What can international school English teachers learn from ED Hirsch’s vision for a common curriculum?
Although concerned with the plight of American schooling, Hirsch’s warnings of cultural poverty may no doubt resonate with internationally based English teachers, too.
We are tasked with ensuring that students receive a rigorous curriculum, supported through pillars of canonised writers, alongside a recognition of their local authors and emerging minority voices writing in English around the world.
Examining bodies such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme or Cambridge’s IGCSE have attempted to recognise the need for such a balance, with a prescribed list of authors or representation of writers from across the commonwealth respectively.
Yet such an example is tempered by the fact that these opaque conditions of study are geared toward external examination and are not necessarily linked to key stage 3 or primary schooling.
As such, should the international community attempt to draw up an exhaustive list of cultural touchstones à la Hirsch and his colleagues, which will allow students to navigate the literary landscape of the English language from the start of school to graduation?
Worldwide cultural chats
In theory, such an undertaking would ensure that students can eventually hold their own in a cultural sense, whether in a US university entrance exam, a job interview in Sydney or on a first date with someone who hails from another part of the world.
On top of that, it would help to steer them through the dense allusory language founded on the likes of Shakespeare, Milton and Orwell, which surrounds our everyday consumption of the written and spoken word.
Yet the aforementioned examples raise one of the core challenges that any educator faces when writing up such an appendix of texts: despite the need to include cultural touchstones of the language in question, it is hard to look past the fact that very few published writers before the 20th century were anything other than white, privately educated men.
Even female writers who have helped to form the English language often resorted to pseudonyms – see Currer Bell, A M Barnard and George Eliot, or the likes of Mary Shelley, who reluctantly anonymised themselves.
But should the international community wish to embrace recent calls to "decolonise the curriculum" in favour of greater exposure for 20th and 21st-century writers of minority cultures, then ensuring all voices were given prominence would certainly go some way to ensuring the global mindedness that international schools usually espouse.
In addition, it would further heighten an empathy for multiple perspectives and a criticism of any one world view that has been seen to manipulate attitudes towards certain religions, races or nations.
A balancing act
However, with a greater egalitarianism comes a perhaps overlooked cultural trade-off.
Decoding the literal and implicit language of the world around us still requires a deep focus on the primarily white, male forebears to which more recent generations of writers draw upon.
Perhaps then one way to satisfy the need for rigour and diversity in literature may be to arrange our appendix of cultural touchstones chronologically.
Thus, from the Western canon, we can begin with Chaucer, Bunyan and Shakespeare. The list will pass through the decades, passing by Pepys, Defoe, Blake, Shelley, the Brontes, Austen, Alcott and Dickens on its way to the explosion of writers in English from around the 20th and 21st-century world.
Such a list would catalogue the foundational beginnings of English as well as acknowledging new, more relevant and culturally-diverse voices.
Age-appropriate material also needs to be considered for the primary, secondary and higher secondary levels, as well as including regional voices, depending on where the school is situated.
A debate worth having?
Such a prospect would no doubt court the sort of consternation caused whenever a newspaper or magazine runs a reductive poll of the greatest albums, novels or comedians of all time.
This kind of list is susceptible to recency bias, personal preference and commercial success.
It is hard to imagine any transnational institution developing anything better than the negotiable thresholds that the IB and Cambridge grant us when putting together an English curriculum.
However, Hirsch’s work certainly possesses the possibility for inspiration when it comes to ensuring a study of cultural depth, daring and diversity is available to all students of English, no matter where they are in the world.
Perhaps the key question is who would oversee the creation of such a reading list?
In the absence of the United Nations, the Nobel committee or any other international organisation's influence, the responsibility may ultimately fall to English departments around the world.
We could all do a lot worse than reach out to our cosmopolitan colleagues, social media and/or Hirsch himself to ensure that the sort of cultural capital students need is built over the course of a 12- to 13-year education.
Chris Jordan is head of secondary English at an international school in Hong Kong, where he has worked for 8 years