Skip to main content

Prescription or common sense? Scottish literature in the curriculum

By 9 February 2012No Comments

The latest brouhaha to annoy the easily angered is Mike Russell’s announcement that all students sitting Higher English must answer a question (and therefore study) at least one Scottish text.  While the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association have welcomed this, Ronnie Smith, General Secretary of Scotland’s largest teachers’ union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, warned that “we should all remain cautious, however, regarding the political direction of what is taught in our schools…. We should be wary of too much prescription in any and all subject areas.”
Had Scottish politicians not been engrossed, on the day following Russell’s announcement, in the referendum announcement, there would have been a host of comments accusing the Scottish government of political interference in the school curriculum.  Is there another nation in the world where young people could leave school and enter higher education without some experience of their great national writers?  Would French university entrants know nothing of Sartre, Gide or Zola?  Americans be unaware of Melville or Twain or Whitman?  Or English students be ignorant of Shakespeare or Dickens?
Now I hold Ronnie Smith in high regard but could Shetlander Ronnie imagine teaching music in Shetland without reference to Shetland’s own musical tradition or would insisting on such a common-sense approach be inappropriate ‘political direction’?  The real ‘political’ aspect of this has been the systematic de-prioritisation over years of Scottish literature, culture and history.
Perhaps however the problems centre more on the principle of ‘prescription’.  English teachers in particular – and I know, I was one – dislike prescription.  They yearn to teach two types of text.  Firstly,every English teacher wants to teach texts which he or she loves passionately and personally.  The argument is that they best teach that for which they have enthusiasm.  It’s a dodgy argument.  Try applying it elsewhere.  Maths?  Mr Bloggs only teaches calculus; he’s not interested in algebra.  History?  Mrs Smith prioritises the French wars of religion, far more interesting than World War I.
Secondly, English teachers tend to teach texts with which they believe their particular classes will engage and which they will understand.  Of course we should reach out to where young people are.  We should certainly teach obviously relevant, contemporary material.  If however the limit of the literary experiences of our young people is contemporary, in easily accessible language, then we will have failed.  Our students will have no sense that literature has both developed historically from the realities of its own day and that each epoch’s literature is built on the traditions of the previous epochs.  We will also have failed to develop their literary intellects, for it is coming to understand the material which is challenging and difficult which generates real intellectual growth and development.
Perhaps that is also why some English teachers in Scotland shy away from Scottish literature.  It is not easy.  The language of Burns is not beyond our grasp but is the language of a pre-industrial society, dominated by ideologies and technologies hugely different from today’s: it requires effort and commitment.  What of Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner or Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston, metaphysical novels, packed with unique and complex characters and challenging to teach?
It’s sad but the exam content will always lead the curricular content.  Let’s not fear the minimal prescription evident in Russell’s latest, and quite commendable, initiative.  Indeed let’s also ask what else, as well as at least one Scottish text, we would expect any well-educated 17 year old with Higher English to have read.  My added prescriptive element would be at least one pre-twentieth century text.
This article first appeared on page 8 in SecEd on 9 February 2012:

Leave a Reply