Some books are better than others and there's no snobbery in that

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PADDY ROGERS, the Irishman who taught English at my grammar school, was old, myopic and unworldly, and we taunted him something rotten. Whenever he passed our desks we used to flick ink from our fountain pens at his mangy, leather-elbowed tweed jacket, knowing that he wouldn't (or would pretend not to) notice. Slowly the back of his jacket turned from light brown to blue.

He could also be - which makes the memory shaming - a great teacher. Even at 64, in the face of a misbehaving class, he remained enthusiastic, especially about those early 20th-century authors whose books, I now realise, he must have bought hot off the press as a young man: Joyce, Yeats, Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Auden, above all, T S Eliot. I can't be the only person who thinks Eliot the great poet of the century largely because of having been introduced to Prufrock, The Waste Land, etc, at school.

I know I'm not, because last week I interviewed Valerie Eliot, who as 14-year-old Valerie Fletcher was so inspired by a reading of 'The Journey of the Magi' that by the time she left school four years later her ambition was to work for its author. At 22 she became his secretary, at 30 his wife. Few of us end up marrying our set texts. But her story stands as a touching example of how literature can reach out to schoolchildren and change their lives. Many people can remember similar moments - when a teacher's enthusiasm for a particular book or author began a lifetime's reading.

All of which makes the current row over the English Literature curriculum in secondary schools less dingy than it might appear. There was nothing remarkable about the meeting last week at which the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority rejected the recommendation of a working party and insisted on a list of 'approved' authors: this had been expected. What is remarkable is that a majority of English teachers, it appears, reject the notion that there are certain 'core' texts which children should be taught.

Privately, teachers admit they will have little trouble working with the authority's list of approved authors. All that's expected of Key Stage 3 pupils - 11- to 14-year-olds - is that they 'should read, but not necessarily study in detail', a minimum of one play by Shakespeare, one work of fiction published before 1900 and one after, poetry by two pre-1900 poets and 'three other significant and influential poets', and some 'non- literary and non-fiction texts'. These aren't very draconian requirements.

So what's the problem? The trouble with a canon, teachers say, is that it makes their task one of heart-sinking duty rather than personal enthusiasm. They resent being dictated to; they'd like to be free to decide which books are appropriate for their pupils; they want the nannying politicians to let them get on with their jobs. And surely they are right to distrust the Government, with its dour diktats and little-Englander focus. What a core list ought to mean - what it used to mean when writers, critics and educators compiled their fantasy leagues of favourite authors - is 'the best that is known and thought in the world'. The Government, by contrast, wants to use the curriculum to impose that sense of national identity which it has itself been unable to foster.

This is what younger teachers, in particular, complain about: not what's on and off the list but the principle of having a list. They associate the canon with the guns of empire. They think the notion of 'great books' comes out of a mentality of rigid social hierarchies and class divisions. They don't like any books being excluded. They find that 'bad books' (Jilly Cooper, Jeffrey Archer) may be more useful and stimulating for classroom analysis than good books. They cringe at the words 'discrimination' and 'judgement'. They think the canon belongs to an era of old-style literary criticism, like F R Leavis's - the man who tried to reduce the 'great tradition' of the English novel to a mere five names.

I have sympathy with these arguments. But surely declaring that some books are better than others is not comparable with racial discrimination, social snobbery or moral disapprobation. All readers, even young children, naturally practise it ('This book's great', 'This one's rubbish'). And there is nothing sinister about the creation of a canon when it comes out of the shared enthusiasms of teachers and students, rather than from politicians nostalgic for what they were taught in school. We need a core of classics, and 'emerging classics', if only so that we can argue about them and replace them year by year. We need them because they provide a common language, a shared area of experience, beyond that of television and newspapers. George Santayana, asked which books young people ought to read, replied that it doesn't matter so long as they read the same ones. I see his point. Would I ever have been taught The Waste Land if appropriateness for a class of 16-year-olds in rural Yorkshire had been the criterion?

Ah yes, teachers reply, but there is no common culture any more. The centre has not held. We live and work in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society. What chance of interesting, say, a class largely composed of Bangladeshi children in L P Hartley and H E Bates? Very little chance of interesting anyone, I'd say. But that's an argument for changing the canon, not an argument for abolishing it. Romeo and Juliet, Silas Marner, Wuthering Heights, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Under Milk Wood - surely here are works which can speak to those whose cultural allegiances are not (or are more than) Anglo-Saxon. The canon, at best, will feed their hunger for learning about the cultural history of the country which they've come to or been born in and may even feel they belong to. More than this, great books - canonical texts, if you prefer - transcend national boundaries and have something positive to teach all of us about

the humanity, tolerance and mutual respect required in a multi-

cultural society.

In the United States, canon formation, canon revision and canon-busting have been a matter of fierce dispute for some years, as The Battle of the Books, by James Atlas (just published here) lucidly recounts. Atlas has stories of students chanting 'Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture's gotta go' on one side and, on the other, of Saul Bellow's Olympian riposte to the demand for more minority literature: 'Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read him.' The only wobbly moment in his book is when he turns wistfully to England and describes how it's still usual here for schoolchildren to be steeped in Boswell, Gibbon and Sterne.

You don't get much Boswell, Gibbon and Sterne in today's classrooms. But then I never had them with Paddy Rogers 25 years ago, either. What I did get was a conviction that some books are more worthwhile than others. I'd be sorry if that provocative notion were ever to disappear.

Neal Ascherson is away.