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The ‘A’ Level Canon

Sally Minogue
[This is a slightly revised version of a paper delivered at the
Conference for Higher Education Teachers of English at the
University of Kent, Easter 1987.]
I want to begin by saying something about the institutionalisation of English in education, and we don’t need to
look far for images of this institutionalisation. This is a conference for teachers of English in Higher Education; a quick
glance through the list of participants reveals a miniscule number of teachers of English from other sectors of education
(we’re both here on the platform); and what are we talking
about? about pre-HE English. The conference is taking place in
a university, one of the many to which the percentage of working class entrants has actually declined in real terms over the
last twenty to thirty years; and in a geographical area where the
eleven-plus still exists, so that selection ensures an initial
educational failure, often on the basis of factors of class and
culture, which may often be difficult, indeed impossible, to
recover from. Recent research showing that having a graduate
parent is a.more important factor than schooling in determining
whether a child goes on to higher education may make leftwing university teachers squirm a little, and will be of absolutely no comfort to working-class parents.

Within the schools, teacher morale is at an all-time low;
curriculum and public examination changes have been thrust at
teachers with the minimum of preparation time or resource
support. In Further Education teachers have adapted to a bewildering number of curriculum and funding changes which
have had a direct effect on their teaching practices. Resources
are in desperate decline. In my own college, in Thanet, where
there is 25% male unemployment, we scarcely replace our
video machines before they get stolen again-you have to
show videos between thefts. (fhey’d have been a bit disappointed if they’d got the last video I recorded-Terry Eagleton
talking about Literature and History. Not a big market for that
in Thanet.) And in between teaching Othello at ‘K level and
poetry at ‘0’ you’re advising students about Aids (or they’re
advising you). GCSE planning takes place in the tea breaks
(and that’s not a joke). Of course, teachers give of their own
time as well for this work, because they know how important it
is for the kids they teach-and because they know they are
going to carry the can. It took three relatively intelligent and
experienced teachers of English two hours to work out exactly
what the examining board’s requirements were as far as assessment was concerned for our GCSE Literature syllabus,
before we could even begin to construct a response to those requirements. This was partly because the grammar of the document was vague. Was it deliberately vague? That’s something


that will worry me until my assessments are safely accepted
next year.

The lack of time matters. GCSE is forming notions notions
of English at this moment which will be infl uential for many
years; that formative work either comes from above (in the
form of, for example, reading lists and assessment methods) or
it’s done by teachers in snatched time. For the teacher, the
GCSE debate inevitably and inexorably centres on assessment.

For the demoralised members of school teachers’ unions, pay
still lies at the centre of this debate, because the Government
has refused to acknowledge how much greater will be the
demands on teacher time, effort and experience in GCSE assessment. Many secondary schools, relying on models of CSE,
have chosen to go for a 100% coursework version of GCSE.

Yet no-one I have met is fully clear about what criteria will
determine the various grade levels in English. The result will
inevitably be that teachers will tighten their own systems, to
ensure fairness to their students (Le. to avoid the possibility of
a moderator stepping in at the last moment and marking down
all the teacher assessments). A model which ideally should
have freed us into a more egalitarian structure is already becoming prescriptive and divisive. Meanwhile Kenneth Baker is
proposing benchmark reading: Animal Farm will be read by
the age of 13 (so you’d better get reading); and he’s set up a
Commission on English headed by a mathematician.

For those of who teach English on the margins-rather than
teaching the theory of marginalisation-as I see myself doing
in a technical college which acts as an escape route away from
the desperate unemployment of a less affluent corner of the
South-East, this conference has raised a lot of contradictions.

Indeed teaching English in the pre-HE sector in itself raises
contradictions. Our context is set by the examining boards and
the economic climate; our physical and resource situation is
determined by rate-capping; and in the midst of this we have a
lot of sparky students, and the subject of English to be re-interpreted.

There is room on the periphery for instituting change. Mode
3 ‘N level has been mentioned, as have new subjects such as
Communications Studies and Theatre Studies, developing in
parallel with English, and taught by English teachers. Access
courses have also been important agents of educational change
and development, questioning and negotiating as they teach, interdisciplinary, and taking a multiplicity of approaches to literature.

But as a teacher of English perhaps my most heavily felt
responsibility is the teaching of ‘A’ level. This morning before I
set off for the conference I went into college to leave a mock
exam for students who have this year applied to institutions

largely represented here. Signifiers did not figure in the
questions. My task as a teacher of English is primarily to
enable these particular students to attain ‘N level grades. On
the way I hope to do a number of things. But the priorities are

And what of the poor student? ‘A’ level to one section of
the student population means an entry card to Higher Education; to another section it means an extra few quivers in the
bow in the quest for the Holy Grail, i.e. a job. ‘A’ level is tied
up with the arcane complexities of the UCCA form. ‘A’ levels
equal points scores for admission (which, as the .experience of
Aston University has shown, also equal funding: the higher the
points score for students admitted, the higher the standard the
university is considered to have achieved, the higher the UGC
funding.) ‘A’ levels equal a step up the ladder then for both
student and HE institution. And what of the place of English as
a subject? For the student who wants to go on to study English
at HE, English means that it’s going to be more difficult to get



What I am talking about here are power structures. This
morning Catherine Belsey berated the old English tradition for
appropriating literature into the academic institution. What I
want to ask is: what’s new? Over the last couple of days I’ve
heard a number of propositions discussed, or asserted: (1) how
important it is to appreciate that the ‘great texts’ of the old
canon, now derided, were part of and underpinned an elitist
culture; (2) how, nonetheless, we must still ‘keep hold’ of these
texts and appropriate them as our own; (3) how, at the same
time, we should recover lost voices from the past, those which
that same elitist culture sought to suppress; (4) how the study
of literature is, ungainsayably, ideological in nature.

Yet to me, a sort of outsider, it is clear that those who voice
these views are themselves embedded in and underpin one of
the primary elitist institutions of our current history-the
academy. In its various institutional forms the academy is being
used to rob present voices of power and breath under the guise

of standards and values, through the admissions system. For
where do your potential students come from? How are they
selected? Do you see that process as part of your concern? If
you are a member of an English department in an institution of
Higher Education, it is your concern, and you are implicated in
the way admissions decisions are made. And that’s where ‘A’

level comes in, pat, like the old villain.

I would have much more sympathy with radical positions in
English if they began to grapple with their own place in the institutions, with their own role in cultural history. A brief mention was made this morning of the difficulties of developing
cultural studies within institutionalised assessment systems,
course organisation, value jUdgements, etc. But surely that is
the first task? If that can’t be done, what will the cultural historians make of the altogether more difficult and problematic
judgements-and they are and will be value judgements, because they will select-about the past?

What I want to suggest is that it is not ‘A’ level which is the
villain of the piece. I want to challenge the new orthodoxy in
English from the standpoint of pre-Higher Education, partly on
the basis of the institutional and structural terms I’ve just outlined, but partly on the basis of what could be seen as a
Leavisite view. For I’ve been struck at this conference by the
emergence of a number of dirty words in criticism: ‘universal’,
‘moral value’, ‘individual’, and, dirtiest of all, ‘F. R. Leavis’.

(As is often the case with dirty words, that last one got an awfullot of use.) Why the obsession with Leavisite principles?

Surely no self-respecting cultural materialist is going to believe
that one man could single-handedly determine the canon of
English studies? Why, on the other hand, given the contempt
often turned on the canon, hold on to the canonised texts-indeed, why study literature at all? As for ‘policing the
boundaries of truth’, Catherine Belsey’s description of the oldstyle criticism variously condemned as passe, narrow and
elitist; I’ve felt a good deal more the presence of thought policing in the new English, a dogmatism of assumption and assertion which seem to me not only to be in danger of but to be actively seeking a new and reductive orthodoxy.

To consider the implications of that new orthodoxy, I want
to look at the ‘A’ level canon in relation to three areas which
have been raised in this conference, or in recent writing about
new literary theory; as I do so I’d like to address myself
through the eyes of the hard-pressed teacher and the hard-pressed student. The three areas I shall consider are the proposed or
current demolition of the canon; the replacement of literature
by literary theory at the centre of English studies; and that approach to literature which places it on a continuum with history, and sees its value as deriving from its role as historical

First then the canon. There’s no doubt that the range of ‘A’

level syllabuses as they stand at present reflect an even narrower version of the canon than that which has been attacked
so far. Shakespeare is compulsory on every ‘A’ level syllabus;
Chaucer often appears as his stable companion. Regular appearances are made by the Metaphysical and Romantic poets,
Restoration comedy and Jane Austen. Milton appears not to be
quite as popular as he was. Of course, within the texts
prescribed, considerable freedom is given to student and
teacher to choose; in my own institution this choice is often
determined by whether we already own a set of the texts, or
whether a text is available in cheap paperback so that we can
reasonably ask the students themselves to buy it. As a result it
is perfectly possible at present to study ‘A’ level English
without reading any poetry other than the blank verse of
Shakespeare’s plays. A recent HMI report showed that teachers



are on the whole reluctant to teach poetry and that students are
reluctant to approach it To me, finding out the reasons for this,
and doing something about it, are at least as great a cause for
concern as, say, questioning the centrality of Shakespeare to
the canon.

But what about that centrality? The only agreement that
exam boards could reach in their recent discussions of a common core at ‘A’ level in English was that all boards must study
Shakespeare-just as they do now. Would it be heresy to drop
Shakespeare from the A level canon? I haven’t actually heard
anyone suggesting that he should be dropped from the
academic canon-only re-read. So should he be re-read at ‘A’

level? If so, how? Political Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan 001limore and Alan Sinfield (1985), represents some of the
freshest thinking on this question, and it is avowedly anti-elitist
in its ‘cultural materialism’, registering its ‘commitment to the
transformation of a social order which exploits people on
grounds of race, gender and class’ (Foreword). Sinfield, in
‘Shakespeare and Education’ in that volume, addresses himself
specifically to the question of the place of Shakespeare in the
pre-HE canon. He is particularly scathing about ‘the combination of cultural deference and cautious questioning promoted
around Shakespeare in GCE’, which he says
seems designed to construct a petty bourgeoisie which
will strive within limits allocated to it without seeming
to disturb the system-‘it does not want to break: the
ladder by which it imagines it can climb’ (poulantzas)

But who’s standing at the top of the ladder? Does approaching
texts from a cultural materialist, historicist or feminist
standpoint thus cancel out the current structure and status of
English in the academy, or of the academy itself, of which
those ‘radical’ approaches still remain a part? Just who is it
who ‘doesn’t want to break: the ladder by which it imagines it
can climb’? Imagines? The ladder is in place and there are lots
of climbers. The last who should be condemned are the hapless
‘A’ level students who are in the position of least choice.

Many critics would like to ‘de-universalise’ Shakespeare. In
practice, what would that mean at ‘~ level? Perhaps covering
the theory which suggests that de-universalisation; or ‘placing’

the rise of Shakespeare in English studies; or taking students
back to the historical determinants of the plays and their performances and audiences. But are we quite happy to abandon
the notion of universality so readily? Shouldn’t students be allowed to consider that as a position as well? When they read
Hamlet’s ‘0 what a rogue’ soliloquy and encounter the selfreflexive ideas of ‘What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba That
he should weep for her?’ , are they not encountering universally
recognisable ideas couched in ironies which are as much in
place in Stoppard’s parasitic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as
they are in Shakespeare? Proponents of the new orthodoxy are
unwilling even to discuss this; the term ‘universal’ has been
discredited. Are we to carry this lack of discussion back to ‘~
level-and thence back to GCSE? I find the implications of
that lack of discussion worrying; its effects can already be seen
in a mass of recent critical works which announce their assumed terms, not up for discussion, in the introduction and often show little sign of a full understanding of either the origin
or the rationale for the positions the terms encapsulate. Peter
Widdowson, in his editorial introduction to Re-reading English
(1982), describing the dilemma of new materialist critics in
relation to theory and practice in criticism, revealingly
remarks: ‘The fear of being cast as an “empiricist” has led to
positions being abandoned … before any substantial work has


been done.’ Are we to introduce this fear into sixteen year-olds
even before they really know what ’empiricist’ means? When
contradictions emerge between positions-as, for example,
between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Althusserian Marxismare we to take the ‘with one leap Jack was free’ position adopted by Belsey in Critical Practice (1980)?:

Lacan apparently leaves little room for history, while Althusser’s theory of subjectivity leaves little room for
change. I have therefore drawn on each position without
dwelling on the incompatibilities between them … my
present procedure seems to me to be admissible if it
generates a productive critical practice.

The impossibility of discussing difficulties with a position is
emerging more and more strongly in the new critical theory; is
this to be transferred to younger minds? By whom?

Any re-reading of Shakespeare would at this rate mean that
teachers would have to spend even more time on Shakespeare,
not less, within the cramped time scheme of ‘A’ level as it
stands at present. And would the literary theory which underpins the various positions to be explored be available to the
students (and I don’t mean available to the publishers)?

Whenever I have taught theoretical articles, as I have with
students on an Access course where the freer mode and selfdetermined syllabus allows us the chance to do so, the students
are alienated by the language and style-which is certainly
paraphrasable, and can be more simply expressed, because I
have to do that to make the critical texts available to students.

If Shakespeare is to be robbed of his bourgeois connections, so
must the new critical theory; to the eyes and minds of workingclass students, as to many others, it is obscurantist, it excludes
them, and they are amused by the ironies this suggests. One
answer the theorists provide is itself part of the same obscurantism; they argue that a ‘common-sense’ exposition of their positionmisleads the reader into a false view of the clarity, the
transparency of language. The expression must be difficult so
as not to mislead the reader into thinking the concepts easy.

The corollary of this is that such texts are available only to the
initiated, and that attempts to explain them are treacherous. I
hope that one of the theorists will come to explain this position
to my students.

This brings us to the centrality of theory. It is true that a
liberal humanist tradition underpins much of the approach of
‘A’ level, and I agree that this may need questioning. In the
words of the University of London Exam Board, ‘the model is,
I suppose, a version of the English literary heritage which has
been broadened to include a good deal of more recent writing.’

The Southern Universities Board is less apologetic; in reply to
my question about whether there were any plans to include
theory in ‘A’ level they replied ‘I regret that I do not understand
your reference to the more recent literary theory’. (They did
not, of course, regret it at all-nor did they not understand.)
The humanist tradition has been criticised precisely because
it is deficient in theory; and in practice in the ‘A’ level syllabus
this comes down to an emphasis on ‘the text’. It is by now easy
to see what the theorist will want-explanations of how the
text comes into being, canon formation, value attachment, etc.

Certainly, much of this would be interesting and useful. But
perhaps it would be more sensible to ask why the text is so
firmly in place in the ‘A’ level tradition. Most would blame it
on Leavis: there is an emphasiS on practical criticism, and
many ‘A’ level exam papers carry unseens for critical appreciation. But provided the student is made aware of the underpinning of these implicit positions and assumptions, is this not the
most practical way to proceed? For here we come to the question of time and evaluation. It is the universities themselves
who have made ‘ft: level the nexus of value. If you want to
read English you have to be especially skilled at doing the tests
set at ‘A’ level. To acquire those skills you need a certain length
of time. Focussing on certain key texts is the obvious way to
organise that time.

Here I come to my final point. I want to identify what has
come across to me most strongly at this conference, and
through my recent reading around these topics. I readily admit
that there is an implicit and perhaps hidden orthodoxy at ‘A’

level, which narrows and restricts. But what is being proposed
now in English studies is the replacement of one orthodoxy
with another, one perhaps more narrowing and reductive as applied at ‘A’ level than that which currently prevails.

The old Leavisite humanist tradition is in my view still
defensible in a number of ways, and not least of those is that it
is in practice capable of extension and pluralism of approach.

Much has been made of Leavis’ laying down of the great novel
tradition-but I don’t think that that ever stopped Charlotte
Bronte being read, or indeed being read in ways different from
the way Leavis would have read it; whereas I have heard it
suggested at this conference that English departments should
simply abandon the teaching of the nineteenth-century realist
novel. All sorts of other approaches, readings and texts remain
available and central in the ‘old’ approach. In terms of ‘ft:

level, what the emphasis on the text does is at least to leave the
way open for a multiplicity of approaches which certainly need
to be available in some form to the student And yes-at the
leart of that does lie individual response. In many cases ‘A’

level is a student’s first serious contact with literature (and I
don’t mean Literature), and an individual response to a first
reading is central to the activity of reading; it’s a private activity! Confidence in relation to the work springs initially from
an encouragement of that response. Nor need that emphasis
rule out the questioning that theorists desire. And let me remind
you that there are texts and readers outside the academy-lots
and lots of them-and that one of the things that readers do is
encounter immediately recognisable shared feelings and ideas
in texts, whether academics deconstruct them or not. And if this
response of the ordinary reader is socially constructed-so is
the response of the cultural materialist critic.

But the new orthodoxy, or rather competing orthodoxies,
are of course determinedly anti-pluralist. It has been encouraging to hear at this conference practical suggestions for a number of entry points to historicism within a taught course of
English, as it has to hear comments about the crossing of
boundaries which takes place within feminist criticism. But far
more aggressive and monolithic stances have been taken by
various theorists: David Craig and Michael Egan say: ‘We call
our approach historicist in order to mark it off from other ways
of reading imaginative literature, yet recognise by implication
we are also laying claim to the entire practice of modern
literary criticism’ (,Historicist Criticism’ , in Re-reading
English, op. cit.). Later they assert ‘the more historically accurate a piece of imaginative writing is the better it is likely to
be. And the better it is aesthetically the more historically accurate it is likely to be.’ Such a narrow and imperialist approach would in practice at ‘A’ level lead to learned orthodoxies of approach which would be incapable of elasticity
according to the individual; or it would lead to the disappearance of English ‘A’ level altogether. Indeed this would
seem to be the logical move for such theorists. I look forward
to hearing that view argued where it matters-in relation to that
huge mass of still silent voices who don’t number amongst the
30% of candidates to achieve the required English entry grades
for HE, or who indeed don’t number amongst the candidates at

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