23 June 2022

This be perverse – cancelling Philip Larkin is political activism, not education


Philip Larkin’s cancellation by the OCR exam board is as predictable as it is wrong. Predictable, because ‘England’s other poet Laureate’ was both a supporter of Margaret Thatcher and well known for his ‘problematic’ views on women and minorities. Wrong because any decision to remove authors from the GCSE English Literature syllabus should be done on literary merit. There may be many reasons for replacing Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb with Flirtation by Rita Dove, but nobody except the most swivel-eyed social justice warrior could say the latter is the better poem. This is cultural vandalism, and the losers in this campaign to extend the culture wars into every corner of every classroom are the children denied the opportunity of studying a work of genius. 

Other poems to be edited out include those by Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, William Blake, Wilfred Owen, Seamus Heaney, John Keats, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In come inferior replacements by Fatimah Asghar, Martin Carter, Caleb Femi and Ilya Kaminsky. Some of the choices deserve their place in the new anthology, including Langston Hughes and the highly skilled and provocative Raymond Antrobus. But this ‘refreshing’ of the list of authors is censorship – political activism motivated by the misplaced idea that pupils can only ‘relate’ to writers from the same social, ethnic or other category as themselves. It is the centering of protected characteristics in the classroom, crowding out the nuances of life lived, and life yet to be lived, in order to keep people (including the writers themselves) in neat, politically constructed pigeonholes. 

This tendentious desire to represent the past through the prism of today’s obsessions, has resulted in a ‘Conflict’ section of this new anthology without a single work by the great poets of World War I. No Wilfred Owen, no Siegfried Sassoon, but the lucky kids will be able to read ‘Papa-T’ by Fred D’Aguiar and ‘Colonization in Reverse’ by Louise Bennett. This astonishing oversight can only be the consequence a cultural agenda which prioritises second-rate writers and ‘lived experience’, regardless of how inspid it is in comparison to canonical works of the past. 

The irony is that none of this actually widens diversity of thought. The desire to make reading lists more reflective of those who read them, understandable though it is, is only genuinely progressive if the works they contain are, in the words of another absent writer, ‘the best words in the best order’. This isn’t. As an introduction to the beauty and scope of English Literature it is a long, anguished, confusing, apology. Keeley Nolan, OCR’s Lead Subject Advisor proclaims that it includes more ‘contemporary and established poets of colour’.  There are two problems with such a statement: firstly, GCSE specifications in literature should only include contemporary writers when they are, like the now deleted Seamus Heaney, long established, their genius proven over decades – not because they have written something today about today. The best judge of literary merit is time. Secondly, to see anyone, whether it is a writer, or a pupil studying their work, through the lens of colour is reductive. Teachers, and works of art, should attempt to go beyond the confines of those who want to restrict understanding to the narrow strictures of their own – very fixed – political preoccupations. 

Compiling this anthology must have been a difficult process: the moral and intellectual contortions undertaken at OCR would only have been matched by their hand-wringing. The results will be applauded by the many (usually white) teacher activists on Twitter who see the teaching of literature as primarily a political act, rather than something finer and more ambitious. The educationalists who redacted some of the greatest authors to ever write in English will, no doubt, feel a little better about themselves. They will return to their comfortable offices to plan a hundred new visions and revisions, their ‘success so huge and wholly farcical’. 

Pity, though, the poor teachers who have thinner gruel to feed their pupils. Pause for a moment to consider that the joy one can take in teaching Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb can fill whole lessons. A good English teacher can relish his words, that reach so many areas of the imagination, of experiences unfelt and unknown before by the pupils reading it for the first time. That is a voice of diversity. And for some young people Larkin switches them on to the power and beauty of language.

All gone now, replaced by poems that can be exhausted by breaktime. In The Whitsun Weddings Larkin wrote that the ‘sun destroys/The interest of what’s happening in the shade’. Increasingly it is nuance of thought and experience, of life lived between the light and dark, the black and white, that is being destroyed by the bright light of a political activism that, in seeking greater diversity, reduces everything to the same, monochrome set of views.   

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David James is a deputy head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.