Some are born to study great Literature, some achieve by studying great Literature, and some have great Literature thrust upon ‘em.1
Shakespeare understood the power of words. As a wordsmith, he forged many of our great sayings. Without him, our lives would be lacking. With him we can have ‘too much of a good thing’2, we can follow ‘neither rhyme nor reason’3 and learn about our ‘flesh and blood’4.
Nationally, the numbers of pupils studying STEM subjects at A Level are soaring but the numbers taking English are in serious decline. Almost 3,500 fewer pupils sat English Literature A level in 2019 compared to the year before. It seems that the STEM drive is eating us ‘out of house and home’5 and leaving us with a generation of computer-literate mathematically-minded engineers who may be unaware of our great literary traditions.
It is not a ‘foregone conclusion’6 that pupils will select Science and Maths instead of English. We can enter the ‘brave new world’7 and buck national trends. Studying English Literature allows pupils to see that the world truly is their ‘oyster’8. You can explore love, death, power and relationships; you get to be part of some of the longest conversations of humanity. If you can learn how to use language to your advantage, you can take control of your life. Language is empowering. Why are so many turning away from it?
I do not buy the economic arguments. Studying English gives you the ability to communicate face-to-face and on the page. In our modern technological age, who is not judged on the quality of their written communication? Why would you not want to impress others with your ability to turn a phrase, or even, to punctuate a sentence?
Some say there is a perception that studying English is difficult and involves a lot of self-discipline. Surely, this makes it even more attractive. Developing resilience, emotional intelligence and the ability to read large volumes of information is fundamental to survival in our modern social-media savvy world.
At Canford, we have three classes studying A Level English Literature in both Lower and Upper Sixth; that’s nearly 50 pupils studying Shakespeare, Rossetti, Ibsen and much more. Not because they are forced to, not because they are made of ‘sterner stuff’9 and not because they are bookworms crawling toward reading English at university. They are studying English because they are interested in learning about who they are, how to express themselves and how to think critically about the world around them.
Some are studying English alongside the arts and others alongside sciences. Recently, the Upper Sixth attended a talk about the bioscience of trees, to inspire them to write poetry for a national competition. Science and English are not mutually exclusive.
At Canford, we have moved away from a GCSE specification that expects pupils to memorise endless quotations. We have favoured one that allows pupils to read wonderful novels, plays, poems and texts from all over the world, from the past and the present. We are trying to avoid ‘thrusting great Literature’ onto our pupils, in favour of exploring a range of texts in a creative manner.
We foster creativity through initiatives like the ‘Yellow Hour’, a chance for pupils to read, perform or sing anything they have written themselves. We also invite visiting poets, speakers and production companies to perform. The English team at Canford do not believe that all our pupils are ‘born to study great Literature’. We do, however, believe that all our pupils can achieve great things through the skills developed at GCSE and beyond.
However ‘all that glitters isn’t gold’10; there is more to do. We would like to see more pupils taking on the challenge of English Literature A Level study. At Canford, as we see nationally, many more pupils study Maths than study English.
The truth is science is not opposed to English but complementary. The most interesting people have many different interests. J B Priestley, author of the much-loved GCSE text An Inspector Calls, was fascinated by time travel. W H Auden was a poet who had a scientific education. We need to stop presenting a polarised world. We should start enthusing the next generation with words, foster creativity and explore great Literature.
I urge you not to be a ‘blinking idiot’11. Give ‘short shrift’12 to those who tell you that English is dying in favour of STEM subjects. English is a ‘dish fit for the Gods’13 that ‘may have seen better days’14 but ‘in my heart of hearts’15 will always be ‘a tower of strength’16 for those who pursue it.
Richard Redwood, Head of English
1. Twelfth Night (adapted!)
2. As You Like It, Act 4 Scene 1
3. The Comedy of Errors, Act 2 Scene 2
4. Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5
5. Henry IV Part 2, Act 2 Scene 1
6. Othello, Act 3 Scene 3
7. Tempest, Act 5 Scene 1
8. The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 2 Scene 2
9. Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 2
10. Merchant of Venice, Act 2 Scene
11. Merchant of Venice, Act 2 Scene 9
12. Richard 111, Act 3 Scene 4
13. Julius Caesar, Act 2 Scene 1
14. As You Like It, Act 2 Scene 7
15. Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 2
16. Richard 111, Act 5 Scene 3