There was coverage recently of a letter signed by a group of authors and actors protesting a makeover of GCSE school curriculum. This is not really news but the consequence being protested was that English Literature may no longer be a compulsory subject.
I’m old enough to have never thought twice about English Literature as anything but a standard subject. On the face of it this is yet another erosion of our culture. The next generation will be deprived of exposure to Classic English literature – Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen. Youngsters in deprived homes without the benefit of being surrounded by books will possibly never open the cover of our literary heritage. They may never develop a love of reading to stay with them for the rest of their lives.
I was fortunate to live in a book-rich house. I learnt to read with Janet and John and quickly raced on. I went to the town library and took out four or six books a fortnight – novels, histories and biographies. I was self-propelling with no parents or teachers telling me what to read… And loved it. I never read garbage but I never chose the Classics either.
During school my reading had to slow down as there was a standard progression through reading books with no testing of comprehension. The objective appeared to be to hold me back rather than urge me on. In secondary school we began the “classic literature”. My highlights were a kindly and amazing teacher who read Diaries of a Foxhunting Man and Over The Bridge to us because he enjoyed them and wanted to share his passion for it. I remember The Pearl win less affection. As exams loomed we moved on to Romeo and Juliet, the Secret Agent and collected poems including Robert Frost and John Betjeman. At A Level I was subjected to Dombey and Son, Antony and Cleopatra and some Tennyson. This was the only reading I did for some years. I didn’t have time to read for enjoyment with exams. I loathed most of the exam texts. I still can’t get any pleasure from Dickens, and Shakespeare is only enjoyable when performed in a stylish way. The modern poetry I enjoyed and still can read happily.
It was only when all the studying was done that I could return to reading for pleasure. Uncannily it is a similar story I have seen with my children and a story I have heard when discussing with other people. Children who never learned to read for pleasure before school they have been put off reading for the rest of their life. In my opinion, the letter writers are wrong. English Literature may be an incentive for a tiny proportion of children but it has the opposite effect for many.
The paring back of the curriculum is always doomed to failure. This isn’t an educationalist argument. Teachers do not know best what to teach; their specialism is how to teach it. The curriculum is more a philosophical and cultural statement which deserves far greater consideration before any changes are made. There is much to be said for a nation which shares a common grounding and values but there is a risk of becoming insular. The authors are hardly an independent observer and they have doubtless had their attention drawn to the situation by publishers keen to protect their market. An interesting footnote was from Louis de Bernieres who, having been a teacher previously, praised the move. He hated teaching English Literature to a class of disengaged pupils.
Fundamentally, the decision to strip out English Lit from the list of compulsory subjects smacks of political action rather than a clear policy. Reducing the curriculum to a core Baccalaureate portfolio is setting an agenda of “essentials” that will attract the greatest resourcing and focus. The disengaged pupils and parents will argue that many of the things they learn in school they will never use again. There is some merit to this argument which shouldn’t be ignored. If we look at education providing the tools for life as the criteria our English and Maths would be reduced to basic numeracy and literacy. There would be no justification for science, history or other languages. We would need to find more room in the school day for nutrition, exercise and parenting. If we raise the expectation that we are trying to provide skills for work or further education we can introduce a whole range of subjects into the mix.
English Literature is an anomaly. Effectively it teaches an appreciation of an art and so it’s odd that there aren’t similar qualifications in musical or fine art appreciation. Maybe it’s a historical thing which goes back to a time when books could be distributed but reasonable facsimiles of paintings or recordings of music weren’t. What it does teach is a valuable skill…the ability to appraise. Most other subjects are about acquiring new knowledge and the knowledge involved can only ever be a “highlights” package at any level. The ability to take something and investigate it – whether music, sculpture, an essay or a car engine – and have an opinion backed up by evidence is a really important life skill which is frowned upon in some other subjects.
These arguments are crucial in defining our brand. We may not be the hardest working nation in the world and we have lost our world lead in many areas. We are still recognised as having excellence in design and innovation – which subjects in the school day underpin those qualities?
When we are no longer applying our knowledge gained from the “essential” subjects – of titration, declining German verbs, analysing the influences on the Reformation and calculus – maybe there will still be a requirement to look at the world around us and for our own rational views.