Sunday 25 May 2014

The study of Literature

When I was at school (when everybody was at school) we took a course for our GCSE called English Literature, we also took a course called English Language.

The reason and aim of the Language course (to this day) eludes me; we did not learn vocabulary or grammar - the only part of the course I distinctly remember was a piece of coursework undertaking analysis of the reporting various newspapers of an action during the first Gulf war.

The Literature course was (of course) a requirement to study various books and complete assignments on them. We did a Shakespeare play, a Jane Austen novel and To Kill a Mockingbird, amongst others.

Both of those courses shared a common theme, they were 100% coursework, there was no final exam. This meant that Austen (who I have never liked much) and Harper Lee (I didn't take to 'To Kill a Mockingbird') were never read. Because there was no exam in order to fulfil the coursework requirements I just had to read the chapter(s) for the essay question in order to pass the grade. Pass I did, I got an 'A' for both courses.

The reason for this post is today's news that UK Education Michael Gove wants to overhaul the syllabus a drop US classics such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Crucible" from the syllabus.

Twitter is alight with indignation (Twitter alerted me to the story in fact).

The fact is that 'English Literature' is not  just about reading books by English writers; if it was them surely Dylan Thomas, Walter Scott and Robert Burns would all have to be struck off too! It is about reading books in English (even if that is not the language in which they were originally written). It is about exploring characters and themes, about understanding the world and people around you with the help of an authors eyes, it is about exploring history through literature.

Gove's apparent specific reaction against American authors is inexplicable. Some of the most powerful literary experiences of my teenage years (the very time when you study for your GCSE) were courtesy of American authors. There weren't many people I knew who didn't read "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath and who weren't extremely affected by it. We read "The Crucible" and were lucky enough to see it at the National Theatre; amazing - to the extent that when we had to perform a play at the end of our course one of the classes chose "The Crucible" and just as powerful when performed by teenage girls.

If you are my age then odds are that you were also affected by "Dead Poets Society"; which was out at cinemas during the first year of my GCSE. Although the play featured was Shakespeare (the play we were studying in fact, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" this was my introduction to Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.

And where would we be without Emily Dickinson?

I studied literature in  the original language, I did French A-level. We read "La Peste" (Albert Camus), "Le Misanthrope" (Moliere), "Becket" (Jean Anuoilh) and "Therese Desqueyroux" (Francois Mauriac). I remember all of these for different reasons, but not because I was reading them in French. I did have to answer exam questions on them - so perhaps that is why I have a deeper recollection of those books, and certainly a deeper attachment - I still own a copy of "Becket" and will never forget reading "Therese Desqueyroux" in the car on holiday in Normandy.

The only positive of Gove's proposed changes is that the coursework would be abolished and replaced with exams. I'm not sure, however, that I would have taken well at the age of sixteen to having a deeper relationship with the likes of Dickens, Bronte or Austen!

If the focus of the exams is English as a language then by all means overhaul the 'Language' exam and teach students grammar and use of English in that course; focus on clauses, participles and all the other parts of language that are routinely taught when studying a foreign language course.

Literature should be inclusive. Of course there is a huge amount of powerful literature written in the English language, but there is equally a huge selection of literature in other languages which loses nothing being read in translation.

The proposed curriculum changes, as many commentators have noted, is likely to lead to less students carrying on their study of Literature to A-level and beyond. Those are impressionable years, and from recollection decisions are taken lightly and without much consideration for the effect on future years. It may not wash well with fans of the authors but being forced to read Dickens, Austen and Bronte is unlikely to gather the same enthusiasm as (from the opinions I have heard from those who finished the book) Harper Lee.

Michael Gove, who studied Literature himself, would appear to be imposing his own preferences on a generation of students, and possibly sounding the death knell for the study of Literature.