The slog of reading
Are we in danger of putting A-level students off literature for ever?
Thursday 31 October 1996
She had studied no worthwhile literature in German or French. Her English course had covered Shakespeare, Chaucer's Prologue, The Handmaid's Tale, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Martin Amis's essays on America, the poetry of Tony Harrison and Simon Armitage, and two short stories.
I could not find fault with any of the texts individually but I wonder at the lack of balance which excludes any 17th- or 18th-century authors. Also, because of the coursework requirements of that particular syllabus, it seemed to me that much of what she covered was lacking depth.
I am head of English in a city comprehensive and for 10 years I have had the daunting but stimulating privilege of choosing texts for study at GCSE level, first when we had 100 per cent coursework, and recently because the syllabus we chose allows free choice of texts to be used in the exam room in response to generic questions. Coursework of 100 per cent has already gone and the new syllabuses come into force in 1998. The criticisms of these two options were twofold.
First, some teachers would take the easy option and study undemanding texts. This did happen, as my experience as a moderator for English literature showed me, but only occasionally, and it was nothing compared with the quality of most candidates' work.
Secondly, assessment procedures were not as rigorous as those for traditional examinations. This is nonsense, as any examiner will tell you.
But even to discuss English literature in these terms is to let the tail wag the dog. What is the real value of studying and reading literature? (I omit the limitation "English" deliberately.) Examinations have important, even essential functions - to parents, pupils, employers, government and schools - but of all subjects, surely literature should not merely to be studied in order to obtain a qualification?
Reading great literature should stimulate the desire to read more, to explore the human condition and learn from other people's experience, and to be entertained. Unfortunately, the slow, grinding, line-by-line approach that too many students suffer because of the nature of the examination turns so many of us into TV watchers by default. The texts we read at school should be - and should be shown to be - interesting and relevant. Issues of prejudice, gender, values of society, love, hate, violence and friendship are there in great literature; that's what makes them great! There must be flexibility so that the tastes, age and background of teacher and pupils can be allowed into the equation.
It is too tempting to know best, like parents who force-feed greens to their reluctant children. Patience pays off. When Pride and Prejudice was on the O-level syllabus I was delighted. After a term of study with bright, interested pupils I had turned them into surly and resentful automatons. I was sure the new television version - with Elizabeth Garvey and David Rentoul - would do the trick. We started watching it and after half an hour one of the girls said, "It's a comedy!" Now I read Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm, study them all, and let the students choose which to prepare for the examination.
A literature course should introduce students into their culture without too narrow a definition of that concept. Our course includes Chaucer, Shakespeare (two plays), Austen, the Romantics, the Brontes/ Hardy/George Eliot/Dickens, Browning/ Tennyson, War poetry, Lawrence, Shaw, Orwell, Golding and lots of modern writers. It also has American, Commonwealth and translated literature; who would want young people to be ignorant of Pushkin, Chekhov, Maupassant and Merimee? Biography and non-fiction, plus science fiction, are represented.
The danger is the lack of depth. By setting classes for GCSE we think we can prepare potential A-level candidates for further study, and we have often been praised for doing just that. But literature is for everyone. Only 5 per cent of our pupils study A-level literature and only 5 per cent of them, at most, go on to study literature at university. For the vast majority, then, literature should be a delight, not a slog
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