Books rarely ignite widespread passionate debate. Occasionally some books are disputed between authors and readers, critics and publishers but rarely do books that perhaps hundreds of thousands of people have read, provoke discussion on the merits of one versus another.

Those books under review are – were – on a syllabus. The move to replace some American novels and replace them with English books sparked a debate on the wisdom and rationale for such a change. After a time everything needs to be moved about, and in the case of these particular books it may be long overdue. As it is they are still are on some list of ‘best ever’, for all that means, because they have, rather like MS Windows, been the default experience for a major share of total reading time.

The facile way to look at this is declare that it’s a subjective matter. Not so easy, there. There’s a method of argument called the veil of ignorance which can be used here. It’s often applied to determine the morality of a subject. The purpose is to limit self-interest, prejudice and any other hindrance in understanding the question. Therefore the principles alone can be examined and all other personal motivations are obsolete once the veil is raised.

Such a method could be applied to the teaching of books to children. It’s curious that only in literature taught at school can a student be given, what transpires later were completely erroneous lessons. If the same thing happened in chemistry, salt would not have the same properties cooks know; and physicists, would have grave difficulties finding the galaxy, not this one, any galaxy.

In school, literature is whittled, compressed, scheduled, and reduced into themes. Writing is presented as ‘exploring’ the theme of (insert abstract noun here); as though sitting down to write and deciding to conduct some anthropological ethical analysis equipped only with metaphor and synecdoche, simile and metonymy the fearless individual wrestles the subject into submission.

The central irony is that language, either as poetics or as de Saussure defined it, is largely irrelevant as the pedagogy depends on biography, history and geography: ‘At this time Walker went to the panhandle of Texas and encountering oil workers, and boatmen he set to work on his great book, “The Dredgermen”, of which the title plays on the word ‘dread’. Write an essay on the lives of oil workers and migrant labor in 1920s Texas. Easy.

By that long route we come back to the replacement of American books for English ones. Applying the veil of ignorance in this instance it’s very difficult to see any good reason for the replacement of the books (aside from a refresh) as the quality is not divergent. The issue of nationality is a non sequitur; at the level and skill in which literature is taught it makes no difference as language is not central but rather skills of analysis and interpretation are what is being exercised, and therefore a translated work would serve as well as any native English prose and verse.

The reasons for the swap are simple enough: atavism and that potent notion in the minds of some; that inculcating specific lessons early will lead to specific outcomes, and outcomes are what it’s about. Naturally those outcomes should be consonant with the country, the history and the doctrines of the government that made the rules.

Whatever the final choices will be from the canon of approved English writers, it won’t be on the excellence of the writing, but whether they fit a theme. This is similar to having the math curriculum organized by arts journalists. Pity any child that is forced to read books by the suburban solicitor Jane Austen. Should that be the outcome it will be as fixed as any production statistics from a totalitarian state. “Tractor output is up 600% and Northanger Abbey is being read by 100% of 15 year olds.”

Guy Cranswick
1st June 2014