Have you heard? Education Secretary, Michael Gove has personally intervened to ban the only books worth teaching in the entire canon of English literature. Twentieth century American classics like To Kill A Mockingbird, A View from the Bridge and Of Mice and Men (Not to mention one of my personal favourites, The Catcher In The Rye.) have been summarily removed from English classrooms.
Only, he hasn’t.
I have not banned anything. Nor has anyone else. All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden – not narrow – the books young people study for GCSE.
Last year the Department for Education set out new requirements around which exam boards would frame their specifications. The new subject content for all GCSEs is broader and deeper than before – reflecting a higher level of ambition for children.
Beyond this, exam boards have the freedom to design specifications so that they are stretching and interesting, and include any number of other texts from which teachers can then choose.
Over the weekend it was widely reported that Gove ‘hated’ Of Mice and Men. The bastard. Steinbeck’s classic has a deceptively simple structure, powerfully drawn archetypal characters rescued from caricature by a deep and compassionate understanding of universal human themes, and an ear for cracklingly authentic dialogue that is second to none. What sort of monster could hate one of the most perfect novels in English literature?
Only he doesn’t.
Again, here he is in his own words:
Do I think Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird are bad books? Of course not. I read and loved them all as a child. And I want children in the future to be able to read them all.
If he ‘hates’ anything maybe it’s the stark fact that almost 90% of students only study Steinbeck, with a mere 1% reading a novel written before 1900. As he says, “what has been sad about English literature GCSE in the past has been how few… writers have been studied.”
Now, if you’re an English teacher (or any other kind of teacher) who thinks children shouldn’t read canonical texts then I think something has gone badly wrong. My own view of literature is that it tells a story. Our heritage has its roots in the classical texts of ancient Greece and Rome. It traces its development through medieval thought before a new flowering in the renaissance, allowing the novel to explode into life in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. If we only ever tell children the end of this story, what really will they have learned? That English literature consists of Shakespeare, a light smattering of poetry and an American novel? Anything which reintroduces something of its broad sweep must surely be desirable.
Too many of our text choices are based on what we think will be fun, accessible or relevant. (Or sometimes even just what happens to be in the stock cupboard.) We assume that anything difficult should be avoided for fear that kids will struggle. And we avoid anything long because where will we find the time? I’m not dismissing these concerns but if we’re happy to accept that we should teach Elizabethan drama, what’s so scary about Victorian novels? And why have some of the very best English novelists been so neglected? I’d love to see children reading more Orwell, Chesterton. Wodehouse and Waugh.
When the exam boards publish their draft specifications in the next week or so I’m pretty sure we’ll find plenty to tempted the jaded palates of even the most militantly Americanophile of English teachers. The only prescription exam boards have been given is that they must include a Shakespeare play, poetry from 1789 including the Romantics, a 19th-century novel and post-1914 fiction or drama written in the British Isles. Now maybe this will see some of the staples of recent years sidelined, but won’t this just give rise to other, neglected classics?
The main complaint seems to be that Gove is singlehandedly responsible for this prescription. I don’t know: maybe he is. But I do know that disappointingly few schools and teachers took part in the consultation which echoes some of the recent political exhortations: if you don’t want UKIP, you have to vote; if you want to challenge Gove’s choices, you have to consult. Gove is a toxic brand amongst teachers. Pretty much everything he does or says is vilified. And depending on your ideological bent, you may feel this is justified. But for many, one of problems is that his actions can seem mystifying. When he first popped into my consciousness in 2009 he seemed a despotic caricature. I certainly don’t agree with everything he says, but the more I understand about why he’s doing what he’s doing, the more sense his actions make.
An unnamed Labour spokesperson has said, “True to form, Michael Gove is putting his own ideological interests ahead of the interests of our children. His vision is backward-looking and preventing the rich, broad and balanced curriculum we need in our schools if our children are to succeed in the future economy.”
Hmm. Show me a politician that isn’t putting their interests before anyone else’s! But I’d argue that in this case at least. Gove’s ideology is in the interests of children. When it comes to literature, only an idiot wouldn’t look backwards, and, far from prevent a rich, broad and balanced curriculum, these changes might actually provide one.
If you’re interested, I’ve set out my thoughts on the English curriculum here. They are just my thoughts, but they are underpinned by values and principles that, I think, are clear and thought through. It doesn’t matter if you disagree, but your disagreement should be more nuanced than a knee-jerk response to anything the Education Secretary may or may not have said.