They've turned culture into something that has to be 'relevant' in order to be enjoyed

Out of the study of literature evolve the dreamers and visionaries necessary for our freedom of mind
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The Independent Online

Beware the curse of the acronym, I say. An aunty, gifted with the needle, sewed my initials in flowery embrace on to everything I wore when I was 11 - HEJ, which no sooner became Hedge than it became Hedgehog. And no boy wants to go through school with a hog in his name. The National Association of Teachers of English, all of whose members must have been to school themselves, should have been mindful of the Commonness of Acronym Contumely and Abuse (CACA), and found an alternative way of describing itself. NATE is hardly a dignified title for so distinguished a body as the National Association of Teachers of English, bearing in mind that the nates are the buttocks.

Beware the curse of the acronym, I say. An aunty, gifted with the needle, sewed my initials in flowery embrace on to everything I wore when I was 11 - HEJ, which no sooner became Hedge than it became Hedgehog. And no boy wants to go through school with a hog in his name. The National Association of Teachers of English, all of whose members must have been to school themselves, should have been mindful of the Commonness of Acronym Contumely and Abuse (CACA), and found an alternative way of describing itself. NATE is hardly a dignified title for so distinguished a body as the National Association of Teachers of English, bearing in mind that the nates are the buttocks.

Inexplicably, I recall looking nates up in our school library's Oxford Dictionary, round about the time that my nickname Hedgehog was catching on.

Equally inexplicably, I still remember one of the illustrative quotations.

It was taken from a book on diseases of the bladder by the 19th-century American surgeon Samuel David Gross, and read, "A piece of oil cloth, placed under the nates, will more effectually secure this object." Perhaps I was baffled, as I still am baffled, by what, precisely, "this object" was. And by how a piece of oil cloth, placed under the nates, could possibly secure it.

The reason the National Association of Teachers of English - NATE - is on my mind is the report it has just issued recommending the scrapping of English literature as a discrete A-level exam. Sounded exciting at first.

Not because I want A-level English literature scrapped - in my view everybody should be made to study A-level English literature - but because the proposal bore the promise of free and frank discussion of what A-level English literature comprised, and how it was being taught.

Out of that frank and free discussion, I dared to hope, would come a demand for the study of literature to be a trifle more exacting, not to say a trifle more precise, in that by literature we should mean literature, and not simply any old book or poem whose sole recommendation is that the ink is not yet dry upon its title page and that it appears, by virtue of its subject and expression, to be "relevant" to the students' own experience, as though our inner "experience" is quantifiable in relation to where we live and how we pass the time. Even supposing you could show (which you can't) that a pupil is closed to Macbeth because the play is about an 11th-century Scottish king and he's a 21st-century commoner from Bethnal Green, you would not be justified in giving him a play about commoners from Bethnal Green to study for A-level English literature, unless it happened to be a work of uncommon distinction. And even then you might argue that it would serve him better to take his mind to somewhere else.

Would be good, too, I thought, to scrutinise the curriculum's submissiveness to the fads of critical theory. When we did A-level English literature, back in the Hedgehog days, it was all "Discuss the use of dramatic irony" in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, dramatic irony being what happens when a character says she couldn't be more happy at the very moment the President of the Immortals is preparing to fell her with a thunderbolt.

Then theory came along with such equally mimsey concepts as it all depends who's reading (which it doesn't), and "cultural context", as though you need to check Shakespeare against what others say about Elizabethan England to be certain he'd got it right. Tosh! The cultural context of a Shakespeare play is a Shakespeare play. And while you might have to look up a word or allusion here and there, you won't learn how either resonated for Shakespeare from anyone but Shakespeare. This, my dears, being what we mean by reading.

Three cheers for NATE, then, if their proposal is that all the pandering should stop. Only trouble is, it isn't. More pandering, not less, is what they're after. At the heart of the report, a suggestion that A-level English literature should merge with A-level English language, in order - though I don't see how this follows - that students be given a broader understanding of current culture, by which NATE has in mind "the thriller, the romance, the crime novel", and, of course, the media. In other words - and still in line with the pious infractions of theory - the crap but who are you to say it's crap.

Why we want to give students a broader understanding of current culture when half of them are already dying of the stuff I cannot imagine. You might as well propose taking schoolchildren choking on the fumes of Wolverhampton for a holiday to Walsall. As for the media - well, my own view is that whoever employs the word "media" forgetful that it is the plural of "medium", which is an intermediate agency and therefore a possible conduit for literature, not some alternative to it, needs to take an exam in A-level English literature.

Besides which, no good ever came the media's way by people who studied it. You want to know when telly went down the tube? Take a look at the first influx of media graduates.

As for "current culture", only its slaves assume its value. One of the supreme justifications for the study of literature is that it enables us to know a culture when we see one, and not to think of it as merely the value-free agglomeration of all we do. Out of the study of those alternative modes of thinking and feeling we call literature evolve the dreamers, nay-sayers, visionaries, revolutionaries, idlers, necessary for our freedom of mind. Far from liberating us from some imagined elitist tyranny, NATE's proposals would make cultural consumers of us all, enslaved to whatever pap happens to be pumped out to us.

I think I know now what that piece of oil cloth, placed under the nates, was for.

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