Canon Fodder

Michael Gove, in what has become known as his “Mr Men speech“, made reference to “a Great Tradition of English Literature – a Canon of transcendent works” as something which the curriculum should adhere to. He made this reference to summarise the arguments put forward by Joe Kirby in his blog Pragmatic Education to play Stephenie Meyer off against George Eliot for his rhetorical conclusion. His message is clear – Canon=good, trendy=bad.

Covers

Earlier in his speech, he derided the text choices of candidates (i.e. teachers) in English Literature GCSE, using the 16,929 candidates who “chose” An Inspector Calls as evidence of low expectations and seeming to hold up the single candidate who had studied She Stoops To Conquer as a beacon of rigour in a sea of mediocrity.

I have a problem with this. I would choose An Inspector Calls over She Stoops To Conquer any day. Not because I’m some trendy left-wing let’s-teach-computing-through-dance slave to engaging relevance – because, let’s face it, the dual context of composition and setting for An Inspector Calls is at least as distant from contemporary teenage experience as Goldsmith’s comedy – but because it’s a better play.

How do I know it’s a better play? I’m not going to justify it here. The fact is, I think it is. I have made a judgement that this play is better than this other play. I have done the same as F.R. Leavis did in the 1930s and the same as Michael Gove did on Thursday. I made a value judgement about the quality of literature that was not directly connected to when it was written.

DustyOldBooks

Old does not equal good

This is a perennial bugbear of mine. I remember the fury and outrage at the list of the worthy published in the National Curriculum for English (2000) as the prescribed content for the “English Literary Heritage”.  The list persisted in the 2007 revision as follows:

Matthew Arnold, Jane Austen, William Blake, Charlotte Brontë, Emily
Brontë, Robert Browning, John Bunyan, Lord Byron, Geoffrey Chaucer,
William Congreve, John Clare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wilkie Collins,
Joseph Conrad, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, John Donne, John
Dryden, George Eliot, Henry Fielding, Elizabeth Gaskell, Oliver Goldsmith,
Thomas Hardy, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Gerard Manley Hopkins,
Henry James, John Keats, Christopher Marlowe, Andrew Marvell, John
Milton, Alexander Pope, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, RB Sheridan,
Edmund Spenser, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jonathan Swift, Alfred Lord
Tennyson, Anthony Trollope, Henry Vaughan, HG Wells, Oscar Wilde,
William Wordsworth and Sir Thomas Wyatt

I’m not denying the quality of the writing that the people “on the list” have produced. But as a qualified teacher of English with a degree in the subject I resent being told what is good. I hate Sheridan. I find Wilkie Collins formulaic and potboilery. Defoe wrote one half decent book. Sir Thomas Wyatt may have been an early adopter of the sonnet but he’s no Shakespeare. Six women on a list of forty-five?

Of course, Gove is all about removing the prescription and putting the power back in the hands of teachers. Which is why his draft National Curriculum proposals for English at KS4 only specify:

studying high-quality, challenging, whole texts in detail including:

  • two plays by Shakespeare 
  • representative Romantic poetry 
  • a nineteenth-century novel 
  • representative poetry of the First World War
  • British fiction, poetry or drama since the First World War 
  • seminal world literature, written in English

Finally, I get to decide what “high quality, challenging” texts are. I can choose. In my mind, An Inspector Calls is better quality than She Stoops To Conquer. There is also no doubt, however, that my students would find She Stoops To Conquer much more difficult. So which should I go for? Which provides the rigour?

Engaging and relevant does not equal good either, does it? 

breaking dawn book

Of course it doesn’t. I really enjoyed Breaking Dawn when Bella finally became a character rather than a vapid pining excuse for inertia. I thought it was the best of the four Twilight books but it couldn’t hold a candle to His Dark Materials or even the Carnegie winning Chaos Walking trilogy I’ve just finished. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think it was “good”. But then, who am I to judge? What Twilight and Harry Potter are is engaging. This is a quality all of its own. Kids read them, lap them up, devour them. The writers have tapped into something that speaks directly to readers and grips them. This is a good thing. I suppose the adult equivalent is Dan Brown – sales by the bucketload, gripping legions of readers with writing that is at best formulaic and at worst…well…terrible.

David Didau (@learningspy) has written about Robert Swindells’ Stone Cold in the same light: 

“it’s not OK to use store cupboard favourites like Stone Cold as class readers. Whilst this may be a perfectly enjoyable read it’s not particularly worthy of study…So, while we should encourage students to read anything and everything, we should only actually study texts which build cultural capital.”

I’m not sure I agree on this example. I think there is some merit in the twin-track narrative of Swindells’ novel and there is some good suspenseful writing in it. But I agree with David’s principle here – “we should encourage students to read anything and everything, [but] we should only actually study texts which build cultural capital.”

Whose cultural capital?

BAFTA

The English curriculum, as I have blogged about before, must help young people understand their culture. The texts we study, and the contextual understanding they bring with them, help us to understand the roots and evolution of our society, as well as speaking timelessly of the human condition. They provide important cultural capital in a society which values this knowledge. However, a curriculum rooted too much in the past does the richness of contemporary culture a disservice. I proudly teach Media alongside English, and there is real cultural capital in knowledge of the media. It’s not capital valued by Michael Gove and his National Curriculum (in which media is completely excised from English), but it is capital which has real traction. And the humanising influence of a good, well-told story can be as powerful in modern TV drama as in seventeenth century poetry.

As with so many of these artificial debates, the solution is in the balance. Nobody – nobody sensible anyway – would deny the importance of knowing and studying canonical works. Nobody would deny the importance of reading widely; I would not seek to prescribe what anyone reads, provided they are reading. It seems as though nobody is talking about the importance of contemporary, multi-modal and media texts as worthy of study – but they are.

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9 thoughts on “Canon Fodder

  1. Great piece. Inspector Calls is about the only thing we read at school that was any good. So good in fact I even took my family to see it and they quite liked it too (my mum’s view on the theatre is: “if it doesn’t involve singing and sparkly costumes, i’m not going”). Priestley might be the one thing that gets her to go and see another play – which is at least one of the things we’re aiming for in school English lessons right? Repeat reading offenders?

    Stone Cold *is* rubbish though. Brother in the Land and Daz 4 Zoe are vastly superior. Why Stone Cold became the default Swindells option I’ll never know. But don’t use the new Brother in the Land books – they changed the ending, and it’s rubbish now. (Yes, I know *changed* the ending! Mortifying!)

    • With you all the way there. Mind you, Daz 4 Zoe was once a GCSE set text and I think that was taking it a bit far. I’m not trying to defend Stone Cold – it is very thin! – but it’s not entirely without substance…oh I give up! It’s rubbish. I concede!

  2. As for media, good on you. Doing Film Studies A-Level has turned out to be ridiculously useful throughout my life so far. People laugh, but I’m deadly serious.

  3. Excellent stuff! Modern, popular, traditional, canonical – I care not. It just has to be well written.

  4. Enjoyed the blog, Chris, and absolutely agree about balance.

    I like the fact that subjectivity in reading tastes, and what people deem to be good/well-written, can lead to such stimulating debate. I’m in a book club with ten other strong-minded, articulate women and we have some great discussions. I respect their views but we often disagree in unpredictable ways. It makes for tremendous quality of discussion. I’ve had similar debates with English dept colleagues about what we choose from exam syllabuses and what we buy to read with classes in Years 7 to 9. Love it. But I do value choice and not prescription!

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