Literature Written in English

As part of a document a friend/colleague and I submitted to the consultation process on the ‘new’ GCSEs to be taught from 2015, we included the extract that will follow on this issue of effectively banning American authors. The submission was co-signed by nearly 40 other Senior Examiners, many of whom also had significant positions and responsibilities in teaching, and all bringing to bear their collective and irrefutable wisdom as teachers and examiners of GCSE English Literature. The main thrust of the argument then was, however, a concern about the idea – again from Gove – that there should be a compulsory and discrete study of the Romantic poets. I’d like to think our arguments had some impact on this idea not making it through to the final Order, though it is both sad and still unbelievably censorial that the exclusion of American authors went ahead.

The astute observations on Matthew Arnold and other felicitous insights are from my colleague, whereas I contributed a more pragmatic, if similarly passionate stance. I share again to keep this debate alive, and informed. I will quickly mention that I know there is at least one HM government epetition [but not from the government!] doing the rounds on this issue, and whilst the gist is absolutely correct, I am concerned that in any attempts to continue working on arguing for changes, we need to be exact in outlining the context as it is [not just how we feel]. To the extract:

[b] The proposal states that the study of English Literature ‘should develop knowledge and skills in reading, writing and critical thinking. This allows candidates to develop culturally and acquire knowledge of the best that has been thought and written’, (writers’ emboldening).

This is a troubling statement in many ways. Obviously, ‘knowledge’ in itself is useless; understanding is essential. But the statement reveals some illusions. The sentence has been borrowed and butchered from Matthew Arnold’s seminal essay The Function of Criticism. The statement actually reads ‘the best that is known and thought in the world’; this extension is logical, for quite obviously the ‘best’ in the fullest term cannot be found entirely within the works of British writers.

Therefore, in the interest of academic integrity when designing this new curriculum, could the second part of this study be extended from ‘British’ writers to include ‘Literature written in English’? Otherwise it would be impossible for students to develop culturally since British writers have necessarily narrowed concerns. A specific rationale will be made in the following paragraph for the inclusion of Steinbeck’s influential novel Of Mice and Men with its overt reference to British writing in the Robert Burns epigram – an example of the cross-fertilisation of cultures, and similar is evident also in Lloyd Jones’s novel Mr Pip. Such shared cultural relevance is also found in Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus where there is a clear consideration of the damage and violence caused by sectarian enmity, a highly contemporary issue; similarly, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the sort of study of racism that could not be home-grown on British shores, and yet this makes it all the more apt as example. In short, the inclusion of ‘Literature written in English’ would allow considerations of contemporary issues with which – and there is clear evidence of this established through the current GCSE examinations – candidates from all cultural, racial and religious backgrounds can engage freely and convincingly.

Without challenge, key amongst these texts is John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The popularity of this for study in schools at GCSE is undoubtedly its length as a novella [in an English but also whole-school curriculum burgeoning with content and commitment], but it is much more than this. In a nutshell, this text manages to prove itself remarkably accessible as a read, and thus appeals to the widest range of students possible, but it also provides content that is challenging in terms of ideas from the broadest academic to simply but fully engaged levels. To remove the potential to study this extremely popular prose text because its writer is American would seem to be ideologically restrictive as well as pragmatically nonsensical. English Literature should concern itself with, as already acknowledged, aspects of a distinctly English/British heritage, but it should also more widely concern itself with literariness, and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men provides a uniquely accessible route into studying a writer’s use of language [description and dialogue], use of symbolism, character portrayal and development, and cultural, social and historical significance. As a text for assessment at GCSE, it has a proven track record of eliciting a full range of responses. This is also a text with a proven track record to meet this document’s stated aim to ensure students read widely for pleasure and as a preparation for studying literature at a higher level in its Subject aims and learning outcomes.

The ideal literary study promotes ‘a current of true and fresh ideas’, as Arnold continued to say. The idea of ‘freshness’ must rest on an understanding based on relevance of what a writer says and how such ideas are expressed. It would be dishonest and unproductive to arbitrarily impose limitations of national identity on a study of cultural contexts.

Matthew Arnold also warns about the limitations of such an imposition, a rejection of study of ‘foreign’ thought, fearing that ‘if we invent the whole thing for ourselves as we go along’, then there will be ‘plenty of bustle but little thought’. This statement is too close to home for comfort; in the interests of academic honesty do not allow ideas of the supremacy of British Literature deprive our candidates of the opportunity to develop socially, historically, culturally and academically. Avoid the damaging focus on an apparently arbitrarily-chosen poetic movement, replacing it with a wide Anthology. Then go on to extend the field of study to include ‘Literature written in English’. In other words, let us do the best for our candidates in drawing up a contemporary as well as a traditional curriculum.

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