English canon fodder

Pride and Prejudice, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Jane Eyre... Modern fiction has much to offer, but you wouldn't know it from the A-level syllabuses. By Robert Eaglestone
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English Literature at A-level is a branch of the heritage industry, selling an England of lace and Empire Line dresses, lovable Elizabethans and obedient servants. At best, it offers "passnotes" to the latest BBC costume drama or high-profile Hollywood blockbuster. At worst, it sells students throughout the UK an outdated and exclusive image of Englishness, a long way from the multicultural society in which we live.

English literature was supposed to be the subject that was most relevant to "today" and demanded a personal response and engagement. Why has it become preserved in heritage aspic? There are two reasons.

First, what's called the "canon", the list of "Great Literature", is at the heart of A-level English. But the "canon" is more than a list of "my favourite books". These books are not only taught and examined, but also republished as classics, alluded to in newspaper articles, bought, performed and made into TV mini-series and so on.

Because of this, the canon plays a major role in creating a sense of a shared national culture and collective identity. Deciding which texts are in the canon and on the A-level syllabus is part of deciding who we are and how we want to see ourselves. As the Nobel Prize-winning American novelist, Toni Morrison writes, arguments over what texts to teach are "the clash of cultures. And all the interests are vested".

Judging from the dominance of 19th-century novels, the A-level curriculum wants us to all see ourselves as Jane Eyre, Pip, Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet or Tess. Not only does this approach exclude literature from other periods, but, most importantly, it also means that A-level English pays less attention to contemporary literature.

Rather than reflecting a "golden age" of England, many contemporary novels deal with current issues that are often closer to the A-level student than the teacher.

For example, Salman Rushdie said that his work celebrates "the transformations that come of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs". His novels are in part about living in a world that has become globalised, multi-cultural and hybrid.

Ian McEwan, speaking today at the annual conference for teachers at Royal Holloway, University of London, also writes about the contemporary world. His 1997 novel, Enduring Love, is about the relationship between modern science and the moral choices available to us now. Allowing students to explore these issues through reading more current fiction is one of the things that English as a subject should be doing.

Ironically, the contemporary novels that are on A-level courses are most often those based on a 19th-century template. This might be because examination boards and some teachers feel uncomfortable with novels that deal with the "harder edge" of modern life. Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger may be on A-level courses, but another Booker Prize-winner, James Kelman's How late it was, how late, isn't.

The second reason why English is becoming "heritage" is more involved. Doing A-level English is not just about being taught Shakespeare and a selection of novels. It's also being taught a way to read them, a methodology. The A-level methodology and the ideas behind it date from before the Second World War. They take for granted that all the readers come from the same background and share - or ought to share - the same "English" values.

Of course, the world, and the UK, has changed utterly, but the way of doing English hasn't. This methodology, usually taken for granted as the "natural way" of reading, is hardly ever discussed at A-level. This means that if A-level students decide to study English at university, they are often shocked to be asked to think about "how they read". Many exam boards are unwilling to grapple with new ideas or approaches. English at A-level is subtly providing a "heritage" way of looking at literature and at the world.

The transformation of English into a "heritage" subject has serious consequences. It's bad for the A-level students. They get a very limited range of texts to read. The concentration on 19th-century novels not only gives a skewed "golden England" picture of the world, it also means that students no longer see literature as significant in their lives. It also follows that books outside the canon are thought of as not worthy of study.

More than this, to be good at English, A-level students have to take on board a methodology that relies on a set of attitudes and ideas often far from their own. But this situation is bad for teachers, too. Often reduced to simply explaining what's going on in a book, many are frustrated at the way that English is preserved in educational formaldehyde. Heritage English loses all that's important in literature: the challenges, and questions that make it valuable.

If the chemistry taught in schools was as far behind the times as the teaching English was, then there would rightly be a national outcry. It's rather worrying, in fact, how much English and the heritage industry seem to have in common.

But things are beginning to change. The new guidelines from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority give some leeway to teachers who are keen to avoid literature being turned into a mental stately home. But more needs to be done. Brian Cox, a key figure in the development of English as a subject since the 1960s, wrote that "English is intimately involved with questions about our national identity, indeed with the whole future ethos of British society. The teaching of English... affects the social identity of us all".

Unless we want to be citizens of a theme-park nation, we need to change the way English is taught, to open it to different perspectives and to more contemporary fiction that reflects the modern world.

Robert Eaglestone is a lecturer in English at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book, 'Doing English: Studying Literature Today', will be published by Routledge this autumn