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'A variety of unworthy motivations appears to be putting the study of English literature at risk'

We must not shield the "snowflake generation" from disturbing, or difficult themes in literature – preventing them from taking GCSE English literature does so, writes one educationist

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We must not shield the "snowflake generation" from disturbing, or difficult themes in literature – preventing them from taking GCSE English literature does so, writes one educationist

Somehow it seems bad form to write a sequel to a blog only a week old. Yet, I cannot resist it.

Last week I wrote that historical prejudice in classic literature should not be erased: instead, we should teach our children to challenge it. It’s not exactly a controversial position to take.

Yet, in the 24 hours between my writing the piece and its appearance, The Guardian revealed that a Mississippi school district has removed that literary staple To Kill a Mockingbird from its curriculum because "it’s too upsetting". Has that state chosen to duck, rather than confront, its history of slavery and racism?

Next came reports that Cambridge University’s English faculty is warning undergraduates that they might find the content of some Shakespeare plays "distressing": according to The Independent, “work on Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors would include ‘discussions of sexual violence’ and ‘sexual assault’”. 

OK, so they’re not banning those tough plays: but this “trigger warning” seems mealy-mouthed and unnecessary, given the often twisted violent and sexual content that frequents modern television crime thrillers after the 9pm watershed, introduced with only minimal caveats. Besides, don’t bright Cambridge students have an inkling already of what’s in those works of the nation’s greatest playwright? If not, how did they get in?

Value of literature

I could leave it there. After all, I made my point about the value of the study of literature, and of all the challenges, prejudices and injustices that it addresses.

Except that this wave of philistinism seems to be spreading. I learned this week – though it was announced back in the spring – that in Wales only the most-able students are likely to be permitted to take English literature GCSE, which is not obligatory in the Principality, according to Rajvi Glasbrook Griffiths, writing for the Institute for Welsh Affairs (IWA):

“If the fifth GCSE can be something perhaps less challenging than English literature, it raises pass percentages. It… may even aid the school in a move from one colour rating to the next. Nationally, schools in Wales can be reported as improving… and so a key Welsh Government educational priority is being met.”

Who cares about the quality or content of the education provided, as long as the figures improve?

I don’t believe that there’s a plot across the English-speaking world to downgrade the study of literature, or at least to shield our young people – not only children, the snowflake age-group extends into higher education – from its disturbing influences. But a variety of unworthy motivations does appear to be putting it at risk.

Wilful ignoring

Is our civilization actually heading backwards? The wilful ignoring in our times of literature and its soaring, if difficult, themes stands in sharp contrast to my discovery in the summer of the wonders of Ancient Greek Sicily, where every city dating back to the fifth century BC boasted a theatre.

In Syracuse, I marvelled at the spectacular remains of the theatre where the playwright Aeschylus (c.525-c.455 BC) premiered some of his greatest tragedies. The Greeks understood how engaging in a fictional context with the emotions and wickedness that drive humanity to its finest and worst achievements had both an educational and healing effect.

Their philosophers debated the nature and impact of catharsis in a civilization which, apparently unlike ours, was willing to engage with upsetting themes. Our modern world has moved light years – though not far enough – in confronting sexism, slavery and other ills to which the ancient world was blind. Yet, while we readily embrace such noble goals as education for all – still a long way off in some parts of the world – some of the most developed societies appear willing to set limits as to what their young may learn and confront, for fear of jolting them out of what is nice, comfortable and above all, complacent.

Surely we can do better than this?

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationist and musician. He is a former headteacher and past chair of HMC. He tweets @bernardtrafford 

To read more columns, view his back catalogue

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