Page last updated at 12:24 GMT, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Students 'do not know the Bible'

Andrew Motion
The role of the poet laureate includes writing verse for royal occasions

The Poet Laureate says it is becoming increasingly difficult to teach English Literature because students do not know the Bible or classical mythology.

Andrew Motion told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the lack of knowledge made it "difficult to even get beyond go" when teaching some of his recent students.

John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, said it was up to academics to solve the problem.

He said the key was natural curiosity, rather than a huge body of knowledge.

Mr Motion told the BBC: "I've always been concerned about the levels of not-knowing since I started teaching, but quite recently I had a very bad experience of trying to teach some of my, in other respects, extremely good students about Paradise Lost.

These stories achieve archetypal status because they tell us recurring truths about human nature that is a pleasure and an important thing in and of itself
Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate

"They knew so little about the context in which the poem was written and about the references that the poem itself makes that it was very difficult even to get beyond go in talking about it."

He said he believed the issue was not simply that students were unaware of some of the more esoteric characters in classical literature, but that it was "more of a general problem".

The Poet Laureate said: "I'm not trying to give them a dusty and bitter pill to swallow here, I'm just saying that these stories achieve archetypal status because they tell us recurring truths about human nature that is a pleasure and an important thing in and of itself."

Mr Mullen told the programme he believed the problem was one that had been around for some time and one "that academics can't just lament but have to do something about".

He said his University College London English Literature course included a module through which students are brought up to speed with the classical texts.

He added: "I recently have interviewed quite a lot of candidates who have done Measure for Measure, Shakespeare's play, for 'A' level.

"Not a single one of them seemed to have known the title comes from Christ's Sermon on the Mount and that might make a difference to what the play's about."

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