The announcement on 12th July by Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, that there is to be what one newspaper called “the biggest shake-up of the secondary school curriculum for years”, triggered in many of us the usual sceptical reflexes. After all, shaking up the system (as opposed to improving its outcomes) seems to have been a constant activity in the ten years of New Labour and the announcement of a new bout of agitation so soon after Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as Prime Minister inevitably raises the question of whether educational policy is simply going to be more of the same or whether we should expect something new. It all seemed to merit a second look.
Ken Boston certainly thinks we should expect fireworks. What drew most attention, however, was his list of key authors that school students should be expected to read. As someone who writes literary biographies for a living I was gratified to see four of my subjects (Chatwin, Arnold, Marvell, Huxley) on the list but, as with all lists, one began to wonder about the omisssions, particularly as it had been extended beyond the comfortable Eng. Lit. canon to include “writers from different cultures and traditions” (though not a single one from central or eastern Europe). To take three random favourites of mine: Paul Auster, J.M Coetzee, and John Banville I suppose their omission had to do with perceived “difficulty” in the classroom. Which brings me on to Orwell.
Ken Boston observed: “You could begin with something not too taxing for some pupils, like Orwell, and then move on to more difficult works such as Thomas Hardy.” This rather pulled me up. True, Orwell writes with pellucid clarity. He is eminently readable but does this mean he is not “difficult”? Perhaps Boston only means at a very immediate level of being superficially easy to read (though Hardy isn’t exactly Gertrude Stein is he?) but I was worried about the opposition being set up here. Orwell deals with some of the most crucial issues of twentieth century politics, he teased out in his essays many of the nuances of British society from his quirkily radical Old Etonian perspective, he tackled the big issues. So did Hardy, of course, but in a much more locally rooted fashion. I can’t see why Orwell is considered “easier” than anyone else.
One of Orwell’s most brilliant essays is the 1946 “Politics and the English Language”. When I was teaching writing skills to undergraduates at Queen Mary College, University of London (a four year one-day-a-week experience that deserves a blog all of its own!) I regularly recommended this essay to students with its excellent discussion of what makes good, honest writing. But I always had a slight reservation about another of his famous assertions, in the essay “Why I Write”, that “good prose is like a window pane”. It does its job so well that one isn’t aware that it is there. One looks through the glass to the content within, the thing that allows one to grasp the meaning is irrelevant to the seizure of the meaning itself. Bad writing, on the other hand, is always getting in the way, a dirty smudge that one has to wipe away before one can see the meaning clearly. It’s a nice idea but, even without tipping out on the floor a lorryload of long-winded recent literary theory, it’s possible to argue that this isn’t quite good enough. Writing is not that simple. The form modifies the content (and vice versa) and language does have a life of its own. It isn’t a simple tool that one picks up to do a job. It is endlessly complex. In short it is “difficult” and so is Orwell. Much of this is to do with the complexity of his political and social positioning and, for contemporary teenagers, there’s a great deal of historical and political matter assumed by his writing that they may well find “difficult”. Books like 1984 or Animal Farm were written out of their particular historical moment. A lot of context is needed if one is to understand them. I would argue that this is as much if not more than is needed for Hardy (who of course was also a man deeply sensitive to the undercurrents of his time).
All this means that once one starts on the task of trying to sort the sheep from the goats one is pretty soon going to get onto tricky ground. It nearly always means making assumptions that turn out to be dubious, talking down to people, making false assertions, reducing the complexity, richness and variety of a writer’s oeuvre to some fatuous generality.
Let’s allow Orwell his complexity, his richness of content. His difficulty.