Tempt the young to read best of the old;Another Voice;Opinion

30th July 1999 at 01:00
So, it seems that the study of history is pockmarked with the plague of modernism, and 20th-century evil is a favoured topic choice -what one might call Hannibal Lecter studies, since I am sure the fascination is similar, and perhaps just as suspect. Two of the three examination boards have dropped Anglo-Saxon history because of a lack of demand from candidates, and it seems that even the ruffed, murderous Tudors are not as popular as they were.

It is hardly surprising that English is suffering too, with the new curriculum removing compulsory book lists at key stages 3 and 4 to allow teachers more "flexibility". Is not that just another way of saying that teachers will choose to teach what they know their pupils actively want to read?

The pupils will choose texts that impose few demands, but seem exciting and "relevant". I have two children of 25 and 19 respectively, who brought friends home all the time, and I can tell you that I have never yet met a teenager who truly wanted to be stretched.

A few days ago I was having a telephone conversation with a senior tutor at one of the best universities in the country. She told me: "You'd be surprised how many first-year students we get who have read nothing earlier than 20th-century literature, apart from a glance at Shakespeare."

I should not have been surprised. As long as 15 years ago a lecturer at University College London, with whom I had graduated from the same institution, was bewailing the sheer idleness of English literature undergraduates who told her they did not like reading "long books".

She said she found it very depressing, but could not see any way of reversing the trend.

Farewell then Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, Bleak House and Middlemarch. Let the dust gather on Walter Scott, and consign Richardson and Trollope to thespider's embrace. For that matter, cart Conrad and Henry James to the second-hand bookshop, for although they may be (relatively) modern, that prose is so dense it is far too much like hard work.

As for narrative poetry - well, if you don't want long, you certainly won't appreciate having to slog through Paradise Lost, and although Blake is quite cool in bite-size chunks, those Prophetic Books go on and on.

It is hardly fair to blame the English undergraduate for not having read (say) Jane Austen, or the so-called historian for knowing nothing about the medieval period when they were not made to do so at school. When universities also complain about a decline in basic literacy and essay-writing skills, the blame has to be placed on the schools (where else?) - and in particular on the easy-life ethos which seems to say that nothing must be difficult.

This serves teachers well, since obviously they would have a far less stressful time tasting Trainspotting (despite its terminal tediousness) with a class of 17-year-olds, than trying to force nuggets of George Eliot down their gullets. And it serves pupils well, since all they have to do is loll about dipping into books that confirm them in what they think, or in their precious hopes and fears - or in their desire to be cool and relevant (see Trainspotting).

I realise that kids today have more pressure on them than ever. The world yanks them in hundreds of directions at once; from the magazine rack to the Internet, they are bombarded with images and fragmented thoughts. Sometimes it must seem that they inhabit Planet Chaos.

But that is no reason to dish up exactly the learning menu they fancy. It would be like caving in to your seven-year-old each meal-time, so that in the end he or she would choose only to eat chips and ice-cream. Such weakness is bad parenting, just as allowing teachers and their pupils carte blanche to drop great texts and study what they fancy is bad education.

I realise that by using the phrase "great texts" I am, for some people, begging a question. But for me there is no argument: studying Shakespeare is better than studying (say) Neighbours, and John Donne is a better poet than John Lennon. What makes a classic is perpetual relevance, and I want English A-level students to be taught how to quarry it from sentence structures or verses that may at first seem demanding.

Offer pupils too much choice and the danger is that they will remain forever imprisoned within the tiny tenements of their own psyches. Don't give them choice, just give them grand old books. Show the mature wisdom of revealing to them what is great, teaching it with excitement, and you give them a passport to a universe of human thought and feeling, and all the wonders within it. This is our history, our inheritance, our culture.

It seems to me that the teaching profession and the examining boards are conspiring to deprive our kids of their birthright - which must include what WB Yeats called "the fascination of what's difficult".

Bel Mooney is a columnist and author

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