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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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New Essay

Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


English National Curriculum

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The debate about proposed changes to the English National Curriculum has been fierce. The tabloid press has had a field day with reports that canonical writers such as Dickens and Bronte may be removed from the list of prescribed texts, in a "dumbing down" of the subject. Now education minister Alan Johnson has reached a compromise, maintaining the requirement that students study writers "who are a crucial part of our national heritage," whilst allowing teachers more flexibility in choosing which writers in particular students must read. Half of the writers, chosen by teachers from a long list, can be from before World War One and half from after. The cut-off date needs some justification: is it really the case that the same number of "heritage" writers were born in the twentieth century as in the four centuries the novel has been around before it?

Regardless of reasoning, though, according to The Guardian Education, the following writers are staying in:
Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, John Bunyan, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, George Eliot, Henry Fielding, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jonathan Swift, Anthony Trollope, HG Wells
Whilst these are under threat:

EM Forster, William Golding, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, George Orwell, Muriel Spark, William Trevor, Evelyn Waugh, JG Ballard, RK Narayan, Berlie Doherty, Susan Hill, Laurie Lee, Joan Lingard, Alan Sillitoe, Bill Naughton, Mildred Taylor, Robert Westall, Chinua Achebe, Maya Angelou, Willa Cather, Anita Desai, Nadine Gordimer, Ernest Hemingway, HH Richardson, Doris Lessing, John Steinbeck, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Yesterday, I was reading A.S. Byatt describing in Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings her first introduction to George Eliot as being

unpropitious. At the age of eleven I underwent a class 'reading' of Silas Marner at Sheffield High School and remember finding it very tedious: no drama, or what there might have been subdued, too many comic country people who bore little relation to anyone I, a city child, had met, no Romance of the simple sort I was looking for.
Byatt today models herself on that great Victorian polymath, and so it evidences the dangers of teaching fine but subtle works too badly, to children too young, that even she was put off Eliot at school. Although I was taught very well in my secondary eduction, looking at the list I hated doing Defoe even at university, and I can't imagine 14 year-olds being particularly enthralled by the "book of lists" that characterises (in my opinion) Robinson Crusoe. And so whilst the "In List" maintains Eliot and her comparable peers in the historical ranks of Great English Literature(TM), I am concerned that heading out are writers who might be more immediately accessible and resonate with the children of the early twenty-first century, for whom the dominant literary genre, played over the varied geographies of Middle-Earth and space and cyberspace, is science fiction.

If teachers are confident that they can present Eliot or Conrad in a way that captivates and enlarges young minds, then good luck to them. But I would not be keen to reject out of hand the possibilities of popular literary fiction, such as William Gibson's Neuromancer, with its startling poetic invocations of cyberspace, or Aldous Huxley, with his unsettling prophetic visions of the Brave New World in which kids, drugged by cannabis and glued to the cinema, arguably grow up today.

Update: Thursday, August 10, 2006
John Sutherland is not happy with the list either: This Reading List Fails the Test

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Posted by Alistair at 9:51 am

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