Abolishing English Literature A-level, New Pope and others


It would be a scandal to abolish English Literature A-level

It would be a scandal to abolish English Literature A-level

Sir: I read with dismay your report (19 April) about the proposal by the National Association of Teachers of English to abolish A-level English Literature because it does not enable students to write suitably academic essays, and is too little related to modern culture. Frankly, this says far more about English teachers than about the needs of students.

It is fatuous to suggest that studying the literary classics is somehow unrelated to modern life. We may be surrounded by computers and spend hours in front of the telly, but human nature does not change. The whole point of studying the literature of any culture is to meet some of the greatest minds and imaginations that have ever existed, and learn about their view of the human condition. If teachers feel that the worlds of Chaucer and Dickens seem alien to today's students, it's their job to create a context and make them intriguing. That is their job. They are not paid to censor authors and dictate what is and is not permissible reading material. They may like to know (I speak from experience) that by GCSE students are already bored stiff with writing course work on The Simpsons.



Sir: When I take my final A-level English exam in June, I will have studied one 1990s novel, two Shakespeare plays, three Victorian poets, the poetry of William Blake, First World War literature, and a mid 20th-century play, novel and poetry. Each piece was studied in its cultural and historical context, with a view to past and present interpretations, and with great emphasis on "writer's craft." This list does not appear to me to show a "lack of breadth".

The idea that this A-level can't teach students "the skills needed to communicate" is odd, considering that a high proportion of marks are given for writing skill and essay structure.

In any case, it is so worrying it's almost funny that an organisation of English teachers cannot appreciate that, as any writer will tell you, reading is by far the best way of learning to write well.

And - if someone wishes to study modern media - I suggest Media Studies, or even better, read some of these wonderful publications known as newspapers.



Sir: If children are leaving schools unable to write essays, something must be done. But the suggested remedy - the merging of English Literature and English Language at A-level - is a scandal.

If you are too tired to play football because you skip breakfast, you don't give up football: you eat breakfast. Essay writing is that breakfast. If teachers are failing to impart essay-writing skills at GCSE level, that is the failing they must address. If members of the NATE are insensible, in the sense that Jane Austen uses the word, to the pleasures of close study of the treasure chest of of English Literature, they are unfit to be judges of its fate.



New Pope will keep Church in the past

Sir: Well, it is not what we liberal Christians were hoping for, although given the current composition of the College of Cardinals a more liberal Pope was extremely unlikely. There have been surprises in the past, but the new Pope Benedict XVI's track record is not encouraging.

However, in an odd way, by selecting an aged, hard-line Vatican bureaucrat, the Catholic Church may be even less likely to avoid ructions and a much greater liberalisation a few years down the tracks. How the more liberal members of the Catholic laity react over the coming months and years is going to be fascinating.



Sir: The continued opposition by the Catholic Church to contraception and homosexuality, both denounced as "intrinsically disordered" and "morally evil", is extremely unlikely ever to change. Ever since the early Church fathers and theologians, the only (regrettable) reason for sexual relations at all has been biological, i.e. to produce children. Since both homosexuality and contraception release sex from this permitted biological aim, both must stand condemned.

The Manichean dualism of flesh (evil) versus spirit (good) was outlined from the beginnings of Christianity and is central to St Paul, Augustine, Jerome, Aquinas, and ever since. Celibacy and abstinence remain ideals of the Catholic mindset, hidden behind the generous sounding praise of sanctified marriage. Clearly sexuality which does not have the valid "excuse" of procreation must therefore stand condemned, and no matter how scientific insight and modern secular reform might hope otherwise, we are not going to see a sudden lurch into the modern world by the Catholic Church.



Sir: I welcome the election of a hardline and authoritarian conservative as the new head of state of the Vatican: only the completely blind will now be able to hide from the fact that religions in general, and Catholicism in particular, are in fact peddlers of reactionary ideology and pernicious lies, irrelevant to the modern world, and obstacles to human happiness or progress. Long may those churches remain empty!



Sir: What opponents of "relativism", such as the new Pope, are really up against is the use of reason in moral and theological matters. They hate the democracy of discussion: that different views may be expressed on the important issues of the age, and that axioms may be challenged. This is however a major part of the Western tradition; Plato and Aristotle was endlessly challenging. So was Erasmus. What we are now faced with is a kind of hyper-authoritarianism, which attempts to crush all rational discourse about morality and society.

The new Pope, Benedict XVI, is said to be concerned above all about the condition of Europe. I rather doubt that his vision of total conformist submission to ecclesiastical power is compatible with Europe's alert moral traditions of openness and discussion.



Sir: Events such as hurricanes and volcanic eruptions are classed as Acts of God. Does the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger as successor to Pope John Paul II come in the same category?



Lib Dems green in theory, not practice

Sir: Andrew Cohen (letters, 20 April) says that it is a "no-brainer" that those who care about the environment should vote Liberal Democrat. Perhaps it might be wise, before accepting his advice, to look for a moment at the Lib Dem record in office.

The Lib Dems campaigned against GM crops, then approved their planting in Scotland, where they are in power. They also backed the introduction of congestion charging, then opposed its introduction in Edinburgh. Lib Dem councillors strongly supported the infamous Newbury and Batheaston bypasses, and support other roadbuilding schemes around the country, such as the potentially devastating Northern Distributor Road. Their four-per-cent recycling record in Liverpool is the worst in the entire country. And in Norwich, where they run City Hall, they support a massive expansion in local aviation, while air-traffic emissions are the fastest-growing source of CO 2 emissions. Finally, they refuse to rule out nuclear power: and how could they, given that they are in favour of retaining nuclear weapons, which depend for their fissile material on domestic nuclear power.

I half-agree with Mr Cohen: one would have to have no brain at all, to support the Lib Dems on the absurd grounds that they are allegedly environmentally friendly. The only serious green options available to electors on 5 May are, in Wales, Plaid Cymru; and, where they are standing, of course, the Green Party.



Sir: Michael Cullup (letter, 19 April) worries that middle-class people are unwilling to make sacrifices to save humanity from the effects of climate change (letter, 19 April). Why should we make sacrifices when we can save the planet by being selfish?

Why not give up the stressful driving and parking problems? In many towns and cities, time on a bus or train can be quality time. If you have the time, walking or cycling is even more relaxing and enjoyable. Get rid of that expensive car. Fit a little shopping into other trips.

Give up those airport queues and explore Britain's lovely countryside on foot. If it rains, no matter, there is plenty of waterproof walking gear. Soon your overdraft and waistline will be smaller. Later on, your overdraft will transform into a retirement pot and you can enjoy those extra years gained by switching to an enjoyable active life style.

The alternative to cars and planes is using your natural intelligence. No hair shirts for thoughtful environmentalists!



Myths of council tax and house prices

Sir: To have a debate about council tax, we must first understand how the present system works. Unfortunately, Penny Root's letter (18 April) perpetuates the myth that rising house prices give rise to increased council tax. The house price at the original valuation put her house in a tax band and probably it is still in that band. Even when there is a revaluation, most houses are likely to stay in the same band. Only those that have gone up more or less than the average will change.

So, there are many problems with council tax, but this is not one of them. Indeed, a major problem is that the tax on a very large house in Band H worth, say, £1.5m, is only three times the tax on a house in Band A, worth perhaps £100,000. As a result, it is pensioners caught in very small houses who really suffer, because they do not even have the option of selling up and moving to a house in a lower tax band.

Yet I suggest that a local income tax is not the answer. Think of the complexities of charging a different income tax for each precepting authority, which can be as small as a parish, particularly when people move. Also, we all know that some people evade income tax. The merit of taxing houses is that they are solidly there - and rather difficult to hide!



Sir: Tom Brown makes an assumption in his critique of the Liberal Democrats' proposal for a local income tax (letter, 18 April). He suggests that the current council tax is an appropriate tax on an appreciating asset. It is no such thing; the tax is not paid by the owner of the asset. I would love to be able to cash in some of the increase in the value of my home in order to pay my council tax. However, I suspect my landlord might not be so keen.



Social mobility and private education

Sir: Your report "Howard under fire for state school comments" (18 April) is too categoric in stating that the Independent Schools Council would "shun" the Conservative party's plans to expand choice for parents.

ISC is keen to expand choice and social mobility through making places in our schools available to children from modest or disadvantaged backgrounds. The problem faced by all political parties is how to achieve these goals without imposing huge extra costs on the Treasury. That can be done in a number of ways, and as a strictly non-political organisation, ISC will be hoping to speak to whichever Government is in office on 6 May.



Kindness to strangers

Sir: How about compulsory work experience for four to six months in Europe to give young people the opportunity to pick up some basic foreign language skills (letters, 16 April), and also the experience of being a stranger in a foreign country. It is worth reminding ourselves in the week of Passover the Biblical injunction to "be kind to the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt".



Poets and bluebells

Sir: Flattered as I am to have my lines conflated with those of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the first and third quotes regarding the bluebell in the opening paragraph of Jonathan Brown's "Death Knell for Bluebells" (18 April) were in fact taken unattributed from my own poem about Hopkins and bluebells, first published in my book Nothing But Heather! by Luath Press in 1999 and, for those interested, readable on my website at www.gerrycambridge.com



Marla Ruzicka's death

Sir: Marla Ruzicka was a brave and selfless woman who did an enormous amount in her short life for innocent victims of conflict. To run the story of her death under the splash headline "The senseless death of the woman who fought George Bush" (19 April) is totally misleading. She was murdered by a suicide bomber in Iraq. Your editorial rightly praised her work and you said her legacy "should put many politicians in America, and in our own country, to shame". Yet you have no criticism for those who murdered her. That puts you to shame.



Secular youth work

Sir: David Flavell writes (letter, 18 April) about state support to Christian youth work. He implies the National Secular Society is in no position to criticise this policy since Christians go out and help the needy and, he implies, atheists do no such thing. He would do well to look up the word secular in a dictionary and not confuse it with atheism. Most charitable organisations are secular, have many atheist members, and don't wish to shove a religion down the throats of the people they help.



What do women want?

Sir: Your election coverage informs us that Tony Blair is to target women voters with a speech on school meals, food labelling and smoking in pubs (report, 19 April). It is reassuring to see that he is so firmly on my feminine wavelength. If he'd only added manicures and celebrity workouts, he'd have me for life.



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