contemplation, transgress approved social mores, and probe and re-envisage mythical religious stories. It can look at individuals in odd and unexpected ways, as they make their way through remarkable or merely quotidian situations. While doing so, it can establish unlikely juxtapositions, drawing disparate stories and personalities into an unanticipated common thread. Perhaps before anything else (though this is of course my particular take on things), it tries to evoke a special kind of beauty using the richness of words and images.

I try never to lose sight of these characteristic elements of Ovidian poetry in my lessons – and any pupils who are reading this are welcome to take me to task if, on any occasion, they feel the elements in question have disappeared entirely from view.

Today my method of making a point about the way in which poetry can still *mean* in our own contemporary context was to point to the poetry of Allen Ginsberg – specifically his 1956 poem, America. This is a poem which self-consciously pushes boundaries in both form and content. I leave readers to see this for themselves (the poem is available online here).

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From my point of view in the lesson, the point of adducing this poem was not simply to show how a piece of poetic writing – in a recent and reasonably familiar, and thus hopefully easily relatable context – could really *mean* and speak very powerfully (even if, perhaps, offensively) to its readers. It was also to show that there is a parallel between the way that Ginsberg foregrounds a deep and dramatic attention to the individual (in this case Ginsberg himself), and their feelings, fears, and subjective consciousness, and the way that similar tendencies are also perceptible at times in the ancient poetry of Ovid.

So that is my story of how – today – an unlikely meeting took place between Ginsberg and Ovid.

Reading the Aeneid with teenagers

Since first being introduced to it as a teenager, I have loved Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. The experience of studying the Aeneid was what made me want to continue studying the ancient world at university. My enthusiasm for the Aeneid remains undimmed today as I find myself teaching the poem to my own pupils. This said, it’s a genuine challenge to try to get a class of teenage boys interested in reading ancient poetry…

It’s helpful, therefore, that the storyline of the Aeneid is far from dull. Aeneas is the strapping warrior who flees Troy, his home city, after a debacle involving audacious Greek cunning and a large wooden horse. He washes up on the North African shoreline, where he falls into the lap of Dido, captivating queen of Carthage (modern Tunis), who puts him up in style in her not-so-humble abode. Dido, listening to Aeneas tell of his Odysseus-like wanderings since his escape from Troy, is struck by Cupid’s bow. Aeneas, for his part, is enchanted by Dido – but, tragically for both Dido and himself, he has bigger fish to fry (or so says Jupiter, king of the gods). He must leave Carthage immediately and press ahead to Italy, where his arrival will ensure the foundation (in the distant future) of the city of Rome.

This is the situation that confronts the reader in the first four books (of twelve) of the poem. By leaving Dido, Aeneas discards romantic love in the name of duty, eschewing the queen of Carthage’s luxurious court and its exotic African location. He thereby ensures that an as yet undistinguished patch of Italy will one day be not just the home of a few clueless sheep and a sentimental, rambling old monarch (Evander, whom he meets in book 8), but the centre of the greatest empire in the world, a war machine, and the bringer and self-appointed standard bearer of ‘civilisation’.

Much of the excitement of this story lies in its sweeping scale, its coverage of vast territories of space and time. In its geography, the Aeneid traverses the Mediterranean, navigating both physical space and the boundaries between neighbouring cultures. In terms of history, the poem famously blends material relating to the mythical past, and indeed the mythical future (insofar as Virgil integrates allusions to the emperor in his own contemporary Rome, Augustus), together with its tale of Aeneas.

If its vast scope is so central a feature of the poem, the value of a GCSE paper which focuses on only a few lines of the poem can reasonably be doubted. How could pupils preparing to take this paper gain a sense of the vastness of the canvas Virgil is using, when their eyes are trained only on a few dozen verses?

One answer here is that they can’t, and that they should just get on and read the whole 12 books of the poem by way of compensation. Knowing what I do about the reading proclivities of teenagers, I think it’s fair to say that this sort of recommendation would be unlikely to be acted upon by everyone. It’s fortunate, then, that numerous passages of the Aeneid present in microcosm several of the poem’s main overarching themes.

The passage I’ve been covering in recent weeks with my GCSE class fits this description. In it, Aeneas faces up to the reality that he needs to leave behind Carthage – and his lover, Dido – in order to continue his journey, over the Mediterranean, to Italy. Doing so is about fulfilling his own personal destiny, and acting in accordance with the wishes of Jupiter, king of the gods. The passage raises questions about determinism and free will: is Aeneas really ‘free’ to act as he wishes, when he has a destiny to fulfil and the demands of the king of the gods to obey?

When Dido learns that Aeneas is preparing to leave, she’s distraught (it is her emotional state, not Aeneas’, that Virgil dwells on). Virgil likens her to a deranged follower of the god Bacchus, god of wine, drunkenness and orgiastic ritual, and he uses different poetic effects to illustrate her disconsolate, fluttering state of mind. On a superficial reading, the comparison to a Bacchus worshipper is profoundly unflattering to Dido – yet isn’t Bacchus (like Jupiter) a god? And isn’t his divine expertise concerned with precisely those energies and experiences which ordinary ‘civilised’ society can’t cope with? On this reading, Dido’s experience as a quasi-Bacchant looks authentic and human. Why should she acquiesce humbly to the diktats of Jupiter, as Aeneas does? This involves breaking off a special love affair and, as a matter of grim duty, repressing true feelings (Aeneas for the most part maintains a stoical silence), while setting sail for a dimly apprehended future – because he’s assured he must. Aeneas puts the political above the personal: must this be the essence of genuine heroism?

Virgil often highlights Aeneas’ religious piety in the Aeneid, but there’s a sense that this ‘piety’ often amounts to little more than doing what he is told by a powerful agent: on the contrary, Dido, by giving full vent to her true thoughts and setting enormous store on the value of her human connection with Aeneas, presents a threat to Jupiter’s designs. She is emotionally alert, passionate and communicative of her feelings, even as her character suffers a forlorn and tragic demise: she ends up killing herself as Aeneas leaves her city.

One kind of teenage boy will incline, at least initially, to a misogynistic interpretation of this episode, finding in it evidence of male mastery, strength and control and contrasting it with a pitiable instance of female weakness and desperation. But arguably it is Aeneas, not Dido, who comes closest to being a puppet on a god’s string (he leaves for Italy ‘not of his own accord’) and it is he who might stand accused of emotional inarticulacy: is this really a case of male strength and control in action? And is a masculinity constituted by strength and control here something a reader ought, in the end, to admire?

Lots of big themes swirl through Virgil’s writing in the Aeneid – and this is just one such case. My experience has been that, even if pupils are focussed on only a few dozen lines of the poem, there is plenty of exploring to do. It crosses my sceptical mind to wonder whether it would be equally possible to get as much from a few dozen lines of a Dickens or a Steinbeck.