Leading Article: Milton should be optional

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The Independent Online
THERE IS, it seems, a body of academics in this country who believe that too many students of English literature are arriving at university ignorant of too many of the giants of English literature. One such is Dr John Marenbon, chairman of the Schools Examination and Assessment Council. As we report today, he has suggested a remedy: that the works of John Milton should be made compulsory for those taking English at A-level. At present, the only obligation is to study Shakespeare and two pre-19th century texts of the sixth-formers' choice.

The first question that arises is: why Milton? There can be no question that Milton is a great poet, and a very important one in the history of English poetry, but he is not pre- eminent in the way that Shakespeare is. For students wishing to grasp the flow and inter- connectedness of the history of English literature, some knowledge is doubtless required of Milton's polymathic achievements and of his influence as a model of the 'sublime' mode: not a detailed reading, perhaps, but one going beyond a glance at that marvellous sonnet on his blindness, starting 'When I consider how my light is spent . . .'

But for all save that minority of students, to make Milton obligatory seems arbitrary and gratuitous. Assessments of greatness are ultimately subject to fashion and constant revision. As one member of Dr Marenbon's committee has commented, what about Chaucer, who is also far from easy, but whose work teems with humanity and vitality? The fear of many professors and teachers of English literature is that to prescribe toughish authors like these would either discourage sixth-formers from taking English literature, or risk putting them off the classics as a whole, once they had gone through the ordeal of grappling with, say, Milton's Areopagitica or Paradise Lost.

Professor Brian Cox, who drew up the original curriculum making only Shakespeare compulsory, has no doubt that teachers in different types of schools should be able to choose texts that best suit the aptitudes of their pupils. Professor Cox is no progressive. He would never argue that the difficult should be shunned in favour of the immediately enjoyable: English teachers have been weaned from the once-modish view that to enjoy J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye yields more benefit than ploughing unhappily through, say, Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, and are now reckoned to maintain high standards. But he recognises the logic of courses for horses.

The aim of all good teaching must ultimately be to impart knowledge, interest and mental discipline. Where Eng lit is concerned, success will depend more on the professionalism and enthusiasm of teachers than on the inherent interest or appeal of the texts studied. If a teacher is frightened of, or dislikes, a particular author, students will pick up the message. Poets such as Blake, Browning or Gerard Manley Hopkins can be made either fascinating or repellent.

Such truisms raise the perhaps more interesting topic of how much weight should be given to the accessibility of a given author, as perceived by the teachers involved (for that, too, must be a highly subjective judgement). To draw an analogy: a piece of music, say the famous piano concertos by Schumann and Grieg, may be almost instantly seductive, yet may ultimately come to seem a trifle obvious or cloying. By contrast, some of Beethoven's finest chamber music may be hard to grasp at first or second hearing but may prove more lastingly rewarding.

So, often, with verse. True poetry may, as T S Eliot said, be able to communicate before it is understood, yet much of it requires considerable effort - an effort most people are unlikely to make again once they have ceased studying. That is one important reason for encouraging a good spread of reading at school - but not too prescriptively.

Perhaps thanks to good teaching, the same does not seem to apply to great English novels, as testified by the current booming sales of the classics - Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, the Bronte sisters and so on; or indeed to plays. Not even the force-feeding of generations of secondary school children with some of Shakespeare's more difficult works has produced a backlash against the bard, and there has been a steady stream of revivals of the plays of Ben Jonson, the Restoration playwrights, and latterly of more recent authors such as Oscar Wilde and Granville Barker. All of which suggests that, despite the fears of traditionalists, there is little danger of the British forgetting that literature is England's greatest cultural glory.