Bethan Marshall: Why can't I teach pupils some Edgar Allan Poe?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

And that is part of the fun. We can scream abuse at the screen that such and such a book or film has been wilfully overlooked, or express our horror at the choice of so many things that, at best, could only be described as a feeble song/programme/advert or whatever the list is itemising. Other choices seem somewhat inevitable. Dad's Army and Fawlty Towers were always going to be in the top 10 sitcoms. The Sound of Music was never going to be far from the top three musicals.

But none of these lists has the force of legal statute behind them. In this, they differ from the present national curriculum for English, which is currently undergoing review. For the last 10 years, English teachers have had to choose the pre-20th-century authors they teach from a prescribed list - a canon, if you like, of suitable writers.

In its first incarnation, the national curriculum for English stipulated only Shakespeare. Though other pre-20th-century texts had to be taught, it was left to the discretion of the teachers to pick which ones they wanted to teach. The situation has remained the same for all other parts of the UK, except England, where both subsequent English curriculum documents, in 1993 and 2000, have included a canon. The question now is whether this will change.

On 9 November, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) will provide feedback on its six-month consultation on the teaching of English, called English 21. Its website gives a little foretaste of what may be to come. In what it describes as a "playback" rather than a report, it writes: "The literary heritage is accepted, but the idea that it should be static is seen as unhelpful to a living debate about reading quality literature."

The Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, who contributed to English 21, has stuck his twopennyworth in, saying that everybody should encounter some Shakespeare, Milton's Paradise Lost, Wordsworth's The Prelude and Dickens' Great Expectations among other classics. Such a list begins to reveal some problems. I, for example, would never want to force The Prelude on anyone, but feel that no adolescent should leave school without having read Keats' The Eve of St Agnes. Most would probably recommend Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, which I can't bear, preferring her sister Anne's book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Individual texts provide far too narrow a range for prescription. Even naming authors limits the scope of what can be taught. All the writers above are currently in the national curriculum; but if I wanted pupils to read a Tolstoy or Maupassant short story I could not recommend one because these authors did not originally write in English.

And, while I might reluctantly concede that works in translation do not have a place in an English curriculum, the same cannot be said of the American writers who were squeezed out as the canon came in. I used to love teaching Edgar Allan Poe, as challenging an author as one can get, but, bound by the constraints of the curriculum, it has become virtually impossible to teach his The Fall of the House of Usher since 1995.

All the discussions about who is in and out, however, disguise the subtext of what lies behind a list of prescribed authors - a mistrust in the professionalism of teachers and a sense of national heritage. Were teachers broadly to be told, as Brian Cox did in the first English curriculum: "Make sure you give pupils texts of literary worth and value that will challenge them," then few would argue. Some writers are more worth studying than others, and English teachers have degrees that enable them to make decisions about who these writers might be.

That is important because teachers are well placed to know what and who will inspire their pupils, particularly in classes that are culturally diverse. As an English teacher, I want children to read. When I was teaching in west London, I gave my very diverse class different texts to look at - from the poetry of Tagore to the novels of Marquez, as well as both Tennyson and Shakespeare. But, in the current curriculum some of these writers would not count at all.

The QCA needs to be bold and to embrace the implications of its findings. A written canon will always be static and inflexible. It will always elevate some writers and neglect others. Lists are fine in their place, but should never have the force of law behind them if we want genuine debate in our classrooms.

The writer lectures in education at King's College London

Email: education@independent.co.uk

Comments