Chaucer in Swiss Secondary Education

by Mary Flannery

A while back, we asked Mary Flannery (University of Bern) to explore Chaucer’s appearance in Switzerland’s high-school curricula. As she explained in an email, Chaucer “is most often mentioned by name and much more rarely taught before university–my students very often have heard of (or even studied) Chrétien de Troyes in high school, but have often never heard of Chaucer. But I must say that putting this report together has given me a much clearer picture of how unfamiliar Chaucer is to nearly all of my undergraduate students.”

When she asked the English bookstore in Lausanne about the most recent edition of The Canterbury Tales used for teaching high-school students, they kindly contacted Camille Marshall. From her, they learned that Gymnase de la Cité had used Pearson’s simplified edition, English Readers Level 3: The Canterbury Tales (ISBN 9781405862325).

To our colleagues teaching Chaucer in non-Anglophone contexts: what level of familiarity do your students have when they take your university or college courses? Which editions do your secondary schools use?

For more on Mary Flannery’s thoughts about teaching Chaucer in a non-Anglophone context, see her contribution, “Chaucer the Stranger,” to the New Chaucer Society blog.

The campus of the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne, at the shores of Lake Geneva.

It’s difficult to paint a coherent picture of the extent to which Chaucer is taught at the high school level because the Swiss education system varies from canton to canton. Each canton has its own school requirements, particularly when it comes to language-­‐focused curricula. Several cantons also have both Swiss high schools (e. g. gymnases in Vaud, but colleges in Geneva) and schools that adhere to international baccalaureate curriculum requirements but offer different programmes of instruction in English. Taking Vaud (the canton in which UNIL is situated) as my example, whereas schools may specify in their plans d’études that students studying French will be introduced to literature originating in periods from the Middle Ages to the present day, they tend to leave the specifics of their English courses to the discretion of individual teachers, who may be more or less inclined to introduce their students to medieval English literature. If they happen to offer any teaching on Chaucer, it is always via modern English abridged versions of his works. As a consequence, it is nearly always the case that a Swiss student intending to major in English at university will encounter Chaucer—and Middle English—for the first time in his or her undergraduate studies.

In support of the above, I can offer some very informal/unscientific data drawn from my two mandatory second-­‐year Chaucer courses, which are offered as two choices among several courses covering medieval English literature (all second-­‐year students must take at least one of these courses in order to fulfill the requirements of the English degree). When I asked my 50 second-­‐year students whether they had ever heard of or read Chaucer before coming to UNIL, only four students raised their hands. The first had come across Chaucer’s name during a one-­‐month stay in Canterbury; the second had come across a reference to Chaucer in a local newspaper. The third and fourth had heard either Chaucer’s name or The Canterbury Tales mentioned in passing during a high school class, but that was the extent of their acquaintance with the author.

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