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No Choice about Reading Great Books

The Times, 10th August 1999


What judgement can be made about a nation that seeks to deny the next generation the precious sense of national identity carried within its history and its literature? If it happened somewhere across the world we would shake our heads. But here it goes by on the nod: destruction in the name of educational progress. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has designated this year, not next, as Year Zero and there will be many victims. Already the History Curriculum Association is protesting about the elimination of a proper sense of narrative from history teaching, under the new proposals - which substitute 'flexibility' for a knowledge of landmarks and key people. The changes in English are arguably as important, but I hear no roar of protest from those who think that literature matters.

The new English curriculum removes compulsary booklists at Key Stages 3 and 4, and needless to say that insidious 'f-word' crops up here too. According to the `Times Educational Supplement 'many giants of English literature have been removed' whilst teachers will be allowed more flexibility in lists of 'recommended' and contemporary authors, as well as writers from other cultures. In short, that means they can teach what they like. Those well versed in the ways of the world know that that the pedagogical impulse will be to offer pupils what they actively want to read. Those knowledgeable about teenagers will know that the kids will lobby for texts that impose few demands, but seem exciting and 'relevant'. Years ago I taught for a while; now, as an author of books for teenagers I visit many schools; as a mother (two children, now 25 and 19), I have played hostess to crowds of young people over the years. Thus experienced, I can assure you that I have never yet met a sixteen year old who wanted truly to be stretched.

A couple of weeks ago I was having a telephone conversation with a senior tutor in the English department at one of the country's premier league universites. She told me, 'You'd be surprised how many first year students come here who've read nothing earlier than twentieth century literature, apart from a glance at Shakespeare'. She said that such students found tackling the core first year paper on the Rennaissance very taxing. I should not have been surprised. As long as fifteen years ago a lecturer at University College London, with whom I had graduated at that same institution, was bewailing the sheer idleness of Eng. Lit. undergraduates who were blatant about their dislike of reading 'long books'. She said she found it very depressing, but could not see any way of reversing the trend, even then. Now there will be no chance at all.

Farewell then, Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, Bleak House and Middlemarch. Let the dust gather on Walter Scott, and consign Richardson and Trollope to the embrace of the spider. For that matter, cart Conrad and James to the secondhand bookshop, for although they may be modern (relatively) that prose is so dense it is far too much like hard work. As for narrative poetry - well, if you don't want 'long', you certainly won't appreciate having to slog through Paradise Lost. None of these texts would be studied in secondary school now, although once they were. Here is a fact most people will find astonishing. In 1959, at a state grammar school in Liverpool, my class read the narrative poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel by Sir Walter Scott. By no means Scott's greatest work, it nevertheless held the attention of a group of girls who spent their evenings listening to the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley. We would never have chosen it, but I maintain that reading it did us good - even if only because it transported us to a gothick world of the imagination which made severe demands on our concentration. At that time, of course, we received proper history teaching too, as well as learning clause analysis. No wonder we could cope with Scott.

It is hardly fair to blame the English undergraduate today or not having read (say) Jane Austen, or the so-called historian for knowing nothing abut the medieval period when they were not MADE to do so at school. When universities complain too about a decline in basic literacy and essay writing skills, the blame has to be placed on the schools (where else?) - and in particular on the easy-life ethos which seems to say that nothing must be difficult. This serves teachers well, since obviously they will have a less stressful time tasting Trainspotting (despite its terminal tediousness) with a class of seventeen year olds, than trying to show how The Mill on the Floss can provide imaginative insights into their own growing-up as surely as it describes that of George Eliot. And it serves the pupils well since all they will have to do is loll about dipping into books that confim them in what they think, or in their precious hopes and fears, or their desire to be cool and relevant. You cannot blame a sixteen year old boy for wanting to read Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. The responsibilty of the teacher is to encourage him to read it in his spare time, but enthuse him with (say) The Picture of Dorian Grey in class. After all, as Wilde pointed out, it can be tragic to get what you want.Great Books

I realise that young people today have far more pressure on them than ever. The world yanks them in hundreds of directions at once; from the magazine rack to the Internet they are bombarded with images and fragmented thoughts. On radio and television, language itself is fractured by the people they admire. It is hardly any wonder that application, precision and articulacy are undervalued among their peers. Sometimes it must seem that they inhabit Planet Chaos, and amongst such bizarre landscapes the rolling downs of English Literature can seem dull and irrelevant. But that is no reason for schools to dish up exactly the learning menu pupils fancy. It would be like caving in to your seven year old each mealtime, so that in the end he or she would only choose to eat chips and icecream. Such weakness is bad parenting, just as allowing teachers and their pupils carte blanche to drop great texts and study what they fancy is bad education.

It is a measure of the depths to which we have already sunk that many educationalists would regard the phrase 'great texts' as begging the question. But for me there is no argument: studying Shakespeare is better than studying Irvine Welsh and John Donne is a better poet than John Lennon. Without such scales of value nothing has any meaning or importance at all. What's more, the idea of 'relevance' is itself a shibboleth. What makes a classic is its capacity for perpetual life, and from fourteen upwards school students need to be taught how to quarry that within sentence structures or verses that may at first seem demanding. The message of our literature is that although times change, human experience in its essence does not shift very much at all - so that within the pages of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Defoe, Austen, Wordsworth, Dickens, Hardy can be found answers to questions that have puzzled since the dark ages, insight into our most abject foolishness - and forgiveness and and consolation too. That is what our children deserve. They will not necessarily choose it, but there should be no flexibility about giving it to them.

Offer them too much choice and the danger is that they will remain forever imprisoned within the tiny tenements of their own psyches. Don't give them choice, just give them access to the great works - from a single early lyric to David Copperfield - which define us. Show the mature wisdom of revealing to them what is sublime, teaching it with excitement....and you give them the passport to a universe of human thought and feeling which defies boundaries of mere time. This is our history, our inheritance, our culture. But thanks to the teaching profession and the quangos within the educational establishment, new generations, in the next millenium will be intellectually and emotionally dis-abled - all in the name of a politically-correct slackness which is profoundly corrupting. English literature is my birthright, and theirs too - but it has to include what W.B.Yeats called 'the fascination of what's difficult'.




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