It’s Time we Taught the Arts as Living, Breathing Things

Dead White Men. Old Masters. Composers whose influence won’t be found dead in contemporary pop songs. The curriculum has it all: except, for the most part, when it comes to those contributing to culture today.

If you study the GCSE or A-Level English curriculum closely, you’ll see the focus tends to be on pre-21st, and in many cases pre-20th, century authors, poets, and dramatists. While it is important to study our language’s history and the classics (for the sake of knowledge itself, or if you’re a creator – the most accomplished Free Verse poems are often those composed by poets who have vigorously practiced more traditional forms; in painting, Picasso would have never founded cubism had he not perfected neo-classicism); by viewing art as a history rather than a living, breathing thing, students might be put off from studying the increasingly necessary humanities.

Shakespeare is entertaining to the trained ear and some of his plays are surprisingly accessible (there’s a reason why Macbeth is persistently popular in high schools), but encountered too early on and there’s a possibility young students might place all playwrights alongside him on inappropriately high pedestals. I remember when I was applying for universities, shivering in my shoes when I found out at my Cambridge interview that every third year student had to study Shakespeare!, but when I elected to study Shakespearean modules at university, I found out that behind the high brows the Victorians had bestowed upon the Bard were the very dick jokes (sorry – “phallic humour”) those same stuffy Victorians strove to censure. (There is a related argument to be made that encountering plays exclusively or even primarily through text can butcher theatre).

Talking of Victorians, our archaic cousins, the National Association for the Teaching of English defended the persisting emphasis on 19th century texts by claiming that the interpersonal relationships of the characters can be applied to modern day scenarios, almost irrespective of setting. The 19th century is, of course, vital in literary history; NATE is correct in saying that novels were one of the most popular forms of entertainment at the time for Upper Classes, but they were also a form of education (we certainly have a lot to thank Dickens for in terms of improving the standards of life for the working classes). Furthermore, the novel, popularized in the 18th century, essentially cemented its form during Victoria’s reign, while new trends were began to be birthed in the prose world, which dominate narratives told through the closest equivalent of everyday entertainment in our contemporary society, television: namely, the serial and … cliff-hangers.

But the idea that the thoughts, feelings and actions of 19th century characters with 19th century mins can be directly transferred to the 21st century is, quite simply, balderdash. A love story like Jane Eyre could have never happened in 2019 (at least, not without being hugely problematic): a mean old man taking romantic and eventually sexual advantage of his subordinate? A side-plot which involves genuinely considering eloping with your cousin? A quasi-religious revelation eventually leading to the eponymous character deciding to marry said mean old man? (Yes, we know that Bronte was pressured into altering her original, more feminist ending – another thing which, hopefully, would not happen today.) And that’s before we remember Rochester’s ‘mad woman in the attic’, whose story is beautifully (and vitally) retold with urgency and relevance in Jean Rhys’ brillaint 1996 Wide Sargasso Sea.

Poetry on the syllabus has a lot to answer to, too, with an emphasis being placed specifically on Romantic poetry, which can be hard to swallow for even the most seasoned fans of contemporary poetry.

Elsewhere, I have written that poetry seems to be experiencing something of a(n albeit small) renaissance among young adults, but schools are not doing nearly enough to promote this overlooked form. There is a certain pool of accomplished contemporary poets whose works are recycled into the GCSE syllabus (notably, the brilliant Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage; thankfully, poets who represent diverse backgrounds such as John Agard and Grace Nichols), but the majority of these modern poets broke ground before the turn of the century, and as such the syllabus is notably void of any hard-hitting names of the 2000s, such as Emily Berry, Matthew Welton, Alice Oswald, and Claudia Rankine (I leave Rupi Kaur off my list at my peril).

To my knowledge, the current syllabus also fails to recognise current trends in the form, such as the increasing popularity and consumption of spoken word poetry, and alternative forms and collections, such as the vital mix of visuals, poetry and prose in Rankine’s meditations on race, Citizen.

In the world of prose, Ali Smith is publishing heart-warming page-turners which are nevertheless bursting with ‘literary’ value, a good way to get students to explore more self-consciously literary texts which experiment with form while also being more engaged than, say, another look at Mrs Dalloway. Virgina Woolf certainly has her fans, and rightly so, but when designing syllabuses exam boards should consider that 14-18 year-olds want to read, not just what the traditional canon assumes they should. And with academics placing an increased value on science fiction and fantasy novels, now is the perfect time to inject a bit of modernity to a post-Victorian curriculum.

Indeed, the curriculum can be said to be almost regressing. Michael Gove’s purging of non-English textsfrom the syllabus a few years ago shows that the government has other things on their mind than artistic value.

Contemporary, avant-garde and international literaturemust be better represented.

I began this article by saying that the humanities are increasingly important, perhaps simply because they are, through neglect, becoming increasingly impotent. STEM subjects are rightly revered, but the humanities should be honoured for more than just the vital nuanced analytical skills, demanded by many contemporary jobs, they provide. The humanities are necessar for the development of empathy in the modern world – an empathy which arguably, in the wake of new technologies, desensitisation and digitilisation of life, is beginning to lack. By failing to make the teaching of art exciting as well as accessible, the curriculum risks losing more than a cohort of aspiring artists. By failing to instill appreciation of the arts, we may be failing to instill nuanced and detailed appreciation of life, and each other.

Matteo Everett

Note: this article originally appeared on

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s