The power of words
How teaching world literature could help make society more tolerant
Literature can provide a perfect opportunity to introduce students to other cultures. But world literature is not specified as part of the GCSE curriculum. Erin Miller gives some tips on making sure your students’ reading list isn’t too monocultural
You don’t have to spend long on social media (I usually give it three or four minutes, and try not to follow the perpetrators) before you find yourself faced with abject, loud, shameless hate and intolerance. And it is very likely that these voices speak louder than some of the more thoughtful and balanced messages that students hear from their teachers.
This got me thinking: at a time when it is more vital than ever to teach acceptance, the national curriculum for English teaching is not doing enough to promote cultural and religious diversity in its text requirements. So what should we do about it?
Here’s a snapshot of how texts from other cultures are currently embedded in the national curriculum for English teaching across the phases.
At key stage 2, it is mentioned that children should be reading “books from other cultures and traditions”. Good.
At KS3, there is a requirement for students to read “seminal world literature”. The word “seminal” here is a teensy bit problematic. Does a text have to have been influential in the development of a genre to be worth studying? Also, it is a little unclear as to volume required here: is it one text per year? Per key stage?
Anyway, I’ve been building you up to the real shocker: there is not one, not even a
single, measly platitudinous bullet point that demands the teaching of any text that is from a culture other than British at KS4.
Why is this a problem? Narratives about the existing and widespread problems relating to structural racism are so culturally embedded that our students sometimes fail to notice them. Or worse, they fail to produce an emotional response that is appropriate for, or befitting of, the sickening treatment of repressed cultures that is happening right now around the globe.
I’d argue this happens because of a lack of emotional connection. Emotional connections are created through raw and honest engagement with a person or a problem. I think I would be a different person if I hadn’t read Alice Walker, Ta-nehisi Coates, Jung Chang, Toni Morrison, Hyeonseo Lee, and so many more wonderful contemporary and historical writers. I might not remember that particular English lesson on a Friday afternoon, but
I will remember Celie and Pecola forever.
Literature is perhaps the best way to encourage students to emotionally engage with global issues; and we want our children to grow up to change the world, don’t we? It is the moral responsibility of a government to educate young people with an aim to temper ignorance and prejudice with compassion and sensitivity.
So, trapped in a curriculum that does not embody the diverse culture and nation that we claim to be, how do we ensure that our children are being exposed to texts from around the world, and texts that represent a range of cultures and religions? How do we make sure that we are using literature as a tool to help beat internalised racism, Islamophobia, and other entrenched negative attitudes towards different cultures?
I’ve worked in the international sector, and one of the key differences between UK and international schools is the emphasis placed upon becoming a global citizen. Curricula in international schools actively require students to prove that they have been demonstrating the behaviour of a global citizen, and often prescribed texts act as a platform for thinking about, and engaging with, other cultures. Generally speaking, international schools are already at an advantage owing to the diverse intake of pupils; something from which many schools in the UK do not benefit.
In the aforementioned international curricula, the balance between Western texts and texts from other cultures is far more palatable. Additionally, the IB programme prescribes translated texts, indicating respect towards writers from countries other than Britain.
In the UK, there is no question that teachers model moral attitudes and tolerance. Despite this, what messages about the value of other cultures are being tacitly communicated through a two-year study programme of English where any literary endeavours beyond Britain are ignored?
Asking around, I see that the requirement for “seminal world literature” is often being satisfied through teaching Of Mice and Men or Animal Farm. Excellent text choices, no question. However, they are still representing the West and Western ideas. Sure, we can look to the mistreatment of Crooks in Of Mice and Men to foster discussions about the repugnant treatment of African Americans, and those are discussions that must take place, but that doesn’t help us to understand African culture, does it? It’s not a celebration or insight into a culturally and historically rich continent, is it? In short, it’s not enough.
Adding to this, we need to ask ourselves: if the text features other cultures, but was produced or written by an author in Britain, can that always qualify it as a “text from another culture”? It seems that the purpose of this slippery bullet point in the national curriculum is functioning to expand upon possible Eurocentric/western attitudes. I think we need to be more adventurous, and get out of our text comfort zones.
Here are a few ideas for how schools and their English departments can beat the restrictions of the national curriculum by giving students a sense of other cultures and religions through reading:
Give English teachers the time to read and discuss the most valuable texts from other cultures to teach. Teachers need to be emotionally engaged before we can hope to engage our students.
Compile reading lists dedicated to books and poems from other cultures.
Each year, make time for a unit that includes texts from other cultures.
Ensure non-fiction texts related to global issues form part of unseen practice. This is a useful way to keep engaging students at GCSE, when no literature is prescribed. Promote projects such as “a book from my/ this corner of the world”, where students celebrate a book from a place that they have a connection to, or have researched. Bring in guest speakers. See who is available to talk to your students about their experiences of other cultures.
Take cross-curricular approaches. For example, if Nigeria is being studied in geography, could you supplement students’ knowledge by embedding some Nigerian literature, art or poetry? Find programmes where students have the opportunity to Skype children from other schools around the world, to learn more about their culture. This can be very powerful.
Including literature that challenges perceptions and gives students knowledge of the world beyond their immediate environment is crucial. It gives schools a way to fulfil the national curriculum’s purpose of “moral and cultural development” and, perhaps most importantly, contributes to a future where society – maybe even the internet – is a more tolerant place.
Erin Miller is a secondary English teacher, currently teaching at an international school