As with so many areas of education, one of the main arguments used by progressives with regard to teaching serious literature is . . . that there isn’t an argument. Apparently I am making a straw man when I claim that most teachers and schools avoid serious literature in favour of ‘relevant’ fluff.
I wouldn’t deny that there are many English teachers who love teaching Shakespeare, and primary school teachers who include great folk tales and legends in their teaching, but how many schools are there who have a coherent, chronological approach to literature which will build foundational knowledge in all pupils through the years? I’ve only come across two: my own (because I’m head of department, and I’m building the curriculum) and Michaela. The other five schools I’ve worked in over the last thirteen years have all had a disparate and disorganised approach to teaching literature, in which the cupboards are full of books of highly variable quality, and individual teachers pick and choose as they see fit. Many teachers hardly use the books at all, preferring lots of worksheets on their pet topics, which often have more of a whiff of media studies than literature about them.
A quick browse through school websites reveals the usual suspects: teen page turners such as Noughts and Crosses, studies of ‘spoken language’ including such eminent figures as Dizzie Rascal, and very little of anything earlier than the twentieth century other than Shakespeare. There is also a complete lack of any attempt to build up an understanding of literature chronologically. Units wander about between texts and eras, with no overall plan to build coherent knowledge.
Most English teachers associate ‘professional autonomy’ with being left alone to make up a curriculum as they see fit. Some consistency arrives at GCSE level, with the exam board syllabus, but by that time, a decade has been largely wasted doing bits of this and that. Even at GCSE, the diet has been very thin for many years. There is a bit of improvement now, but three texts and a few poems? Is that an education in literature?
During those ten years of meandering, the pupils could have built up a fantastic level of knowledge, a schema into which they could place any new information which comes their way. For example, at my school, because the pupils study Chaucer in year eight, they are well placed, by the time they reach year nine, to critique the idea that the Romantics were doing something novel when they introduced ordinary people and events into poetry. The Canterbury Tales is stuffed full of ordinary people and events! And because they have studied the bitterness of unrequited love in Wyatt’s ‘My Lute, Awake’, they know that intense emotional experience is not new to the Romantics either. Immersion in history is a wonderful antidote to the empty claims of the revolutionaries.
It’s possible to achieve curricular coherence within a department when all the staff accept that it is their duty to pass on to pupils their cultural inheritance. All must be convinced of the priceless value of traditional knowledge, and determined to deliver a curriculum which gives all pupils the opportunity to acquire this intellectual treasure from an early age. This is a very far cry from selecting Shakespeare from the supermarket shelf as one of many options for the ‘autonomous professional’.
I would love to be proved wrong. If there are lots of other English departments around the country building a core knowledge curriculum, please get in touch! I’d love to share ideas with you.