When I was a student I never had any difficulty identifying with the writers and the texts that we studied. As a white, British, middle class, heterosexual male, I struggle to think of a text I studied that didn’t relate directly to one or more of those aspects of my identity. For example, I always felt a sense of ownership over Shakespeare’s works. We shared a language and culture (I was even born in the same county and could drive to Stratford in twenty minutes to watch a play at the Royal Shakespeare Company). When I studied Orwell I could relate to his politics and felt that his career as a journalist and writer was one that I, not only could identify with but, could attempt to replicate. I read or studied novels by Pullman, Tolkien and Huxley; and poems by Larkin, Hopkins and Auden. I then went to the same university as them and felt that they were all part of my cultural identity. My family and I had been directly affected by the same political shifts, social changes, wars and intellectual occupations that influenced these writers. Even American writers such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Carver and Heller felt like close cultural cousins, influenced by the same literary ancestors.
At the time, I don’t recall ever noticing how male, white and Western my reading habits were. I don’t think it was a conscious choice but, undoubtedly, part of my interest in the literature I read was the social and historical connection between me and the writer and their subject matter. What is clear is that what my society endorsed and taught as high literature was almost entirely in line with my own lived experience and cultural identity. So what then for students whose identities do not align with those of canonical writers and their characters?
When I started teaching, I had to think carefully about the texts I chose to teach. One of the aims of teaching literature is to encourage students to engage with and enjoy the books they read. Another is to teach them to analyse or deconstruct the meaning of a text. It seemed to me that in both cases, it was important that the texts students studied reflected, in some way, their own identities and experiences. If part of my own engagement with literature is the link between the text and my personal history and identity, it is unreasonable to deny students the same thing.
Modern English teaching draws strongly on Reader Response Theory (the idea that the text is a collaborative construct between writer and reader). Much of our textual analysis is based on personal experience and what the reader brings to a text. It is a different process engaging with a text that reflects your own cultural background, to one which is the product of an unfamiliar culture. As a British person, there are certain words and images which hold an idiosyncratic significance, that someone who is new to the culture would struggle to identify. I would argue that currently we risk alienating students who do not identify as white, British and male from enjoying the study of literature. But more than this, we make the study of literature itself more difficult, as the student must get to grips with a culture or perspective that is very different to their own.
I am not arguing that students should only study texts written by or about people that reflect their own cultural identity or gender. Firstly, people’s identities are multi-faceted and fluid, and so identifying any one ‘type’ of literature to match this in its entirety would be impossible. Secondly, one of the joys of literature is the ability it gives readers to experience an unfamiliar perspective, be it seeing the world through the eyes of a 19th century Russian murderer; a Kenyan matatu driver; or a Roman emperor. My argument is that all students should have an opportunity to explore a wide range of literature which reflects different parts of their complex identities.
It is, however, reasonable to suggest that another goal of teaching literature is to share with students the cultural values of the society in which they live. To provide, in other words, all students with access to the ‘best’ examples of national cultural achievement. This is often referred to as ‘cultural capital’, but also reflects the link between education and national identity. This is where the literature curriculum can become politicised. The literature we choose to teach our students does not necessarily reflect the cultural identity of a nation, but rather its perceived (or desired) cultural identity, as judged by those who have power. By under-representing women and minorities, at a national or school level, in literature curriculums, a society sends a clear message about what cultures, beliefs and identities it values (or doesn’t). For example, by excluding black British writers from a curriculum, we implicitly send a message that black students are not part of that cultural space, or even, the nation’s entire cultural identity.
So far I’ve argued that by ensuring different cultures and identities are represented in school literature curriculums, we can help to engage students in reading; support their analysis and understanding of texts; and project a message that men and women of all cultural backgrounds are valued in our society. Developing a curriculum with a wide range of texts, from a variety of cultures, exposes all students to voices and perspectives that they may not otherwise encounter. This was something missing from my own education.
So what prevents teachers from ensuring that female writers and writers from minority backgrounds are well-represented in the curriculum?
Firstly, there are often constraints in the national curriculum. In addition to the UK curriculum prescribing British texts for study at GCSE, women and black, Asian and ethnic minority writers are under-represented in the GCSE and A-Level lists of set texts. Even if there was more balance, teachers would then need to actively choose texts by women or BAME writers to teach in class. If teachers are familiar with the more ‘traditional’ (and predominantly white, male) texts, having studied them at school and then taught them for years, it is likely they will stick to them regardless. It requires a lot of work for a teacher to read, research, study and teach a text from a cultural background different to their own. They must first have the freedom, and then see the value, of doing so. In addition to this knowledge deficit, there is a resourcing gap too. In my department book cupboard, we have far fewer female writers than male (something I am trying to fix) and absolutely no plays by female playwrights.
None of these obstacles are insurmountable. Though the English schools curriculum is restrictive, there is still room to manoeuvre, especially with younger students. With teachers, as long as people are willing to make the case for more variety, as I have attempted here, I believe colleagues will be receptive to change.
I end with an example from one of my grade 6 classes (year 7) last year. We studied a novel set in Tanzania by a female author. A boy who had been a reluctant reader lit up whenever the writer included Swahili words and phrases in the text. He was so excited to see his mother tongue in the text and quickly became our ‘class expert’ on Swahili culture. Later on in the novel, there is a scene where the female protagonist is persecuted at school by several male bullies and a misogynistic teacher. Several of the girls in my class were incensed, many of the boys were surprised by their strength of feeling. What followed was an open discussion about times when the girls have felt excluded from activities in and outside school. Representation matters.