I’m no arts expert, but this whole debate about what makes up the English canon seems absurd to me.
My starting points:
1. Cognitivist science is clear: skills require knowledge first.
2. We want kids in the poorest schools to have access to the best universities and highly academic careers. We want them to be able to hold forth in a Newsnight debate and understand a New Statesman article.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was at Oxford that I met an improbably high number of people who had read the Bible beginning to end as a teenager, for interest and understanding, not religious reasons.
There is a canon of literature that has had more of an effect that any other on the shape of our society today. References to Shakespeare, the Bible, Aesop’s fables, Dickens, Jane Austen, Marx and so on are just part of the fabric of remotely intellectual life.
That the canon is mainly written by white men may be considered sad, but it doesn’t actually change that reality.
But if we only teach this canon to more white men, then that fact is never going to change. How can we expect students to be writing first class essays at Oxford if they don’t have this breadth of cultural literacy and references that is standard in academia? How can we expect them to converse with the most powerful people in society, to win them over in interviews and successfully debate them?
Depriving pupils of cultural literacy out of some weak attempt at cultural sensitivity is ultimately entrenching the white male privilege people are so enraged about.