MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Fri 15-Nov-13 13:11:48

Why it's vital English Literature remains on our curriculum

Under Education Secretary Michael Gove's proposed curriculum reforms, literature will no longer be a compulsory element of the English GCSE.

Earlier this month, a group of authors and renowned literary academics - including English Professor John Sutherland - wrote an open letter to the Sunday Times () arguing that the reforms would mean children missing out on a rich literary heritage. Here John explains why it's vital to keep English Literature at the centre of the curriculum.

Read the post, and let us know what you think on the thread below.

Lead photo
John Sutherland

Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London

Posted on

Fri 15-Nov-13 13:11:48

(43 comments)

Gove's policy would see literature removed from the core subjects studied at GCSE.

There used to be subjects taught in school that are now thought unnecessary in our more enlightened times. I’m thinking of things such as RE (religious education) and ‘nature studies’.

I regret their passing. In the discipline to which I eventually dedicated my career - the study of literature - it seems to me they supplied valuable foundation.

How, for example, can one fully understand the greatest epic poem in the English language, Paradise Lost, unless one understands what John Milton meant when he said the poem was intended to ‘justify the ways of God to men’? How can one fully understand the greatest Romantic poem in the English Language, The Prelude, unless one knows what Wordsworth was thinking of when he said: ‘Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher’?

But if Michael Gove has his way, in his reshaping of the national curriculum, it seems that Literature itself will go the way of RE and Nature Studies. Like them there is no calculable payoff. They belong in the waste-paper basket of history.

It's sad that one has to make the case for keeping the study of ‘Great Books’ as a foundation to education - as a ‘requisite’. But, it seems, one does have to. I can best do it by quoting myself in a book I published a couple of weeks ago, A Little History of Literature:

If Michael Gove has his way, in his reshaping of the national curriculum, it seems that Literature itself will go the way of RE and Nature Studies. Like them there is no calculable payoff. They belong in the waste-paper basket of history.

"There have been those, from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato onwards, who believe that the charms of literature, and its spun off forms (theatre, epic and lyric in Plato’s day) are dangerous - particularly for the young. Literature distracts us the real business of living. It traffics in falsehoods - beautiful falsehoods it is true, but for that reason, all the more dangerous. Literature is poison in sugar coating.

The emotions inspired by great literature, believed Plato, clouded clear thinking. How could you think seriously about the problems of educating children if your eyes were bleary with tears on reading the death of Dicken’s angelic Little Nell. And without clear thinking, Plato believed, society was in peril. Give that child Euclid’s Geometry to read in bed at night. Not Aesop’s animal fable about Androcles and the Lion (Aesop’s is the first work of literature we have written, specifically, for the young reader; it was written two and a half thousand years ago and can be read as enjoyably today as when it was first composed).

How, then, best to describe Literature? A good answer would be the human mind at the very height of its expressive and interpretative ability. Literature, at its best, does not simplify, but it enlarges our minds and sensibilities to the point where we can better handle complexity - even if, as is often the case, we do not entirely agree with what we are reading. Why read Literature? Because it enriches life in ways that nothing else quite can. It makes us more human. And the better we learn to read it the better it will do that."

It sounds, I know, like a commercial or an English teacher’s Thought for the Day. But I sincerely believe it and that belief is founded on half a century direct experience in the teaching, learning, and above all the enjoyment of great literature.

I spent a quarter of a century teaching at what the most recent assessment of international universities, a few weeks ago, ranked as the best university in the world - Caltech (the California Institute of Technology). I’m not a rocket scientist, or a theoretical physicist. I know about things like Jane Austen and Shakespeare. But the enlightened people who founded Caltech at the turn of the twentieth century believed that you would be a better scientist (a better human being, indeed) if - in addition to the cutting edge science - you had a grounding in the humanities. ‘Humane Science’ was one of the terms they used in promoting their vision.

Michael Gove believes differently, apparently. He intends to impoverish the nation’s children culturally and spiritually. Not, of course, because he’s a bad man but because, on this issue, he’s wrong-headed. Let’s hope he’s not pig-headed, as well, and will listen to reason.

By John Sutherland

Twitter: @mumsnetbloggers

HoratiaDrelincourt Fri 15-Nov-13 14:57:59

I disagree entirely. The core of subjects should give children skills, not culture. It's more important to be able to read a newspaper critically than to know who rhapsodised about Daffodils.

TheOriginalSteamingNit Fri 15-Nov-13 15:02:07

I thought Gove was all in favour of Shakespeare? And, bizarrely, Dryden?

So restrained. I agree. I am not a teacher, but have a life-long love of English literature and truly believe it is life-affirming (and the icing on the cake of English language and grammar). I'm not going to comment on Michael Gove as I have promised myself a day of focusing on positives and every time I hear/read his name I have to make myself a cup of green tea and lay down.

Education is about more than skills. It's about awareness and how you apply those skills. It should also be alot of other things, engaging/challenging/fun.....it's not so much about knowing who wrote about daffodils as allowing kids to access and articulate the highs and lows of their (and others) experiences. Digesting facts alone will not develop critical skills or encourage empathy.

I don't think a liking of Dryden necessarily means Gove is "for" literature. Maybe he's planning to destroy it from within....

HoratiaDrelincourt Fri 15-Nov-13 15:21:31

But he isn't saying they shouldn't study it, just that it will no longer be part of the core of subjects.

It has been the case that you could use EngLit to prove your literacy. And that to my mind makes as much sense as using a History GCSE.

TheOriginalSteamingNit Fri 15-Nov-13 15:30:12

Gove's a twat, though to be fair I'm none too keen on John Sutherland either. I think Eng Lit is very important (I would, I teach it) but I don't warm to all this 'human mind' business.

I don't read or write because it makes me 'a better human being' - and I don't think we can realistically market English Lit as doing that. Nor do I think it's even what we should be setting out to do. The text as a part of culture/production on the other hand I think is important, and studying it makes you 'better' in the sense that any sustained academic enquiry is 'good for you'.

Shallishanti Fri 15-Nov-13 15:34:46

He's not going to get very far with educationalists if he thinks RE is a thing of the past, is my first thought.

TheOriginalSteamingNit Fri 15-Nov-13 15:36:33

Yes, I thought that - RE is probably more mandatory now than it's ever been, isn't it?

DoItTooJulia Fri 15-Nov-13 15:37:59

English Literatue is one of those subjects that can educate in a multitude Of ways. From it we can learn language, history, politics, geography, as well as teach about bias, mores, love, hatred, friendship and lots of things we may never experience directly.

Removing it from the core subjects will do our school children a disservice.

I do think that here is scope to improve it though. We can include African Literature, Caribbean Literature, in fact all literature from around the world.

EvilTwins Fri 15-Nov-13 16:09:18

He's also trying to do away with Drama, Media, PE and various other subjects at GCSE which makes my blood boil.

The problem with the POV that "it's still allowed, just not compulsory so what's the problem?" is that it shows a shocking naivety of how schools are forced to behave these days. If a subject doesn't "count" then it takes a VERY strong head teacher to say "so what, we'll do it anyway". League tables, the new ofsted framework and forced academisation means that schools are playing a tricky game in which the rules are constantly training. Take English Lit (or Drama) out of the "necessary/acceptable" bracket and schools will drop it.

Gove is a moron.

IHadADreamThatWasNotAllADream Fri 15-Nov-13 16:36:17

I stopped reading this on sentence one because if he thinks that RE used to be compulsory but is now no longer taught in schools then I can't really rely on the rest being enlightening or useful.

working9while5 Fri 15-Nov-13 17:22:47

Skills hmm. Really? I despair when I read such things. God forbid students are invited to engage emotionally with their learning!

stooshe Fri 15-Nov-13 17:46:55

Of course literature should be studied. Reading encourages one to form an opinion, gives a better/wider outlook on life. I can bet that only state schools will have to follow the dumbed down curriculum. What priority is being given to "thought"? "Bad" schools full of pupils where, perhaps the parents are not into reading or need to read something in a newspaper before they can ascertain if something is up in the world or not, cannot afford to lose the Humanities subjects.
Also, as somebody from the working class, I am concerned that without having a nimble mind (which studying the Humanities encourages) are we not in danger of just turning masses of our country into work cannon fodder, full up of people who are afraid to look at their "betters" in the eye and talk straight without undue low self esteem aggression, or bowing and scraping?
I can see where all this is leading with the "bad" schools in the "bad" areas just offering a "core" level of subjects for GCSE , because they will naturally assume that their school will be shut down if a certain amount of GCSE results are not in, every year.
Religious, or not, RE SHOULD be taught in schools. It will fall in with geo politics. Britain, particularly England is insular, despite us waving our "multicultural" (as if that means anything in and of itself. It doesn't if we only end up producing narrow minded Brits who happen to be of different heritage, thus counteracting one of the benefits of it) flag. The class war is rife, we are not particularly great at coming to terms with ex Empire, and anywhere we conquered appears to have inherited a very defensive, narrow attitude, too.
I can assure you that the Tories (and previously Nu Labour) want to keep people in their supposed places. Wage suppression and immigration from countries where the education (maybe not some Muslim countries) is superior to ours is not reason enough to lose the "non essential" subjects. I can bet that they haven't done away with the humanities, abroad. Immigrants respect their culture and often describe Britain ( well England) as not having any. They are right. There isn't a culture or common aspiration, despite class, that just "is". Not many countries outside of Western Anglo derivative countries, flex that way.
Sorry Horatia, but it was your comment that made my head buck. So we should just produce chavs, of all classes who can work , but have no panache about them? This puts me in mind of when Australia went through its "cultural cringe" and went too far the other way in its anti intellectualism. Intellectualism shouldn't only be the preserve of the few. You mix a bit of "high" and a bit of "low" and a rounded person should come out of the sausage factory that is school. With this proposal, the sausages will be 50p Tesco Value. I like my sausages with a bit more bite.

HoratiaDrelincourt Fri 15-Nov-13 18:14:22

I don't have the reverence for literature that others here have, clearly. Perhaps I was badly taught (up to and including university?) or maybe my natural preference for language/linguistics gives me a different perspective.

I believe that exposure to the full canon of literature in English is enriching and enlightening. Equally, I do not believe that GCSE English Literature offers that. I absolutely don't believe that the proposals to remove English Literature from the core syllabus will churn out uncultured factory/dole queue fodder hmm

I've read a reasonable amount about the proposals in my paper, which has been looking at it for a while, and which is cross about it. But the cross people seem to have a vested interest - they are poets or literature teachers or novelists or actors. And they would argue to keep it, wouldn't they? I'll be more convinced if Brian Cox or Susan Greenfield joins in.

mellicauli Fri 15-Nov-13 18:15:35

I work for a large FTS100 company and I can verify that my English Literature skills are used on a daily basis for:
1) adapting to reading rich, dense text using arcane, specialist language
2) understanding of business metaphor (the low hanging fruit, eating your own dog food and all that good stuff)
3) reading between the lines (it is always the unspoken in the management missives you need to watch out for)

bsc Fri 15-Nov-13 20:49:18

Schools will still have to include English Lit at GCSE, because the double weighting score for English does not apply if the student does not get Eng Lit! (They double count the Eng Lang grade, not the Lit one, but hey- a compulsion upon schools without making it compulsory).

23balloons Fri 15-Nov-13 22:01:12

I would be delighted if my dyslexic sons weren't forced to study English Literature. I foresee many stressful times ahead for them when trying to decipher Shakespeare.

Literature isn't for everybody, I think there should be a choice whether to study it or not.

TheSporkforeatingkyriarchy Sat 16-Nov-13 00:06:29

I think it should be an option that was more thought out (and maybe an option for World Literature as well) would be better that the current system. A wider range of perspectives to connect to, it does feel a bit 'reading because it's tradition' rather than reading to connect and understand which drives a lot of people away from it.

JassyRadlett Sat 16-Nov-13 00:08:55

As an immigrant, I've always been mildly surprised that English Lit and English Language were taught as separate subjects for GCSE. Doesn't each enrich the other? What's the rationale for treating them separately?

Pluto Sat 16-Nov-13 00:13:59

It's all a storm in a teacup. As bsc indicates above schools will continue to enter students for Lit because of the double weighting in performance tables.

Currently schools enter about 70% of their Y11 cohort for Eng Lit GCSE. I think this will figure will either remain as it is or rise.

The mistake is that Shakespeare is no longer going to be part of the Language curriculum. so students who don't get to do Eng Lit GCSE won't study Shakespeare after the age of 14. sad

madwomanintheatt1c Sat 16-Nov-13 03:48:06

What rot. Bog standard English will still include reading comprehension from a variety of the usual books, and Lit will still be available as an option. Exactly as it was for O levels. (Yes, I am that old).

I would be rather more interested if the 'canon' wasn't so well-preserved with old white chaps, and if periodically something other than the Scottish play was dragged out.

And I speak as a gal with a first in Eng Lit who works as a Lit Arts Registrar. I adore Eng Lit, obv. But that treatise reads more like a warning against the subject, for fear you end up wittering about Milton unnecessarily. Stuffed chock full of references guaranteed to deter participation by all except the previously converted.

Nuts. You need a much more accessible argument, unless you are actually TRYING to get the subject hived off to a protected niche.

Pompous ass.

scallopsrmissingAnyFucker Sat 16-Nov-13 07:30:06

I am with madwoman here. I don't want the English-Lit described by John Sutherland. White dudes promoting white dudes. That is the problem I have with English-Lit. Where are the women? Where are the writers of colour? That's the literature I want to see in schools. Not endless lists of white men pontificating on stuff that affects, well, white men.

Characterful Sat 16-Nov-13 11:32:52

I'm amazed by the responses to your piece. It would be more productive for further suggestions to promote your argument more effectively.

DanglingChillis Sat 16-Nov-13 12:50:12

Sigh. I do think it's worth studying literature but sadly not exclusively, as John Sutherland has demonstrated. If you can't adopt the language of the people you are seeking to convert you are unlikely to convince them and JS has singularly failed to do that. So rather than wittering on about 'reading makes us more human' he could maybe a) define what he means by 'human' and b) presents some evidence that what he says is true. How about the evidence that the more people read the more empathetic they are (here)? That's a more convincing argument on the value of reading to my (philistine Scientist) mind. Or this blog post links to some other theories on the value of literature in terms that are more measurable. To my mind the increase in creativity caused by reading is a key skill we want to increase in children because it's absolutely necessary to keep us at the forefront of new technology and the money that brings into the country. Oh, and there was an interesting discussion on R4 yesterday about the books Mike Tyson read in prison and the effect on re-offending among prisoners of having writers in residence in prison. I'm sure there's some good quantitative evidence on that. Teach literature to reduce prison populations, that's a good argument if ever I heard one!

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