No Holds Bard

“How well he’s read, to reason against reading” – William Shakespeare

 The OCR Exam Board have announced plans to change the English Literature and Language A Level syllabus to include reading Russell Brand along side traditional texts featured on English Literature courses.  Brand might be good role model for the budding A level student of English, but should they be studying his testimony on drug use  given in 2012 at Commons committee to a group of MPs? Or Caitlin Moran’s Twitter timeline as part of the A level syllabus?  Is this a way of trying desperately trying to make education cool or merely asking students to think of all types of text in the 21st century as being worthy of dissection and analysis?

Clearly both figures are good role models for those thinking of studying the craft of words and applying strong ideas to succinct and effective language. Both have sharp debating skills to destroy and argument and build up their own ideas in their writing, and both encourage debate in the themes and topics they tackle. So far, so good. But isn’t it just tad patronising that the average 16-year old might not already be acquainted and engaged with the ideas of a comedian and celebrity that can boast of 7m+ followers on Twitter, a role in Hollywood films and a bestselling book? A Caitlin Moran has nearly 500,000 followers and no small influence on the world of digital commentary and press reach, writing for a newspaper that is still read by 400,000 readers – despite being one of the few papers to have a digital paywall.  

That the teenager committed to going to in Higher Education might not have some element of inquisitiveness about what is happening in the world, is almost to suggest that they are ‘unread’ to some degree – is, on merit, condescending to some degree.  Most students are encouraged to read widely to broaden vocabulary and a world view. While the verbosity of Russell Brand and the crafting  of sentences that Moran’s years in journalism training have developed will certainly sharpen up both vocabulary building and the appreciation of a turn of phrase, having to study Dizzy Rascal interviews for Newsnight and The Guardian’s Secret Footballer – both other recommendations on the new syllabus, are unlikely to have any academic merit as stand alone texts, and water down what is already the  incredibly rich canon of English Literature.

While the course also encompasses Language and its usage, it would be equally valid to look at business texts, language and writing to demonstrate how language is used, and more often than not abused to disguise and camouflage meaning. This would, in my view, teach a far more appropriate life skill to teach students who will have to navigate a working world where money is king and the Arts and Humanities are but court jesters. The average English Literature student is unlikely to have digested the Complete Works of Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders or anything substantial of Dicken’s body of work – to take some random examples – is not to suggest that they are badly read in an age where the written word has never been more prevalent.

The usefulness of studying English at all past compulsory schooling is in itself a separate debate, but for those hoping to develop a love and passion for the written word and the study of an endlessly fascinating language at undergraduate level, it seems more suitable to study books and texts that give a indicator both in their narratives and language  at how we as a society arrived at this point, but also on their academic suitability. Certainly, the literature and stories of Dickens or Jack London’s The People of the Abyss would provide enough discussion and enrichment to analyse the changes we see today in the political rhetoric and media portrayal of those living on the breadline, as an example.

Another key skill learnt when reading the more conservative choices of Eng Lit, is being able to read texts that might not hold any real interest to the reader/student but to be able to develop the skill to plough through them and interpret them in a way that is fitting to an academic course. Does reading a Twitter timeline or watching an old episode of Newsnight really develop that level of concentration and perseverance? That’s not to suggest that reading English and engaging in an A level course has to be difficult and dry (although, having done both an A level and a degree I am in a position that it is at times both).

Encouraging students to read these type of texts is a way of encouraging cognitive development and critical thinking –  but to make it part of a syllabus is just plain crazy both in terms of promoting academic excellence and broadening of students’ horizons.  There is no reason to discourage students from reflecting on the diction and concise words of Brand, Moran and Rascal – the betterment of language skills is always going to be beneficial to the student in so many ways. As Brand himself said: “I couldn’t possibly have sex with someone with such a slender grasp on grammar.”

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