Tolerance through literature


The row over the 'banning' of foreigners from the English literature syllabus has dominated educational headlines. Karen Sullivan argues that this approach will hamper our attempts to encourage tolerance within our students.

So UKIP fever swept the nation at the same time that Michael Gove made clear the syllabus for GCSE English literature. Out go the foreigners! Or so the message seems. Some hasty press releases explained that the curriculum had, in fact, been released last November (true) and that 19th century novels could be from “any country”; however, the fine print does suggest that there are qualifiers here.

All literature studied in the upcoming GCSE curriculum must be published in English first, which rules out a whole world of translated literature. Moreover, anything post-1914 must be written by an author from the British Isles.

There are some important points here. The first is that there are undeniably wonderful authors from our fair isles and a great deal can be learned from all. We are a multicultural nation and our literature reflects the differences between the cultures that we embrace as our own. 

However, what this narrowing of focus suggests is that we need to look inwards rather than outwards when educating our children. It’s a sort of blind patriotism that precludes opening horizons to worlds that are vastly different to our own – cultures that may actually be unimaginable to the students we teach.

Literature is a vehicle that drives us to places in the past, present and future; it toys with our imaginations, and forces us to think, feel and see. This is an inexpressibly important way to teach tolerance, understanding and empathy; to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, at other points in history, seen from different viewpoints. 

I doubt the Twitter furore about To Kill a Mockingbird was about that book in particular, but as a case in point, it is an outstanding portrait of the racist deep South that illuminates how tolerance and a willingness to stick out your neck against a common ideology can have miraculous results. And in a society that seems to be on the brink of accepting, if not embracing, casual racism, it’s an important book. 

What I find almost distressing about the curriculum is its narrowness. Four works over two years. Three of them British; all of them written in English. As if no other literature has relevance to our lives. It’s rather like suggesting that history should be confined to one country, instead of taking on board the lessons that can be learned from a panoramic study of the subject.

Between countries, languages and cultures, there are vast differences in voice, structure, genre, narrative function and every other fundamental and tangential element of literature. These provide a breath-taking opportunity to compare and contrast, and to develop real insight into how words can be joined together to create a message, a vision, a departure, a portrait and every other wonderful thing that literature can achieve.

A wonderful book, play, poem or any other form of the written word has the potential to draw in the reader, to involve them so that they empathise. Experiencing empathy is a critical precursor to tolerance, which creates the real potential for literature to expand thinking and ideology infinite.

At the age of 15 and 16, adolescents are at an important stage of emotional development – where mores, beliefs, self-concept and much more are being laid down and cemented by what they learn, experience – and read. Could there be an easier, more flexible tool than literature to engage these hearts and stretch these minds to wider, more tolerant horizons? To narrow them is an injustice to the children we teach – to society in general and the big, vibrant, messy world that lies beyond our shores. It’s now up to parents, cunning teachers and savvy librarians to try to right the balance, but when so few kids now read for pleasure, their chances aren’t great.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email


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