Thursday 7 November 2013

English literature

The format of examinations in Britain is to be overhauled, says the Education Minister Michael Gove.  In English literature candidates will be expected to read whole texts (gasp!) including a Shakespeare play, Romantic poetry and modern verse, a 19th century novel and 20th century fiction. Exams will ask candidates to evaluate seen and unseen texts. English language examinations will require extended writing to explain, argue and describe events and 20 per cent of marks will be awarded for spelling, punctuation and grammar, compared with 12 per cent at present. So it's back to the old days, it seems. Or is it?

I remember, quite vividly, the books we had to read in the Sixth Form at school: Jane Austen's Persuasion (which instilled in me an aversion to all things Austen that has lasted to this day); A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which, equally happily, led to a lifelong enthusiasm for Joyce); The Nightrunners of Bengal by John Masters (preposterous racist trash). Have things changed much in the past four decades?

The examination board OCR (formerly and respectively the Oxford and Cambridge Syndicates and the Royal Society of Arts) offers AS/A Level GCE English Literature (H071, H471). I looked at their website. The preamble, listing the qualifications' 'unique selling points' is written in the costive form of English favoured by examination boards:

     Diverse texts ranging from work first published and performed from 1300 to post-1990.
     A strong focus on critical literary skills, contexts and interpretations by other 'readers'.
     A four unit format equally split between external and internal assessment. 
     Following feedback, set text choice has been refreshed and assessment simplified.

And what are these 'diverse texts'?

'Poetry and Prose 1800-1945' consists of  poetry by Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats and Edward Thomas

Novels for the same period are Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, The Turn of the ScrewThe Picture of Dorian Gray, The Secret Agent and Mrs Dalloway

Post-1945 there appears to be no poetry (perhaps just as well) and the following very mixed bag of novels: Oranges are not the Only Fruit, The Remains of the Day and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, The Child in Time, A Handful of Dust and Jane Austen's Persuasion (and no, I don't know why this blasted book appears here). I think the Waugh is the most misjudged choice, as it's the least funny. Why not Wodehouse? Grahame Greene? Anthony Burgess? And (speaking of poetry) where the fuck is Auden?

Very few of these books seem to me suitable for young readers. I've always been baffled by the longstanding inclusion of The Waste Land on our A level syllabus - some gifts are surely best reserved for age, to misquote Eliot.) Some things should be kept back. 

But - and I've made this point before - why examine literature? Why can it not be the one thing on a national curriculum that is compulsory but unexamined? Why can't it be taught and enjoyed for its own sake? Why?

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