After Gove: musings on teaching English Literature 1

This is the 2013 list of prescribed authors deemed fit for study in the International Baccalaureate Diploma English Literature course. It is 18 pages long, but please take a moment to open it.

author list 2013

This is a typical A level set text list at AS and A2:
Section A: Poetry
Robert Browning
Emily Dickinson
Edward Thomas
W.B. Yeats
Section B: Prose
Mary Shelley – Frankenstein
Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre
Henry James – The Turn of the Screw
Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent
Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway

and at A2:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear
The Tempest
John Ford – ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore
Ben Jonson – Volpone
John Webster – The White Devil
Richard Brinsley Sheridan – The Rivals
Geoffrey Chaucer – The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
John Milton – Paradise Lost Book Nine
Andrew Marvell – Selected Poems
William Blake – Songs of Innocence and Experience

In many cases there is a requirement for a group of “student” choice texts to be studied as coursework, though in reality the relatively poor breadth of reading prior to the Lower VIth means that these are often chosen by teachers and can, in some cases, be centered on discussion of a single passage or poem from a much longer book/collection. In the IB model, the choice is almost limitless, being bound by a few restrictions on texts in translation (the list of authorised texts for that is simply enormous) and by the format of the exam. In all, Standard level students study 10 texts in the two years of the course and Higher level students study 13. Whilst this does not differ drastically from the average A level model, the issue is often with the preparation for study at the post 16 level.

This is where I can begin to see the point in the recent comments by Michael Gove which have caused such a furore this weekend. Leaving aside for now the debate about specific texts – Gove is adamant that he has never sought to proscribe certain staples of the GCSE exams despite claims printed over the weekend, the simple fact is that many students opting to follow the study of English Literature into the VIth form are woefully under-read and underprepared. The average GCSE set text list looks like this:
Arthur Miller: A View from The Bridge
J B Priestley: An Inspector Calls
William Shakespeare: Henry V
William Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing
William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet
Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest
Thornton Wilder: Our Town
Section B: Prose
Students must answer one question on one of the six texts listed below:
Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird
R K Narayan: The English Teacher
John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men
Mildred Taylor: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Nineteenth Century Short Stories (edited by Mike Hamlin, Christine Hall and Jan
Browne, Heinemann New Windmill). All stories in the collection are prescribed.
Apart from Nineteenth Century Short Stories, any edition of the above texts may be

Which looks quite stimulating, until you note that a single text from each list is prescribed – in other words, our A level student can arrive in the lower VIth, from this model, having read no Shakespeare and nothing from the 19th century at all in years 10 and 11. There is, in the Edexcel model outlined above, rather a good poetry selection in the anthology of poetry.

So, back to texts: I opt for OMAM. I love the text and think that the exploration of the basis for a civilised society which it presents far outstrips its short length. It is a text which lends itself to teaching in a range f environments and at a range of levels. I would hate to be without it and have blogged about it copiously on here. Which is why I was a little surprised when visiting the department of which I will become the Head in September, to find it taught in year 9. Then I thought about it. It is simple, deceptively so, and deeply engaging, but since it can be taught at this level, why not drop it from yr 11? I have opted for Mockingbird in its place and am now told that this is to be dropped due to the fact that it is not “from” the british Isles. This saddens me hugely and I will find room for it elsewhere.

However, to state that there are no texts pre 1914 (why this arbitrary point in literary history?) which deal with similar ideas or can be assimilated by an average group of teenagers seems to me to be insulting to the potential of the young people we teach. Issues of race might not figure as prominently in these texts, but issues of social commentary abound in many 19th century writers. To read Dickens on London or Hardy on the fate of the rural poor is NOT beyond our young people. It is not easy to deliver this material and to overcome the initial prejudices which often cause us all to opt for the “modern”, but it is worth persevering here because the rewards are great and the potential benefit for any student moving up to the VIth form is immense.

What bothers me is the 1914 cut off. This seems to have been in place for many years. Surely it is time to move the goalposts. If we must be shackled by conflict, how about 1939? It is not impossible to imagine the discussions generated by a work like A Passage To India with regards to attitudes to race or by Down and Out in Paris and London. But surely the opportunity which is not being taken is that which opens up Literature to study. By all means direct my thinking as I plan my dream curriculum – Give me modules such as “The novel – 19th Century” or “The Modern Novel” even at GCSE and give me the choice to deliver work which I am passionate about. A list of authors deemed suitable would be a start: who says that Great Expectations is acceptable while David Copperfield or Nickleby is not? Let us move from prescribed works and allow regional variation to come into play. I know I am a little odd, but as a child, Hardy spoke to me precisely because I lived in rural Wiltshire and found empathy with his Wessex. Likewise, students in certain parts of the country may well find it easier to relate to writers more closely linked to their own world – I have never got on with Lawrence, for example, and I wonder if colleagues who grew up in the villages and towns of Nottinghamshire find him more engaging?

I have no answers. I regret the passing of Mockingbird and OMAM from GCSE text status, if that is indeed what happens, but they are likely to find their way into classrooms regardless of exams. I welcome the possibility that a student entering the Upper VIth and faced with discussing the Canon as part of an AQA coursework piece, might actually have read some of what is felt to be Canonical.

What I want more than anything is for my department and me to be able to sit down and choose our texts to compliment our strengths as teachers; to choose texts suited to our cohort and to be able to choose an author and explore the texts rather than to be given this straitjacket of approval by an exam board.