Restore English literature’s classics to the curriculum? They are already there

Who could possibly disagree with Michael Gove's intention to restore the classics of English literature to the forefront of the curriculum?

The education secretary was on fine head boy form when addressing the Conservative Party Conference on Tuesday, attempting to position the Tories as 'the party of the teacher' while seeming a touch didactic and patrician in his attitude towards teachers.

'In order to help them,' he declared, 'we will reform our curriculum and exam system. We need to reform English. The great tradition of our literature – Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy – should be at the heart of school life.

'Our literature is the best in the world – it is every child's birthright and we should be proud to teach it in every school.'

This is the sort of thing that always plays well at a Tory conference: whatever the subject, be it policing, the army or in this case literature, a jingoistic assertion that the British version is the world's best will guarantee a rapturous reception. Add in an insinuation that there has lately been a conspicuous lack of pride on display about the subject in question, probably owing to a pesky 'political correctness' that fosters a reluctance to celebrate English culture, and you can be sure that the party faithful will return to the shires with their worldview reinforced.

On closer examination, the troubles with Mr Gove's stance are manifold. The first lies in his suggestion that the writers he mentions need to be restored to view, as if their books were currently languishing in a locked cupboard at every self-respecting comp, while the teachers through choice or obligation instead foist something 'relevant' on their pupils: an Anthony Horowitz, say, or a Jacqueline Wilson.

A look at the National Curriculum, a document with which one would imagine Mr Gove to be familiar, reveals that secondary school English teachers are compelled to represent four strands in their selection of texts. They are: 'stories, poetry and drama drawn from different historical times, including contemporary writers'; 'texts that enable pupils to appreciate the qualities and distinctiveness of texts from different cultures and traditions'; 'at least one play by Shakespeare'; and 'texts that enable pupils to understand the appeal and importance over time of texts from the English literary heritage'.

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It goes on to list 26 pre-20th century writers from whom teachers must choose. I won't list them all but rest assured that Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Keats and Swift are already there, alongside others such as Charlotte Bronte, Geoffrey Chaucer, Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Wordsworth. And these are only the core writers: teachers may supplement them with their own choices of others that fit within the four strands. These could very well include John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, assuming that it was him to whom Mr Gove referred, rather than his wife Mary.

Of course the writers that Mr Gove mentions are ones whose work will enrich any life. To cite another who might have made it on to his somewhat arbitrary list, the metaphysical poet John Donne, 'No man is an island entire of itself; every man / is a piece of the continent, a part of the main'. Literature is in large part about communication, about comfort gained through reading of experiences that chime with and enhance our understanding of our own lives. The American novelist Jonathan Franzen, who appeared at the UEA Literary Festival on Wednesday evening, recently described his mission as being 'to find an adequate narrative vehicle for the most difficult stuff at the core of me, in the hope that that might resonate with the reader who otherwise has been feeling alone with those deep, difficult feelings'.

Herein lies its potential for teenagers the world over; the traditional teenage lament that 'no one understands me', that no one before could ever have felt how they do, may be allayed by discovering a literary character who articulates their concerns. It might be Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, it might be Romeo or Juliet. It follows that the business of literature itself is not constrained within national borders, and has nothing to do with the patriotism that Mr Gove invokes. Literature is an international medium, the best modern writers of any nationality are engaged in a global conversation, and any attempt to claim them for their native patch of land, to talk of 'our writers', tends to look possessive, reductive, ultimately rather parochial and counter-intuitive to the spirit in which they operate.

If he had to name names, it is a shame that he chose not to pay tribute to some of the brilliant literary talents at work in Britain today.

Mr Gove's approach fits into a conservative tradition of retreating to the past, wallowing in the safety and security of an agreed, fixed canon into which history has sifted each author into its rightful place: the roguish Byron wandering the foothills, Dickens and Austen approaching the summit, Shakespeare atop the mountain overlooking them all.

It is entirely right that these writers remain considered relevant, for they deal in the universals of human experience: love, longing, ambition, mortality, pride, happiness, despair. They contributed words and phrases that we use all the time, and created a tradition within which most contemporary writers operate. Their characters' names and costumes may appear unfamiliar but the fundamental concerns hold true. Their work also offers the teenage experience of discovering archaic language as an abstract pleasure, becoming transfixed by some gleaming gem of a phrase. In his 1947 essay Why I Write, George Orwell caught it perfectly: 'When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words. The lines from Paradise Lost – 'So hee with difficulty and labour hard / Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee', which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my backbone; and the spelling 'hee' for 'he' was an added pleasure.'

Moreover some such texts may appear impenetrable but can actually amount to a lesson in the value of hard graft, as students work their way, with a good teacher's guidance, towards the kernel and see their thoughtfulness and persistence rewarded by reaching the writer's still-resonant insight.

But alongside the joy and the intellectual necessity of delving into the past, surely there is a place also for writers who hold a mirror to the world that teenagers see around them, with its particular contemporary moral dilemmas: experiencing cyberbullying, communicating by mobile phone rather than handwritten letter, having friends from a mixture of ethnicities?

Lastly there is also the irony that many of the writers Mr Gove corrals to his cause, writers who seem safe now that they are ensconced in the depths of history, would probably have appeared at odds with the government were they alive today: Shelley with his strident atheism, Swift with his savage satire, Dickens with his compassionate concern for the poor and his contempt for the self-serving rich.

As for Byron, the next time Mr Gove feels the urge to read him, perhaps he might pluck Don Juan from his shelf and note the tone of its dedicatory stanzas, which offer a scathing and hilarious denunciation of one of the Lakeland poets: 'Bob Southey! You're a poet – Poet-laureate, / And representative of all the race; Although 'tis true that you turn'd out a Tory at /Last...'

Politicians are rarely on to a winner when they try to co-opt artists and writers, whether dead or alive. Tony Blair failed miserably in attempting to harness 'Cool Britannia' to New Labour's chariot; David Cameron's government will have no more luck in engaging young people if they maintain that the present day has little to teach them.

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