If you set out to create an anthology of essential reading, a chance to impart a body of wisdom to the next generation, what would you include? Who has the right to determine whether a text is worthy of canonical status? Questions about the ‘literary canon’, about who determines the value of a text, are nothing new; the debate has long been running in the corridors of academia. But, if we substitute the word ‘canon’ for ‘exam specification’ or ‘syllabus’ we are reminded of the question’s relevance to students and teachers across the country. As we continue to grapple with our new content-heavy GCSE and A-Level specifications, it is worth remembering that similar questions about what we ‘value’ were asked when Michael Gove first announced his reforms. His insistence that American classics be removed from the list of prescribed texts on the GCSE English Literature syllabus sparked debate; rumours that ‘Of Mice and Men’ was axed because the then-Education Secretary ‘disliked’ the text raised a few eyebrows.
Although Gove defended his stance, claiming the reforms were meant to broaden, not narrow, the curriculum, the recent changes to GCSEs in particular, with their emphasis on British classics and British history, will be remembered as being driven and shaped by one man. This is significant, particularly if we acknowledge the reality that many students only read the texts prescribed by the syllabus and only learn the facts required for the examination. At Wellington, this is something we continue to challenge. Here we encourage exploration. Here we celebrate choice.
Choice is integral to everything we do, from the introduction of elective subjects in the Third Form, to the option of both IB and A Level in the Sixth Form. At Wellington, we want students to be inspired to pursue their own interests – so much so that, at any one time, roughly 933 Wellingtonians are engaged in independent project work.
So how do we balance the need to impart knowledge with the need to develop independence? How do we ensure that students have everything they need to pass an exam, while inspiring them to look beyond it? These were the questions the Heads of Department at Wellington asked themselves during a morning break meeting last year. The response?
We have recently published an anthology, conceived and compiled by our teachers and edited by our Head of Maths, Aidan Sproat, to kick-start a year’s celebration of reading. ‘Synthesis’ is a treasure-trove of great writing, our alternative canon, bringing together the best fiction and non-fiction, classics and contemporary works, as decided by our staff. The 450-page anthology, which begins with Lewis Carroll’s advice ‘To Learners’ (‘When you come to any passage you don’t understand, read it again: if you still don’t understand it, read it again…), is an antidote to a way of learning fuelled by instant gratification, when smart-phones bring knowledge direct to the finger-tips. Synthesis is also a celebration of diversity, a fusion of different cultures, an explosion of different viewpoints; it places such canonical favourites as ‘Ozymandias’ next to the poetry of Wang Wei. Topics on everything, from bees to breakfast, and words from Dickens, Darwin, and Duffy sit alongside snippets of music, texts in translation, and thought-provoking illustrations. This is a cross-curricular anthology – our own super-syllabus without limits (the anthology includes a ‘Whence and Whither’ section making each submission a springboard to something else).
By celebrating diversity and bringing together different voices, ‘Synthesis’ will be a reflection of the Wellington community in 2018. By involving all departments and all disciplines in a genuinely collaborative process, we have created something unique – an expression of what we value. And, of course, copies are winging their way to our schools in China and Bangkok, to Eagle House and to our Academies in Wiltshire. Next time (‘Synthesis’: Volume 2 is already being compiled) we will broaden our reach still further. Parents will be invited to suggest texts for inclusion in the anthology, perhaps giving a flavour of the future workplace, or a hint of the knowledge they value. Students have already started to pitch ideas, offering their help with content and front-cover design. ‘Synthesis’ will allow us to honour our rich literary heritage, while reassessing what is important for students today; through it, we will continue to explore life beyond the exam and, most importantly, we will keep the debate going.
By embarking on a project to kindle a love of reading, we have captured some sense of our collective identity, and we have preserved it in a beautiful hardback book, the very physical existence of which sends a message about what we value in an increasingly digitalised world.
Now surely the arch-traditionalist Gove would approve of that.
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