Why Bother with Recent Literature?

Paradise Lost Title Page

‘The World was all before them, where to choose . . .’

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 ColdCarrie’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.

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8 thoughts on “Why Bother with Recent Literature?

  1. Hi

    I enjoyed reading this post, thank you.

    I regard myself as an eclectic educator, I do not come down on the side of either traditional or progressive education using either or both as necessary.As you see limiting teaching to contemporary literature as wasteful, I see limiting myself to one approach wasteful. That however is not the reason for my comment, I did however wish to explain where I sam coming from.

    I tend to come down on the side of comtemporary literature rather than the old stuff. I am neither a philosopher nor a writer as will be clear I am sure, but I feel that your point has implications well beyond a choice of curriculum content.

    It seems to me that you have something here and I am unable tro put my finger on quite what I should agree with.

    I would have thought that contemporary literature would have been more useful to kids who live in a no book environment, which I would guess correlates quite well with a no wealth environment. Literacy poverty aligns quite well with economic poverty would be my guess. Contemporary literature would allow the literacy disadvantaged to interact with peers etc on a more equal footing.

    Everyone is exposed to contemporary literature and I would have thought that exposure to such would have given kids more literacy capital.

    You suggest that contemporary literature is informed/influenced by “ancient” and less ancient literature. Would it not be that case that studying contemporary literature would provide kids with the benefit of all of the ancient stuff distilled if chosen correctly perhaps.

    I tend to have some sympathy with the lack of relevance argument. Surely if kids study a wide range of contemporary stuff to L2/L3 then they could choose to deepen that base post L3 or indeed extend it to some of the older stuff.

    Everyone has a stake in contemporary literature. as it is relevant today. Why not sequence the thing the other way around i.e. contemporary first and then some of the ancient stuff at University.

    What is it that makes the opportunity cost of going the contemporary route so high. I am sure you have something but at the moment I am struggling to see it. I am concerned that the approach is part of the Traditional ideology, about passing on the culture etc etc.

    What is the opportunity costs?

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    • Think of it on terms of diverging paths, all starting from a single point. If you stand at the original point, you have a good view of the diverging paths. If you spend all your time on the diverging paths, the original point is less clear. Going back to the common source is much more useful.

      Also, older writing has had time to seep into the culture. Think of the character of Scrooge. Familiarity with such a cultural touchstone has far greater value than knowing about the hero of a contemporary novel.

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  2. Maybe because what our students are asked to do, if we get it right, is to produce the most recent literature there is … and maybe the question is relevant because that is not the metric we are using? Don’t we all expect the best students to have a go, but also to be developing maturity? The real question is how to assess across the range.

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