Pupils need Greek myths to stop English lessons from 'turning into media studies'

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Greek Myths and Old Testament tales should be taught in English lessons to stop the subject becoming a "glorified form of media studies", according to a veteran educationist helping to develop the first state schools specialising in literature.

Knowledge of Homer's The Odyssey and The Iliad and the Bible were essential for a proper understanding of many classic novels, Lord Quirk, a former British Academy president and English literature professor, said.

Schools should not be "captive to the past," Lord Quirk, 82, said. But he was concerned that young people were becoming less able to recognise quotes from literary classics. "We are in an alarming downward spiral towards a culture that values only the contemporary," he said.

Lord Quirk is advising the Specialist Schools Trust on plans for secondary schools to specialise in English, history or geography from next year. He hopes they will put greater emphasis on the classics,and encourage other comprehensives to do the same. "You cannot understand literature written before 1900 without understanding the classics," he said. "There are a number of allusions which kids today are completely baffled by but 100 years ago they would have been mother's milk to any child at Sunday school.

"Footnotes are fine, but a good English curriculum needs to give all 13, 14 and 15-year-olds a knowledge of all the Greek gods and goddesses. The Bible stories are absolutely essential for the understanding or all kinds of allusion."

From October, secondary schools can apply to specialise in humanities, choosing either English, geography or history as their main focus. Lord Quirk said schools that chose English should encourage pupils to read as widely as possible rather than studying only for GCSE or A-levels. Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Tennyson and George Eliot should be essential reading forpupils, he said.

Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust, said he understood Lord Quirk's concerns and hoped the new schools would lead the Government's advisers to rethink the English curriculum for all secondaries.

Trevor Millum, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, expressed reservations over English specialist schools, and said classic books already had a place in the curriculum.


THE ILIAD, by Homer

When the Trojan prince Paris runs away with the beautiful Helen, wife of the Greek king Menelaus, the Greeks are determined to win her back. After much fighting and a trick involving a wooden horse, many heroes - including the demi-god Achilles - lie dead, and Troy is in ruins.


The Greek warrior Odysseus's return to Ithaca from the Trojan waris delayed by danger and temptation: lotus-eaters, sirens, cannibals and a witch who turns men into pigs. Once home, there is the small matter of disposing of his wife's suitors, whom he shoots with his monstrous bow, to reclaim his rightful position as lord of his household.

THE AENEID, by Virgil

A Roman spin on the Greek story. Aeneas leaves burning Troy to found a new city. His old father dies, ships burn, and Aeneas plays the love rat with the queen of Carthage. In Italy, he kills hisrival, Turnus, so his descendents can found the glory that is Rome.