Poem's ban is unkindest cut of all

5th September 2008 at 01:00
Censorship, in a liberal democracy, is a sensitive issue. So when the exam board AQA decides to drop a popular poem from the GCSE English syllabus because of fears that it might encourage teenagers to take up knife crime, it is understandable that strong feelings are aroused.

Censorship, in a liberal democracy, is a sensitive issue. So when the exam board AQA decides to drop a popular poem from the GCSE English syllabus because of fears that it might encourage teenagers to take up knife crime, it is understandable that strong feelings are aroused.

If the lively debate on our website this week is anything to go by, English teachers are united in their disapproval of the board's decision. As one poster puts it: "There's hardly a text in English literature that doesn't touch on some potentially sensitive issue."

Carol Ann Duffy's chilling poem, seen through the mind of a disturbed and unappreciated pupil, who appears to seek fame by flushing the family's pet goldfish down the loo before taking a bread knife on to the street in search of a victim, is a fine example.

What better way to engage pupils in the issue of knife crime than to examine the feelings of, and potential consequences for, the poem's unhappy subject? Throughout the ages, children and their teachers have turned to classic literature for just this reason. Knife crime is at the heart of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet; domestic violence and murder are key themes in Oliver Twist, while seduction and rape lead to downfall in Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

Surely, if these texts are fit for study, we should not rush to proscribe Duffy's poem simply because it is modern and relevant? Literature plays a huge role in helping children to discuss actions, feelings and emotions that help to explain life events, of the sort they witness daily on the TV news.

Teachers have a responsibility to help their pupils make sense of the world, whether through citizenship education or by studying poems and novels. Increasingly, schools are combining the two, using contemporary events as a starting point for literary debate. What better way to start a lesson on Jane Eyre, for example, than with a discussion of the fire that destroyed the home of Shropshire businessman Chris Foster and his family? Or should this be banned from study too, on the grounds that it might encourage arson?

No one suggested schools should stop teaching Hamlet, for all the hero's suicidal tendencies, when a number of teenagers in Bridgend took their own lives. The AQA board should think again about its decision.

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