Tuesday 6 January 2009

'Hi Sue...'

An interesting piece here about the perils of having your works as set texts on the ever dumber Eng Lit syllabus (not that there's anything dumb about Susan Hill's writings - she's very good - but surely not canonical?). Though Hill is creditably fair-minded here, it's hard not to detect a lamentable state of affairs in the classroom - and indeed the staffroom. If the teachers of Eng Lit know very little about it and care less, what hope is there? You can't help feeling that if it wasn't for the independent schools - and the invincible intelligence and drive of a minority of state pupils - higher education in England would be in a state of collapse. Perhaps it is, but no one dares admit it...


  1. John Lanchester points out in the current LRB that difficulty in the arts has been abandoned these days. Many of the canonical texts in Eng Lit are difficult to begin with, then doubly so because many are written in a language that is strange to us (Elizabethan English, Middle English, etc.). Then sprinkle that with a hefty dose of elitism, in the sense that for many centuries reading and writing were the pursuits of those we now call toffs.

    The only art form that welcomes difficulty today, according to Lanchester, is the video game. I think he has a very strong point, so perhaps schools should give their pupils a video game in which they get the chance to play, say, Sir Philip Sidney, currently stalking Pope and Mrs Gaskell while equipped with an M16 and a brace of rocket launchers.

    My O Level (in those days) in Eng Lit asked for comment on poems by Yeats and Auden. Those were poems all right.

  2. Ha! Love the video game idea Mark...

  3. I notice that HarperCollins are pushing their 100 great books collection for the Nintendo DS. Nice idea but doomed to fail.

    The problem with universities is precisely that of difficulty. Intelligent students will always thrive on difficult texts. They see them as a challenge and it gives them prestige. However, there are only so many bright students to go around. To get their funding, all courses have to fill their places and to do that they have to make the work easier otherwise they have to fail too many students. And therein lies the problem. Courses are dragged down by those at the bottom, who work the least, but can't be failed.

  4. I'm about to wade back into the fray here discussed. I will soon be teaching some difficult texts -- a 16th century Chinese novel, the much more ancient "Gilgamesh" from Mesopotamia, and so forth. But I'm not too worried. It is my passion the students will pick up on -- that's the light I hope they'll follow.

    Teachers make a huge difference in how students react to the material. Of course, I am also going to be faced with a really heterogenous group at the city university where I'll be teaching: Some will be good enough for Oxbridge, others will have only recently learned English. That's gonna be the challenge, more than anything. Still, if I can capture their attention, that's half the battle. I'm looking forward to it!

  5. At Durham i knew a gifted but lazy student who boasted that he wasn't going to read Paradise Lost because it was too long. He was intelligent but thought it was insane to read more than an hour a day. He went on to become Head of English at a school and presumably inculcates this worthless attitude in his pupils.