English Literature at A-level is a branch of the heritage industry, selling an England of lace and Empire Line dresses, lovable Elizabethans and obedient servants. At best, it offers "passnotes" to the latest BBC costume drama or high-profile Hollywood blockbuster. At worst, it sells students throughout the UK an outdated and exclusive image of Englishness, a long way from the multicultural society in which we live.
English literature was supposed to be the subject that was most relevant to "today" and demanded a personal response and engagement. Why has it become preserved in heritage aspic? There are two reasons.
First, what's called the "canon", the list of "Great Literature", is at the heart of A-level English. But the "canon" is more than a list of "my favourite books". These books are not only taught and examined, but also republished as classics, alluded to in newspaper articles, bought, performed and made into TV mini-series and so on. Because of this, the canon plays a major role in creating a sense of a shared national culture and collective identity. Deciding which texts are in the canon and on the A-level syllabus is part of deciding who we are and how we want to see ourselves. As the Nobel Prize-winning American novelist, Toni Morrison writes, arguments over what texts to teach are "the clash of cultures. And all the interests are vested". Judging from the dominance of 19th-century novels, the A-level curriculum wants us to all see ourselves as Jane Eyre, Pip, Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet or Tess. Not only does this approach exclude literature from other periods, but, most importantly, it also means that A-level English pays less attention to contemporary literature. Rather than reflecting a "golden age" of England, many contemporary novels deal with current issues that are often closer to the A-level student than the teacher. For example, Salman Rushdie said that his work celebrates "the transformations that come of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs". His novels are in part about living in a world that has become globalised, multi- cultural and hybrid. Ian McEwan, speaking today at the annual conference for teachers at Royal Holloway, University of London, also writes about the contemporary world. His 1997 novel, Enduring Love, is about the relationship between modern science and the moral choices available to us now. Allowing students to explore these issues through reading more current fiction is one of the things that English as a subject should be doing. Ironically, the contemporary novels that are on A-level courses are most often those based on a 19th-century template. This might be because examination boards and some teachers feel uncomfortable with novels that deal with the "harder edge" of modern life. Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger may be on A-level courses, but another Booker Prize-winner, James Kelman's How late it was, how late, isn't. The second reason why English is becoming "heritage" is more involved. …