End neglect of Scottish texts

21st January 2011 at 00:00

When I first began teaching, nearly 40 years ago, Scottish literature was a closed book or even a danger zone (Burns and all that) to most of my colleagues, who had been educated under a system that bequeathed us an inferiority complex about our own language, culture and identity.

Some things have changed for the better but, sadly, many Scottish teachers still seem indifferent to the fact that we possess an astonishing diversity of voices, past and present, and a wealth of great writing in all three of our languages.

To an outsider, it must surely seem passing strange that texts from elsewhere are so often used in Scottish schools when suitable or more relevant Scottish texts are usually available - for example, the predictable Shakespearean texts that somehow "must" be done, largely because that is what teachers know or because they are ignorant about the wealth of modern Scottish drama.

This neglect or even ignorance might have been excusable a generation ago when there was a dearth of Scottish resources, but there are now plenty of Scottish texts and teaching resources available.

Another strange aspect of our unique cultural conundrum is that many teachers have not studied the literature of their own country at university, although in my experience most are at least not unsympathetic to using more Scottish texts throughout the curriculum.

Yet the Scottish Qualifications Authority believes there is no need for a mandatory Scottish element in the exams as it claims that Scottish texts are frequently used, ignoring the fact that if it is very often the usual suspects, such as Assisi or In the Snack Bar; even Macbeth would count as a Scottish text in its definition.

While a mandatory examination element might only ensure a minimal response in some schools, it would certainly help to raise the status of Scottish literature and ensure that every Scottish student has at least some awareness of our own literature.

Not only are there few topics that cannot be explored via Scottish texts, there are also plenty of examples where Scottish writing can offer a particularly rich and relevant source. This is possibly because of the uniqueness of its language or setting or because, like all our best work, the theme has a particularly powerful Scottish character and resonance but is at the same time universal. Just look at the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Sunset Song, The Silver Darlings, Another Time, Another Place and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Obviously, Scottish texts must meet the same criteria as any other, but we surely have a duty to ensure our pupils appreciate the particularly Scottish elements of history, setting, character or language. Pupils should also know how Scottish writers succeed in capturing a distinctively Scottish voice via the medium of English or via a mixing of registers, such as Gibbon for Scots, Neil Munro and Neil Gunn for Gaelic or Leonard, Kelman and co for Glasgow. And although time is limited, we can also at least try to give our pupils some sense of the diversity of our poetic tradition.

While we have had vaguely supportive policy statements before, teachers now have a clear duty under Curriculum for Excellence to "develop an appreciation of Scotland's vibrant literary and linguistic heritage and its indigenous languages and dialects", a principle that "suffuses the outcomes and experiences etc".

So, teachers who fail to ensure that our own literary heritage has a central role in the curriculum are not only failing to implement national policy, but are failing to educate their children about the culture of the country in which they live. No other country would permit such a neglect of its own literature in its education system.

John Hodgart was principal English teacher in Garnock Academy. He is an honorary fellow of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.

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