There was furore in the media yesterday when the OCR exam board announced that figures from popular culture have been put forward by the board as potential people to study for their new A Level in Language and Literature. The Daily Mail reported this
as an outrage and more evidence of "dumbing down" with the Campaign for Real Education saying: "It looks as if boards are continuing with their policy of making subjects relevant and accessible but our experience of what this means in practice is dumbing down. The bar needs to be raised above Russell Brand’s head. There are plenty of contemporary texts that could be seriously studied. When pupils in China, Singapore and other high-performing countries sit down to study English they won’t be turning to Russell Brand, rappers and Tweets."
It is somewhat ironic that OCR have developed the new qualification in response to Michael Gove's reforms to A Levels which have called for more breadth and depth. They've also worked with the English and Media Centre (EMC) to develop the qualification: English teachers like me trust the EMC because it has a track record of producing "teacher-friendly" textbooks and publishes two excellent magazines, E-Magazine (for A Level English students) and Media Magazine (for Media students). The experts who run it are former teachers and, most importantly, they are in touch with what is really going on in the classroom. As English teacher and author, Alex Quigley, has already pointed out in an engaging blog post, what they are doing is not that new: this approach of choosing an eclectic mix of texts for the English Literature and Language (known as Lit-Lang in the profession) course is fairly standard. This is because the course stipulates that students must study both spoken and written texts from a wide range of genres and contexts. It is worth considering what OCR say about the aims of the course before jumping into criticising it:
"The aim is for students to develop the skills to analyse any text, whether spoken or written, literary or non-literary, in the most appropriate way. For a play such as The Importance of Being Earnest, students will be expected to discuss not only literary elements such as form, structure and dramatic techniques, but also linguistic points, such as register and type of utterance, lexis and morphology. Students reading the transcript of the BBC Newsnight interview with Dizzee Rascal may be asked to comment on mode, purpose and audience."
I have taught the English Literature and Language A Level for a number of years now. While I find the aims and purposes of it laudable, I do have issues with the course as it currently stands. In its current form, it does lack real range; this year my current Year 12 students have only studied three major texts, 'The Kite Runner'
, 'A Streetcar Named Desire
' and an Arthur Miller play, as well as preparing for the examination on spoken texts, which means they read a variety of transcripts of spoken situations. You can see a bit of what they've done on the blogs I set up for the courses on 'The Kite Runner'
. The approach to all these texts is "linguistic"; students are schooled to break any text down into its component linguistic parts, using what is called the "systematic framework". They have to analyse the grammar, lexis, semantic fields, figurative language, the phonology and structure of the texts and make sure that they "PEE" at all times: make a Point, provide some Evidence, and then Explain why their evidence backs up their points. Up and down the country, English teachers are training pupils to take this "PEEing" approach at both GCSE and A Level. Even Ofsted have picked up upon the fact that this is not a great thing to happen; in a recent Ofsted report, Moving English Forward
, there were particularly critical comments about the way English teachers make their children PEE too much! It wasn't the way I was taught English, which was very much in the "old school": to reflect deeply upon the meaning and underlying themes of a text, and develop a coherent argument about how effective it is or not. I can see the merits of taking this very linguistic approach: it does mean that any text can be commented upon in a "democratic" fashion, every text, whether it is Dizzee Rascal or Russell Brand or William Blake or Shakespeare can be broken down into its component parts. However, it lends itself to very mechanistic writing and thinking overall: reading the essays students produce (and I've been an examiner in the subject) is like reading stuff that's written by a malfunctioning computer. Maybe, this new A Level will take a different approach but I suspect not: the PEEing and the robotic feature-spotting will continue I feel from looking at the current spec. Personally, I'd like both the Literature, the Lit-Lang and the Language courses to embrace a more "post-structuralist" sensibility: to go beyond the rigid strictures of structuralist analysis, which is basically what is condoned by the exam boards at the moment: looking at rigid structures in language. Most academics in universities have moved way beyond structuralism and are realising that language is too slippery to be pinned down to pseudo-scientific analysis. This is quite technical stuff, but important because when students start to embrace more sophisticated thought, such as that advocated by Michel Foucault with his emphasis upon discursive analysis, you get more holistic essays, which engage in genuine arguments.
As to whether students should study Dizzee Rascal or Russell Brand, I have no problem with this in principle: exploring the contexts in which these people speak and perform is quite fascinating and could produce some rich, deep comments. I thought the academic John Sutherland was very articulate on Radio 4 yesterday when arguing that there is fascinating history to the rap music Rascal produces when he was responding to the rabid Lindsay Johns, who was spitting blood about the fact students might be studying such "dumbed down" texts. As Sutherland said, it is not an "either or" but a question of both modern and more traditional texts to be studied. This can be particularly fruitful: I have just been reading a persuasive book called Classroom Instruction That Works
which very cogently puts the case that the most effective learning occurs when students examine the relevant similarities and differences in any given topic. Its methodological approach is quite quantitative and attempts to show this by "effect sizes": an approach favoured by Michael Gove et al. Comparing the modern and the old texts in a course of this type is particularly fruitful, but I've yet to see the nitty-gritty detail of the new spec to see whether this is happening. It would be worth considering because I know that when students compare say William Blake socially polemical writing with Russell Brand's polemics on TV and on YouTube, they could arrive at some fruitful insights into both. What Sutherland and most academics now agree on though -- which the Daily Mail and Johns do not -- is that there are no "timeless texts" which are inherently better than others: meanings and language changes over time and in various contexts. Shakespeare means something very different to us now than it did when it was first performed: that is not to say that there are not elements of Shakespeare which are not worth studying, but we have to accept that we bring our "modern perceptions" to him, reading into his plays what is relevant to us now. This is necessarily so because how else can you read a text? You can't have a brain transplant with a person living in the late 1590s and suddenly understand him as he was originally intended. This rejection of 'The Great Tradition' approach to literature, championed by F.R. Leavis, has been accepted by most academics but is being endlessly played out in our mainstream media, which loves to cling onto a "hierarchy": Shakespeare is better than Russell Brand etc. Whereas most English specialists would say they are different texts and providing "league tables" of texts is a nonsense. This said, there is a valid point to be made about "cultural capital" which E.D. Hirsch
and Pierre Bourdieu
, have both highlighted in their philosophy in very different ways: Shakespeare and certain other texts are part of the nation's history whether you like it or not. Not teaching children the Bard does, on one level, rob them of their "cultural capital" in the British context: I would agree with this. A complex inter-play of cultural and social factors have meant that certain writers probably do need to be studied at some point. But most English teachers are aware of this and I think they should be more trusted to make these judgements when appropriate. I personally think that teachers should have much more power to choose the texts that is suitable for their students. We've largely been stripped of this power because it is deemed that we are not to be trusted, but I firmly believe that in many cases it is the teacher who is best placed to judge what is going to be most educationally productive text for any given group of students. This, of course, would be far too radical: let teachers decide? You must be joking!