Until recently, the teaching of English was dominated by literature written in the last fifty to a hundred years. Key stage three cupboards tended to be full of accessible teen page turners such as Stone Cold, Carrie’s War or Millions. GCSE teaching was as modern as the national curriculum permitted, with Of Mice and Men becoming almost obligatory. The only exception was Shakespeare, which was usually televised as much as possible.
With an increased focus on literature from the past, we are starting to a see a liberation from this imprisonment in the present. But that’s not the way many teachers see the curriculum changes. They are alarmed and anxious. They worry that older literature will fail to appeal to their pupils. It’s just not ‘relevant’ enough.
Its alien nature is precisely the point. Education is about providing our pupils with knowledge and experiences that they would not otherwise encounter. They are much more likely to read The Hunger Games in their spare time than Charles Dickens or George Orwell. That’s why we should be teaching them Dickens and Orwell, not the latest dystopian fantasy thriller.
In fact, I would question whether it is worth including anything written in the last fifty years in the English curriculum. We have limited time with our pupils, and every minute is precious. We need to make hard choices about what to include in our teaching. We have a duty to make the most efficient use of every lesson to provide the most knowledge and understanding, that will serve our pupils the best for the rest of their lives. This is especially true for those pupils who come from houses with no bookshelves, but lots of electronic gadgets.
Every lesson spent studying a contemporary poet is a lesson not spent studying Donne, or Milton, or Wordsworth. Every lesson spent reading Carrie’s War is a lesson not spent reading Beowulf. The classics from the past have been around for centuries, and have influenced countless authors who came later. If we give our pupils a familiarity with these, they will have a richer understanding of any contemporary literature they choose to read. But when we are making the choice, we should be focusing on the older stuff. It’s just more important.
That’s why the new English curriculum doesn’t go far enough. The exam board anthologies have generous selections of contemporary poetry, but they only go back as far as the Romantics. What of the centuries of great poetry written before William Blake? Surely it is more important to study that than to read contemporary poets? How can we claim that at least some familiarity with, for example, Paradise Lost, is less important than reading Sophie Hannah, or Grace Nichols?
I am not arguing that there is no value in contemporary literature. It is simply a matter of recognising opportunity costs, and making prudent choices for the benefit of our pupils. The study of contemporary literature should be left for university. The school’s job is to build a solid general foundation on which later, more specialised study can be built.