Essential otherness

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Texts chosen to represent other cultures must be real reflections, insists Rachel Redford

Texts from other Cultures became a compulsory component in GCSE English in 1996. Someone - perhaps a government minister, perhaps a QCA working group - decided that because we live in a multicultural society, this should be reflected in what we present to our students for study.

And so it appeared in the syllabus - amorphous, its content undefined. A few Grace Nichols poems and a Benjamin Zephaniah rap reflecting the culture of ethnic groups in the UK were a valid interpretation of the other cultures component - and so were texts presented in English reflecting global cultures.

But what was the component's aim? That was not defined either. If it was literary appreciation, then texts in translation should surely have been disallowed, as they are now at AS and A2 English literature. But they were not. Was the motive socio-political, to inform students about cultures other than British culture - a concept itself fraught with highly sensitive issues such as the distinctions between English and British?

Faced with such a minefield, exam boards decided to give teachers other cultures texts (poems, short stories and extracts) prepackaged in anthologies, pre-release booklets or exam papers.

In my own search for texts for these booklets and exam papers for the Foundation Tier, I have found plenty of excellent writing from all over the world. But in selecting appropriate pieces, a head-on conflict with the inter-board commitment to the avoidance of ethnic, gender, political and religious bias immediately became apparent, because these areas of potential bias are precisely those which make the various cultures of our world distinctive and interesting.

For instance, you might expect texts focusing on a controversial tradition such as female circumcision, on legal dismemberment as punishment, or the use of British-made electric batons in Chinese prisons, to be disallowed. But should the same fate befall a movig poem such as Girl in the Kitchen translated from the South Indian language Kannada? A young woman peeling potatoes looks up at a plane overhead, and longs to be transported elsewhere. The poem ends:

she weaves songs this girl

her ears open to the sounds in the sky

breaking the stalks of the green chillies

her lifetime getting spent drop by drop.

But because a woman unhappy with her own culture can be construed as a criticism of that culture, it is regarded as an inappropriate topic. Or to take another example, Irfan Orga's wonderful memory of visiting the hammam baths in Istanbul with his grandmother when he was six is rejected as quasi-sexual because a six-year-old boy walks past naked women, a censorship which, ironically, shows complete misunderstanding of the cultural traditions involved.

What has it been possible to give the students? Among others, they have had a piece about a medicine man in Persia, a dramatic troika ride across the frozen Russian steppe and a search to save a wounded elephant in Ethiopia... all very enjoyable and beautifully written. But have these texts promoted any real understanding of another culture? No, they have not. The constraints imposed have limited "other" cultures to those that differ from British culture only in their picturesque externals of scenery, climate or animals.

This is other cultures sanitised and Disneyfied, neither significantly informative nor in any way hard-hitting. Students, particularly those who would have been better off concentrating on basic writing skills, have been sold short in the interests of an ill-conceived political initiative.

Although the revised GCSE English and English Literature syllabuses to be taught to Year 10 in 2002 have not yet been published, the QCA has stated that Texts from other Cultures will remain. That is great news, but this time around let us have real other cultures.

Rachel Redford is principal examiner GCSE English and editor of 'Texts from Other Cultures' (OUP pound;6.50)

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