Get your teeth into it;English

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
What's so old-hat about pre-1900 literature? Richard Hoggart (pictured below) proclaims its relevance.

Certain educational and intellectual muddles turn up in each generation, in dutiful response to the latest fashion. So today some teachers of English literature for GCSE insist that all books studied shall be "relevant". And this means: "Nothing published before 1900."

What special "relevance" has the start of the century as a literary take-off point? None at all. Why not the Civil War, or Victoria's accession, or the Great Exhibition of 1851, or 1914?

This is a typical instance of "Imaginative Illiteracy". Itclaims to offer a more "significant" study of literature but is, in fact, selling pupils short, denying them full access to one of the most important elements of their heritage, patronising by dumbing down.

The British have never been pre-eminent in some arts; but our literary achievement over centuries has been magnificent. Are some teachers so anxious to follow the newest ill-considered idea as to be unaware of this?

Silly ideas always shelter behind iconic words. As T S Eliot said, "There is always a language for the crime". Such as "relevant". To say that 20th-century works are more "contemporary" would be less silly but self-evident. Of course much in modern works belongs to this century in obvious but secondary senses. Yet if we were able to ask E M Forster, D H Lawrence, Graham Greene, Yeats, Auden, Ted Hughes if they thought their works more "relevant" to us today than those of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, they would dismiss us as insensitive fools, deluded by a modish word.

Is the study of earlier works more difficult for both the teacher and the pupil? At the start there may be unusual elements of style, tone, language; and of assumptions about society, belief and much else. But those are among the most tonic aspects of teaching and learning.

One adult class of mine, almost entirely composed of people with no recognised qualifications, found themselves engrossed in a mutual reading of King Lear which lasted 12 weeks, at the end of which they still hadn't uncovered all its richness and "relevance".

King Lear and many other works of the past six or seven centuries are not only illuminators of their times but relevant in the deepest senses to ours and any other time. Not to understand this is to be afflicted by generationally-bogged-down myopia. As when people say: "Of course, your generation can't be expected to understand this or that in ours." The terms of our lives, good and bad, don't alter like styles in clothing. George Eliot can tell us more about moral dilemmas than a cart-load of "relevant and significant" living authors; even if best-sellers all.

Good writers do not forget their antecedents; they learn from them and honour them; for their command of this wonderful language and for the ways they penetrate into the heart of our common and universal experience. Teachers of English, above all, must not deny their patrimony; they must root their teaching in this splendid truth.

Richard Hoggart is vice-chairman of Book Trust. His most recent publications are 'The Way We Live Now' (1995, Pimlico pound;7.99) and an essay in 'Literacy is not Enough' (edited by Brian Cox, Manchester University Press pound;9.99). He founded the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, in 1964 and was warden of Goldsmiths College from 1976-84

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