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.
Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London
Posted on: Fri 15-Nov-13 13:11:48
(43 comments )
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
Mellicauli I am with you.
Study of literature gives uniquely broad and transferable skills. You learn to evaluate information critically and to form independent opinions. This ability is the foundation of success in so many disciplines including science which many assume is the opposite end of the spectrum.
I read English language and literature at university, to give some idea (but not meaning to sound conceited) it was a very oversubscribed course which required a minimum of three As at A level to be accepted.
I now work in accountancy, and have found my abilities in critical reading and analysis of complex information and clear communication to clients gives me the competitive advantage over many of my peers who are mainly maths, economics or law graduates.
I have always been a standout student and was a full scholar at a private school etc. due to my linguistic ability. Had I been schooled during a time when there had been no study of literature then I think I would have been average at best as my numerical and spatial ability is underwhelming.
NB I feel very paranoid about this post being 'critically evaluated' given the subject matter and potential audience!
I'm not keen on your intro regarding the greatest this and the greatest that. It is a subjective view, and there is an entire strand of English critical theory which would disagree with your use of a hierarchy of text.
Books of all sorts, or film for that matter, are a way for one or more people to offer meaning and for others to receive and interpret it. Which changes in any case, according to the period of history in which the text is read.
oh dear God here we go again with Gove - I just don't understand y he is still in his position & not been sacked!!!
I loved English literature & ifact remember buying my own copy of Jane Eyre at time (still got it - I know sad). it is in my opinion a vital subject like RE & it certainly should remain cumpulsory.
The most important education any of us ever gets is about how life is, including how it is for other people, people in other situations. That is what you get from literature, and from history. Both are essential. I live in Scotland, so not subject to Mr Gove's decisions on education, but I worry about what he's doing to the English educations system.
Skills with no culture is soulless and pointless. We know Gove has no idea what he's doing already. This is yet another confirmation. How many more will there be, do you think?
I thought RE was a core subject? DD certainly had no choice, and she's 14 so just started her GCSE courses. She was happy to do RE and nor did anyone else in her year at school (a bog standard state).
Thanks for link though!
Oh I know that -I commented on the thread before everyone started on about Mike Tyson - I was just mildly curious what the list hoo ha was about
(I have a first in Eng Lit and work in a spec arts institution as the Lit Arts registrar - I'm more interested in the topic itself than Tyson...)
The Mike Tyson list was discussed on the Today programme on Radio 4 on Friday, here, the section starts 2h22m into the programme and goes on to 2h29. Mike Tyson is discussed for the first minute (where they clearly said he is a convicted rapist), then the interesting part about literacy in prison starts. Please don't focus on the mention of Mike Tyson, he is a 'celebrity' that means this topic got discussed, he's the hook, not the main point.
I believe that the study of English literature does more than that of any other subject in the traditional curriculum (I don't mean the current more limited one) to push pupils intellectually and expand their horizons. It forces them to consider not just other people's expressed points of view but the mindsets which inform those points of view, and so teaches empathy and understanding. A simplified black and white view of the world is, indeed, not unappealing to the turgid Gove and a convenient one for so many jobs - because it makes following the logic of the organisation practically a given - but it does nothing to enrich human life or make it more likely that individuals, when faced with a moral choice as to whether to go against the flow in order to do the right thing, will even be aware that there is such a choice to make.
What is the right thing to do? is a question most of us can no longer rely on religion to solve. In the modern world it is left greatly up to individuals to determine their own boundaries in matters of personal relationships and so on. How better to test one's own moral and philosophical possibilities than via the vicarious experience of dilemmas lived through others? By learning to read literature in depth you confront your own egotism, blindnesses and misconceptions. Don't all of us deserve this kind of education, not just the elite children of the better-off (who are so much more likely to be steered culturally into Eng. lit. given their background of books on shelves in the living room at home)? And don't we all deserve to work under bosses who are all the more likely to be humane, having thought beyond the life training manuals that always hit the bestseller lists?
And when the proverbial s**t hits the fan, the comfort that can be given by the ability to think and feel above it all - so greatly increased by a solid education in great writers like Shakespeare, Tolstoy, etc. - can make even a prison cell less of a cage. People, stop worrying about elitism and race and just get it: you speak a language that has the best, biggest, most varied literary canon in the history of the human race, and that also represents one of its greatest achievements. Let's all celebrate and enjoy it, and give our kids every chance to do the same.
I haven't seen any Mike Tyson news, nor the alleged list, tbh. Was merely commenting on personal experience of prison reading groups by academics...
I might look the list up though - it's obviously caused a stir. Was this recent?
"Dear God if we are holding up what Mike Tyson read in prison as any sort of measure of Eng Lit then that is such a low bar to have. This is a predominantly female site. MikeTyson is a misogynist and convicted rapist Really I can't give a shit what he reads now."
<fixed that for you>
Dear God if we are holding up what Mike Tyson read in prison as any sort of measure of Eng Lit then that is such a low bar to have. This is a predominantly female site. MikeTyson is a misogynist. Really I can't give a shit what he reads now. I'd just like some kind of balance in school other than Milton, Plato, Dickens and Shakespeare.
I didn't know it was a compulsory part of GCSE English. I thought the lit and lang exams were separate, as they were in the early days of GCSE and always for O levels.
I don't think that returning to the earlier (and longer lasting?) arrangement will bring any huge difference. Especially as the typical lit syllabus is detailed study of a handful of texts, not a wide sweep as described in the opening post.
I think that English language should be compulsory and literature an option at GCSE.
Imo it is necessary to improve the national average level of English language as it is appalling.
I know a fabulous pair of academics that started running book clubs in prisons. That's a total aside. I didn't ever ask about their book list, but I'm fairly sure it didn't feature paradise lost...
Mike Tyson has released a list of what he read in prison; the Today programme spoke to a Writer in Residence and Psychologist about the effects of literacy programmes in prison. The 'news' was an excuse to talk about something more interesting. I wasn't holding Mike Tyson up as a great example.
Whilst it's excellent that Mike Tyson hasn't actually raped anyone since his incarceration, he's not otherwise a good advertisement for the transformative powers of literature.
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!
I'm amazed by the responses to your piece. It would be more productive for further suggestions to promote your argument more effectively.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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