Cultural Vandalism

The Irish Times reports that the Oxford, Cambridge and the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) exam board has removed the Irish poet Seamus Heaney from it’s exam syllabus along with other writers from Ireland. In addition, the English poet Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth and Philip Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb have been removed, as have works by other English poets including William Blake.

The OCR’s Chief Executive Jill Duffy states the reason for the changes is to “reflect diversity and inclusivity not just in our qualifications, but in the material we produce to support their delivery, as well as in the assessment of our qualifications”.

I have for years laboured under the misapprehension that the purpose of the subject of English literature is to teach students about the best of our literary cannon. It never crossed my mind that it’s purpose is to enhance “diversity and inclusivity”. Henceforth I shall read books with these aims in mind, rather than with the aim of furthering my appreciation of the richness of English literature.

Of course, works of literature do engage with social issues. For example Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird addresses the iniquity of racism in the southern United States. However, Lee’s work has been studied because it is a great work of literature that deals with racism, not because it promotes “inclusivity and diversity”, although, of course a side effect of reading To Kill a Mocking Bird may well be to kindle in it’s readers a feeling for the deep injustice of the racial prejudice in the American south.

Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb and Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth are both fine poems. I remember studying the latter whilst at school and coming across the former some years later. To drop Larkin, Heaney and Owen seems perverse and retrograde. Larkin and Owen are, in particular integral to the cultural fabric of the British aisles and I have sympathy for the Education Secretary’s description of the dropping of these poets as “cultural vandalism”.

You can read the article in the Irish Times Here https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/2022/07/02/irish-writers-dropped-from-uk-school-curriculum-in-move-to-increase-diversity/. Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb is available on the Poetry Foundation’s website here https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47594/an-arundel-tomb. Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth is also available on the Poetry Foundation’s website and can be found here https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47393/anthem-for-doomed-youth. For information on Seamus Heaney please see the Poetry Foundation’s website here https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/seamus-heaney.

As always I would be interested in the views of my readers.

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7 thoughts on “Cultural Vandalism

    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Michael. I certainly think they have some utopia in mind in which the purpose of literature is seen as primarily to enhance diversity, rather than to impart universal values/to educate in it’s broadest sense. All the best. Kevin

      Reply
  1. Liz Gauffreau

    What?!?! I have to say I’m shocked–although on second thought, I shouldn’t be. The move toward studying works of literature as sociolocial artifacts, rather than art, started when I was in grad school in the ’80s (1980s. I’m not that old!) The study of literature is primarily sociology these days. If I were just starting university now, I wouldn’t major in English. I’d major in history. The other thing I would add is that in order to understand one’s place as a reader or a writer in the literary continuum, one must read and discuss what has come before.

    Reply
    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      Thanks, Liz. I agree with everything you say. In particular I would echo your view that one must understand what has gone before (in literature or any other field) in order to engage with the here and now. Best wishes. Kevin

      Reply

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