The loose canons of academe: Critics of a mandatory reading list in the English curriculum do education a disservice

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The Independent Online
NEXT WEEK the new national curriculum should be approved and presented to the Government. The old curriculum was generally felt to be excessive and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) has been working to scale it down. Doubtless there will still be rows, but this slimming-down process is intended to lead to a truce between teachers and government.

One row, however, is guaranteed. English in the present national curriculum has no fully prescribed reading list. Even before the SCAA began its deliberations, this was seen as a deficiency, and the authority had considered including a required reading list. A school inspectors' report has reinforced the point by saying that, without reading lists, the general standard of books taught in schools has been 'trivial and undemanding'. Now the SCAA is virtually certain to adopt the reading list.

For five years of literature studies between the ages of 11 and 16, the requirements of this proposed list can hardly be said to be overwhelming; pupils could, for example, scrape through by reading no more than 10 poems. And yet there is furious resistance not simply to this list, but also to the imposition of any set reading on our children.

The most passionate opposition came in a letter published by the Times Higher Education Supplement last year. This was signed by 21 academics and later reprinted with a further 500 signatures. The letter is a peach - a classic that should be placed on the English curriculum as a hilarious, withering satire. But the signatories meant every word (I can detect no irony). So let us consider this extraordinary text.

The academics say they expect 'sound grammar and spelling' from their students, but they think 'the Government's doctrinaire preoccupation with these skills betrays a

disastrously reductive, mechanistic understanding of English studies'.

I have never met any academic of any political persuasion who, when asked, did not complain about a catastrophic decline in the literacy of school-leavers over the past 10 to 20 years. In addition, some big employers now have a policy of not taking any school-leavers, because the standards of literacy and numeracy have slumped so low. An ability to handle one's language is the most elementary educational requirement of all - and yet, in the midst of what everybody agrees is a crisis, these academics choose to resist any improvements and, indeed, damn the very idea with loaded words such as 'reductive' and 'mechanistic'.

The letter goes on to claim that the Government is hostile to 'regional and working-class forms of speech', and that this 'betrays a prejudice which has little or no intellectual basis, and which is seriously harmful to the well-being and self-esteem of many children'.

The word 'intellectual' here, intended to imply that 'We know something you don't', is the first sign of the signatories' mounting megalomania. As for the point itself: English-speaking children have an immense advantage - they speak the most successful international language, the one that is the basis for all international communication. If they wish to exploit this advantage, some standardisation is essential. Local dialects and mannerisms are not being challenged or suppressed; all that is being asked is that pupils can at least handle the language at the most functional level. If they cannot, they will not get jobs and their English teachers will be to blame.

As pure comedy, the next paragraph is the best. The letter asserts that the signatories are committed to the study of Shakespeare, 'but to make such study compulsory for 14- year-olds . . . is to risk permanently alienating a large number of children from the pleasurable classical literary works'.

So little faith have these academics in the quality of teachers, the imaginations of their pupils and the greatness of Shakespeare that they fear early exposure. They assume there is some problem with Shakespeare that makes his works particularly intimidating to the young. It is as if science teachers could not teach Newton's laws of motion in case an aversion were formed to the concepts of absolute time and space. Or, on school trips around the National Gallery, the children had to be blindfolded, lest a glimpse of a Titian aroused their loathing.

Children learn to like things through familiarity and teaching. Some will be alienated by Newton, some by Titian, some by Shakespeare. It does not matter, since many will not. But if alienation is what you fear most, then let us live and die in ignorance of all three.

Now we move on to the intellectual heart of the letter. The academics object to 'a dictatorially imposed canon of supposedly great works' because such an imposition amounts to 'gross and wilful ignorance of more than two decades of intellectual debate among literary academics over questions of value and the literary canon'.

Well, 20 years of intellectual debate may sound impressive but, frankly, it wasn't. The reference is to a wave of new critical methods broadly known as structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism and probably half a dozen other isms. The general purpose of these methods was to question the basis of literary value, and the overall tendency was to eliminate the concept of great works and emphasise the equality of all 'texts'.

Much of this material was incomprehensible - often deliberately so; some of it was just bad; and a small amount of it was good. The same might be said of any critical movement. But the point about this cluster of movements is that they all tended towards the view that literature, as previously understood, was dead; and the study of literature as a privileged form of discourse was pointless.

As a phase in the history of ideas, this is of some interest. But in isolation it is meaningless. Nobody can seriously claim to understand Barthes, Derrida or Foucault, the leading writers in this field, without first understanding Montaigne, Descartes and perhaps a dozen other writers. In other words, these 'two decades of intellectual debate' enforce rather than deny the need for an imposed literary canon. Without it, the 'questions of literary value', of which the academics are so fond, will be incomprehensible.

In the last three paragraphs of the letter, the compilers lose their grip completely. The reading list proposals are damned as 'philistine, ill-formed'; they threaten to 'reduce a living language to a dead one and a vital literary heritage to a mummified relic'. They would, apparently, 'do serious damage to the moral and social development of our children, and to the cultural life of society as a whole, and all who are concerned with such matters should oppose in the strongest terms'. Remember, all anybody said was that it might be a good idea if the children read a few, a very few, of these books . . .

It is impossible to know what these high-minded assertions mean. If the study of English does not involve certain books, what does it involve? What is this morality and this culture? And why should English teachers have a particular expertise in any of these areas?

The answers to these questions would, I fear, hopelessly blur the boundaries of what constitutes the study of English. They would involve bland multi-culturalism, media studies, an inadequate smattering of history and sociology, and a good deal of partially digested structuralism. What they would not involve is any sense of the expressive evolution of the language, nor of its artistic potential, because such things can be understood only through the study of what have been accepted as great works. Students may choose to accept or reject this 'canon', but they can certainly do nothing of value without it.

Ah, the academics reply, but this canon is arbitrary. So is the second law of thermodynamics, and so is the fact that Paris is the capital of France. Yet I do not hear physics or geography teachers advocating the suppression of either.

The letter is a suicide note. For the obvious outcome of the academics' position would be that English as a discrete subject would be destroyed through diffusion into neighbouring disciplines. They are writing themselves out of a job - unless, of course, they really do all want to be sociologists.

Most people in the real world think that there is a distinct subject called English literature, and that this involves the study of specified books. Most people also think that their children should be taught this subject at school. But, if these academics, and the teachers who have so far offered only 'trivial and undemanding' books, have their way, no subject recognisable as English literature will be taught.

This arrogant madness should be resisted. At next week's meeting of the SCAA, opponents of the modest reading-list proposals should be treated with the derision and contempt their arguments deserve.

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