Who gets to define what makes a 'classic' text?

Posted on: 28 Sept 2017

Tess St Clair-Ford, English teacher at Epsom College, argues that it does not matter whether or not a text is deemed a 'classic', since literature from all ages can explore the truth about the human condition, whatever the context.

A colleague from the Maths department caught me before school the other day, apparently horrified. It was clearly my fault, she said, that her A-level Maths students, to whom I had taught GCSE Literature the previous year, didn’t have a clue who Jane Austen was.

Well, perhaps. However, I did not feel the need to defend my teaching. The students in question had studied Willa Cather’s 1918 novel, My Antonia; a text most would agree is a ‘classic’, albeit from a different culture. They had also, as part of a newly designed IGCSE Language exam, written on an unseen passage from 19th century literature. Preparation for this element of the course had required them to read Hardy, Wilkie Collins, the Brontes and a smattering of Dickens. A good introduction, I’d say, to those much talked-about ‘classics’.

For here’s my issue with Amanda Foreman’s claim in this week’s Sunday Times that “kids are leaving school shut out of their literary heritage”: who gets to define what makes a classic?

Inherent in her argument is an assumption that old = good, and contemporary = bad; or, at least, that contemporary fiction is of less intellectual value. Actually, the IGCSE syllabus we’ve been following here at Epsom College introduces students to a much broader literary heritage than a more old-fashioned curriculum would have done, with great writers such as Kiran Desai and Chinua Achebe featuring on the set text lists.

Of course there’s an important place in the curriculum for classical novels (or what we now call ‘literary heritage texts’). In recent years, we’ve made a concerted effort to return Shakespeare to the curriculum for every academic year in the school. The result is that when I teach Othello to the Upper Sixth, they’re now able to comfortably cite parallels with Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice, drawn from former years of studying these plays. And it’s a mistake to assume that students find pre-20th century writing ‘boring’ or ‘hard’: classes will fall in love with Milton or defend Donne to death. (I’ve overheard Fifth Form students arguing about Shylock as though he’s a member of the Common Room.)

Perhaps it’s no surprise that, as a historian, Foreman favours novels from and about the 18th and 19th century. Personally, I’ve learnt more about the Victorian era by reading John Fowles’ brilliant – and decidedly post-modern – 1969 novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, than I ever learnt from ploughing through Dickens. We’ll teach Fowles to our Lower Sixth Pre-U students but we’ll also teach them A Passage to India, and ask them to compare the way writers across time periods and genres tackle ideas and characters. This is the wealth of literature: to explore the truth about the human condition, whatever the context. In good writing, such power is surely as evident in the work of living writers from all over the world as it is in the words of long dead members of the canon.

About Tess St Clair-Ford

Tess St Clair-Ford, is an English teacher at Epsom College in Surrey.