Earlier this year, PGCE lecturer, Lesley Nelson-Addy, wrote in Britain’s leading professional publication for English teachers:
The ‘new’ GCSE curriculum is Anglocentric and epistemically violent: it uses knowledge as a weapon. Not solely because of the removal of the Steinbeck classic, Of Mice and Men – a book most of us grew to enjoy and really learnt how to teach well. The GCSE curriculum is epistemically violent because it has removed any explicit, critical discussions about racism and race.
( ‘Changing the Narrative’, NATE, Teaching English, 29th May, 2020)
A Head of English at a London secondary school, and scholar in Literature, takes issues with the central claim at the heart of decolonising the curriculum discourses – that the great books by white male writers have nothing to say to those who neither look like them nor share their experiences:
‘When I read a book, whether wise or silly, it seems to me to be alive and talking to me.’ Here, Jonathan Swift aptly expresses what English teachers want for their pupils: the pleasure of taking part in that living conversation which is English Literature. To join in, pupils need to catch hold of what Browning called ‘the printed voice’. And it is this voice which should be the main one to be heard in the classroom (the teacher’s voice is that of a guide). Reading literature is a conversation where interpretations carry F. R. Leavis’ spoken or unspoken invitation to engage and respond: ‘This is the case, is it not so?’ Literature is not the place, especially in classrooms, for didactic approaches that seek to impose a single interpretation deemed correct according to only linguistic or political norms.
Close reading — that thoughtful, careful and sustained act of looking at language, imagery and structure — deepens understanding and appreciation; it also allows pupils to develop their own ideas. To be able to hear ‘the printed voice’ and ‘see the object as in itself it really is’, the focus should be chiefly on the words on the page. Criticism, Matthew Arnold maintained, requires ‘disinterestedness’; it should involve ‘an unprejudiced and impartial effort […] steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them.’ To foist preconceived or received beliefs upon a text, therefore, is to distort and misappropriate its meanings and effects. Another way of thinking about this is to say that properly the literary encounter requires of us a sustained act of attention which grows into recognition of what in itself the text really is, and that each sustained act of attention is itself imbued and becomes more discriminating with the experience of other similar acts of attention. Reading in this way is more a practical skill than a conceptual exercise, although the imagination is very much involved.
This means reviewing the curriculum, with a view to expanding it, or replacing texts, need not, in itself, be a radical act. The caveat is that chosen texts need to meet criteria of literary and aesthetic richness which alone ensures that books are able to speak across time and space – to inspire readers unknown and unknowable to any particular author working in his/her own specific cultural moment. For example, Milton’s reading of Spenser influenced his writing of Paradise Lost, which was read by Mary Shelley and influenced her writing of Frankenstein, which has influenced science fiction and so on, with an ever-widening web of connections. In 1700 John Dryden turned some of Chaucer’s tales into modern English in order ‘to refresh’ them. Just as this suggests texts don’t need to be tethered to readers of the same sex as the author, Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales, 2014, a funky ‘remix’ of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales shows ethnicity is not a barrier to the enjoyment and appreciation of established canonical texts.
Dryden regarded Chaucer as ‘the Father of English Poetry, so I hold him in the same Degree of Veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans Virgil.’ For Agbabi, ‘Chaucer’s original is brilliant. It’s probably some of the best work of English Literature, in my opinion. It has stood the test of time.’ Neither sex nor ethnicity prevented Shelley or Agbabi being able to take the imaginative leaps needed to read a book written in a very old, unfamiliar form of English. That both writers share an appreciation of Chaucer is a joining together and a sharing of an historical sense. It is a recognition that Literature has a past and a tradition, which comes from the Latin infinitive trader, literally meaning ‘to hand across’. It is to acknowledge that there are works, such as The Canterbury Tales, which have survived the stream of time and possess qualities worth preserving and passing on. That they inspire admiration, affection, humility and emulation is also part of what forms a community of readers and writers down the ages. To deny this historical truth is to deny how Literature has been formed and developed, and also how it has enriched the lives of countless people.
The Irreducibility of the literary
To want to rewrite the English Literature curriculum to reflect the lives and experiences of contemporary groups drawn up on the lines of race, gender and sexuality is narrowing, because it shifts the focus from the shared common and universal experiences of life to those of the present and the particular. Dorothy Koomson, described as ‘Britain’s biggest selling black author of adult fiction’, makes clear that she does not want to write literature which reflects ‘the Black experience […] whatever that is.’ For her, ‘Black people are just people like everybody else.’ It would be divisive to select texts on the grounds that they represent particular groups: who would decide which groups are more deserving of representation than others, and also by how much? Furthermore, how can fair representation be achieved when there are more differences within groups than there are between groups?
Many and various
There has never been one entirely satisfactory or stable definition of what Literature is or can achieve. What has always been accepted as a fundamental aspect of Literature, however, is its irreducible poly-valency. Keats, alongside generations of others, appreciated Shakespeare’s work for its infinite variety, its creation of worlds which offer and allow readers to respond freely: imaginatively, intellectually, and as individuals. Literature can be thought of as a complex overlapping of many fibres — a discipline in itself which also draws upon and weaves together a range of disciplines. A full reading of a literary text will require some knowledge of and passing references to History, Politics, Art, Philosophy, Theology, Psychology, Ethics, Science and Maths. To major on one of these, however, is to the ignore the differences between subject disciplines and is also a distortion, because it is not the job of an English teacher to teach History.
Enriching the canon
In her book, Postcolonial Poetics: 21st-Century Critical Readings, Elleke Boehmer sets out to correct what she sees as an oversight in postcolonial literary studies. The tendency to focus on historical, political and social issues has led to a neglect of its poetics (that is, the creative shape, formal structures and patterns of a literary text). Part of the pleasure of reading is also an aesthetic one: we enjoy a writer’s striking way of shaping English. And a further part of what binds us together is the sharing with other readers this enjoyment of style and the pleasurable interplay of form and meaning. Literature is resilient and is capable of absorbing new arrivals, without losing its essential coherence. T.S. Eliot observed: ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his [sic] complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.’ No matter that writers are no more; their works are brought to life by readers and critics who facilitate a conversation between imagined past experience and new experiences of today.
Daljit Nagra suggests one way to proceed: introducing outstanding ‘poets of colour […] would enrich the canon with their aesthetic excellence and help to complicate it with their fresh ways of using English, a new cast of characters and different themes.’ Victoria Elliot’s contribution, also in the NATE special edition, suggests an integrative approach for the non-examined assessment part of the GCSE A level Literature exam which sees old and new paired. It could work well, but it is a shame that the literary quality of the new texts is not addressed and that she has to preface her views with quoting Lola Olufemi who has little faith in non-white pupils being able to grasp ‘texts that were not written for them’.
Of course, there is not only one mode of reading, or one reason to read. For example, the Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds research project, based in the Oxford English Faculty and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, ‘is built on the belief that reading increases our understanding of how injustice impacts on human lives.’ No doubt reading can have such an impact, if that is what one is looking for and chooses particular kinds of books. But what about reading for pleasure and sharing in the vicarious experience of others not like ourselves? Moreover, the literary, aesthetic mode of reading has an intimate connection with an imaginative freedom. We would be failing in our task as English educators if we denied pupils the opportunity to encounter books that are best suited to this type of reading, and this means those responsible for the English curriculum need to observe literary criteria first and foremost.