Scots unbound

Written by Tom Freeman on 12 November 2014 in Interviews

Glasgow’s Professor of Scottish Literature addresses the fears of Kulturkampf in schools

The 1976 report Scottish Literature in the Secondary School acknowledged the future of Scottish texts in the curriculum was then in ‘a delicate balance’, but it wasn’t until 2013 that Scottish literature formally entered the curriculum with a number of Scottish set texts in the Higher and National 5 English courses. A commitment to Scots as a language has also been made by Education Scotland.

It has met with resistance however, with allegations Education Secretary Michael Russell interfered personally with the move. Recently the new principal at George Watson’s private school in Edinburgh, Melvyn Roffe, was reported as saying Scotland was in danger of becoming too parochial by focusing on national texts. 
Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, Alan Riach, says the resistance comes from “narrow British nationalism” and reflects Scotland’s tumultuous relationship with its own culture. “Scottish Literature is as valid, great and varied as any literature in the world. Be it American, Irish, Australian, French or Italian, there are none of those countries you would go to where the literature of that country is not formally part of a person’s education,” he tells Holyrood.
For Riach, who campaigned for Scottish independence, the political structure of the UK and “the cultural values that underpin or support it” lead to an authority of the English language which informs the education system. “The English language and the great literature in that language relates fundamentally to the political history of the British Empire in a way Scottish literature does not. Indeed, Scottish literature in many ways is subversive and opposed to the authority of the imperial tradition,” he says. 
Teachers and students of literature are mostly keen to learn about these differences, he insists, pointing to the fact numbers attending the Association for Scottish Literary Studies’ annual conference almost doubled this year. Young people too have engaged in Scottish culture, he says, inspired by the referendum debate. “I took part in various events as part of the Yestival and various other readings, lectures and talks, and with every one there was an overwhelming sense of younger people finding out more, in the great autodidactic tradition of Scottish education. If the system doesn’t do it for you, you do it for yourself.”
A focus on national texts in schools is exactly what brought criticism of Michael Gove earlier in the year, when he appeared to suggest British texts should be favoured over American ones. Gove was accused of being ‘unstable’, and 110,000 people signed a petition for his removal. Wasn’t he advocating the same nationalist approach as Riach’s when it comes to literature in the curriculum? 
“I think he was missing the point. Works of art, and literature especially, give you the most essential information about what it is to be human. You have to value that accordingly. In a sense, it doesn’t matter where they come from. The virtue of studying English, American, Australian or New Zealand work is we have access to these literatures because of the language.”
But literature of your own place needs special attention, Riach says, because of variations in language, and the perspective that gives to international differences. “If you’re aware of Scots as a language that is not English but is very close to it, and if you’re aware of Gaelic as a language which is certainly not English but is part of the literature of Scotland then you’re aware of international differences. You’re aware of the differences of literature within one country,” he says.
Gove’s replacement, Nicky Morgan, has said schools need to teach ‘British values’ in order to prevent extremism in schools, following the ‘Trojan Horse’ investigation. Riach says the state can’t expect literature to fulfil this role. Art, he says, is not democratic. “Works of art come out of eccentrics and wayward characters. Wild people. Often they’re self-destructive. MacDiarmid said Scottish literature is written by dipsomaniacs and madmen, or madwomen, and so on, like all other literatures. So you can’t really apply the democratic authority to the way in which works of art are produced, but you can apply it to the way in which their virtues are made known to the people generally.”
What about the recent embedding of Scottish literature into the curriculum, then? “Some people would say it’s a terrible situation when the politicians intervene. Well, it’s a terrible situation if the politicians have to intervene. It’s crazy there should be any debate whatsoever about whether or not there should be Scottish literature in Scottish schools. If you want to get rid of Scottish literature in schools what you’re talking about is a kind of cultural genocide, aren’t you? You’re ruling out a cultural identity which is intrinsically diverse, various, takes many forms, and if you want to get rid of all that diversity, what are you actually advocating here? The questions are really pretty serious.”  

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