Bring on the new

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
Remember the Dead White Males? I first encountered their corpses while "interpreting syllabuses" as a trainee English teacher. The lecturers told us to devise two "literary canons", one "traditional" (favouring the Dead Men) and the other "alternative". We discovered how hard it was to devise an English syllabus that covered the old and new, the traditional and innovative.

The debate continues today. Do we ditch the classics in favour of modern tales of drugs and football? Judging from the latest reading lists offered for Curriculum 2000, it seems that I am not the only one who cannot escape the clutches of the Dead White Males.

With the new-look A-levels waiting in the wings, you would think that ministers would be encouraging the study of more representative and modern literature. I thought the rationale behind the new courses was to encourage youngsters to participate, not to bombard them with a plethora of literary stiffs.

I am not against DWMs. I love teaching Shakespeare. Where else can you find gripping storylines, accessible dialogue, fantastic imagery, and a healthy dose of smut all in one text? And while teachers love Shakespeare's versatility, range and fun, politicians see him as a useful symbol for tradition and standards. And anyway, it would be political suicide to bin a playwright with such enormous kudos. Shaky and his strumpets triumph!

Sure, we need "traditional" writers in English syllabuses. They help students make sense of the past and, by extension, their present. But why not include writers who are just as rigorous but less well known? Can't we be a little bit more adventurous?

Take the French essayist Montaigne. He wrote about everything from cannibalism to courtly manners. His concise, informal style is very accessible to students. So why is his work dismissed? It seems to me that we cut ourselves off from so many good texts because they were ot originally written in English. As we enter the 21st century, we need to ask ourselves what it is that makes a text English?

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's concept of what constitutes a "modern" writer is very different from mine - available on syllabuses in that category next year are novels by EM Forster, controversial newcomer DH Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh.

Similarly, women writers are typecast as feminist or confined to "female" anthologies. Have we forgotten about the advances of the past 20 years? The same texts are churned out year after year. The Living Dead White Males refuse to lie down, stalking our classrooms like zombies.

There have been impressive attempts in the past to profile writers such as Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe. None the less, authors once considered groundbreaking have been on the syllabus too long. Achebe, Grace Nichols and Maya Angelou have become cliches - a tragic misrepresentation of excellent writers. Why not use some of their less well-known books?

It's refreshing to see that the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance have tried to do this. This exam board is offering Ian McEwan as a writer in their "modern novel" component of the new A-level. It has gone for Enduring Love. While the story - a freelance journalist stalked by an unemployed erotomaniac - may not appeal to every16-year-old, it's a start.

The "play safe" syllabus choices facing teachers speak volumes about society today. It only takes one paper to report that the traditional texts are being ditched and hey presto, the next list of set texts is hyper-conservative.

Our students are entitled to read a healthy, balanced and diverse range of texts. We all know the value of Dead White Males, so let's show some appreciation for angry young women, satirists and bright young things.

Cassandra Hilland teaches at a sixth-form college in Surrey.


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