What Books Should a School-kid Read?


Have you read War and Peace?

In ‘Cultural Literacy’ E.D. Hirsch, Jr. wrote that: “To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” Thriving is a lovely word, would that we all could. We should quibble with Hirsch’s use of the word ‘basic’ and think about what more we could do to educate our children. “Knowledge is ‘powerful’ if it predicts, if it explains, if it enables people to envisage alternatives.” wrote Michael Young, this idea of being ‘powerful’: having knowledge to get things done, to be active, and, what’s more, to think about alternative scenarios, arguments and possibilities, added to Hirsch’s thriving would be a heady mix. Then we hear the refrain: ‘whose knowledge should this be?’ I would argue that it becomes yours through the act of making a sense of it, whether to reject it or accept it, or degrees thereof. That still leaves us bereft as to choice, what to choose? For Matthew Arnold culture was: “To know the best that has been said and thought in the world.” Why not? In schools we oughtn’t waste our pupils’ time by studying the second rate, the tacky and the ill thought through, so teach the best. Yes, this is subjective, and gloriously so!

Hirsch writes: “To reflect the cultural reality, we have listed literary terms… as words and phrases rather than as texts… people are likely to know the title of a work and just a few bits of associated information.” This means that to be ‘culturally literate’ a child or, indeed, an adult might be little more than a dilettante, they might know that War and Peace is by Tolstoy, is currently on the telly and is set in Russia, but they needn’t have read the text. This is okay, to an extent, breadth is important and a ‘way in’ to conversations with a wide range of people and works throughout a lifetime, but depth is also important. In order for someone to be truly culturally literate they need to know some works in real depth, and these works need to be ‘the best’ in order to be powerful. As Italo Calvino put it:

A classic is a work which persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway. The fact remains that reading the classics seems to be at odds with our pace of life, which does not tolerate long stretches of time, or the space for humanist otium…

Classic or great books are, of course, contested terms but that will not concern me here. I am taking for granted that some books are better than others. I want to think of great books as ‘powerful’ because they enable, or enabled “people to think in new ways” and are undoubtedly belonging to “the best that has been said and thought”. Wouldn’t it be an interesting approach to curriculum design if, instead of starting from concepts and knowledge, one began with a list of great books? What books would you include? What would be behind your choice, the quality of the book, its cultural significance, or the qualities of the writer and how they relate to other writers on a politically correct spectrum looking for works based on sex, class, race, and sexuality? Would one ensure that works with which one might vehemently disagree or personally dislike are included due to their importance and vice versa?

What books should a child have read by the age of seven, by eleven, by fourteen, by sixteen and by eighteen? Do they get a chance to have read any of them in their entirety in your school? Have you ever carried out an audit of the books that are being read, regularly, in your school? Is the resultant list full of great books or second rate books or hardly any books at all? What is your ‘cultural entitlement’ when it comes to books? Are your kids being fed Walliams or Winnie the Pooh, or neither, or both?

For what purpose? This type of education, one founded on ‘great books’ is one of liberation. As Myf Warhurst said of Germaine Greer:

Germaine Greer… reminds us that education is liberation… there is something utterly glorious about watching someone who is truly liberated through knowledge in full flight…

Knowledge, made your own, is personally liberating, all the more so if you were to be taught dialectically, for every great book you read, another one could offer a rejoinder. Fielding’s Tom Jones might be good to read alongside Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (if either were to be considered ‘great’ enough). These conversations about ‘greatness’ and ‘contrast’ should be continual in schools around the country, what to include and why should be up for grabs every year and great arguments should be had and decisions made. Schools should know what books are being taught in their entirety and when, and which ones are merely referred to in passing. Parents should be given lists of books being taught and also wider reading lists of great books that they should be encouraging their children to read and, maybe, reading themselves.

The resultant curriculum is T shaped, there is the culturally literate ‘breadth’ but also the cure of dilettantism: some books and other artefacts are covered in depth.

From Aristotle to Zola, from Aphra Behn to Greer to Winterson, from Newton to Beard to Wollstonecraft to Galileo, from Darwin to the Qur’an, and then the other arts… Beethoven to Hepworth, who to include? Who to exclude? Subjects? Sports? What to include? What to exclude? For include and exclude you must.

8 thoughts on “What Books Should a School-kid Read?

  1. Thanks for this–I’ve been sneaking a Great Books curriculum into my classes (I tech at a private Catholic high school). My freshmen in World History have been exposed to Homer, the Quran, Judge Dee, and Boccaccio so far. My European History seniors have had everything from Homer to Cervantes to Machiavelli so far….I even had them read Etienne de la Boetie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, which they loved! In my school, which does not have to deal with the discipline/funding issues of the state-run schools, I have found that setting student expectations of reading such works early is vitally important–especially once they see that the works are not “boring” or too difficult. As a note, when assigning such works, I usually give them the print copy, as they seem to do better with physical books than digital.

    Now, I have to review Richard III for this week’s classes…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve recently become a Head of English and am trying to add a more chronological dimension to our KS3; so rather than being led by a set of arbitrary ‘skills’, I am trying to immerse the pupils in the major periods of literature through the three years. My basic order is myths and legends (especially Arthurian) in Year 7, Shakespeare and the novel (Victorian in particular) in Year 8 and modernism / 20th century in Year 9 (we do Shakespeare again, but, what’s not to like?). We’re still studying some contemporary YA as part of this but I’ve tried to fit them to the appropriate time periods, so ‘Here Lies Arthur’ in Year 7, ‘Ruby in the Smoke’ in Year 8 and so on…

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  3. When I have a little more time I will happily share some wider thoughts on the choices that might be made and the question of imposition and choice but a couple of questions if I may.

    Given that your image is for a BBC TV series (which you may claim to be ironic) would it make a difference if you were to retitle this “what stories should a kid be exposed to” rather than books and would you want to widen this to other media (film, animation, audio)

    Also, why “should always be a print copy” given, for example, the research from the Literacy Trust on digital print as opposed to paper print books. (http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/assets/0002/3898/Ebooks_lit_review_2014.pdf)



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