by Cadi Cliff.
The reality of UKIP topping the polls in the UK European election with 4,352,051 votes still stings and outrages. Over at Westminster a nationalist Union Flag appears to be flying from our education department as the Tory education secretary Michael Gove proposes a GCSE English Literature syllabus out of the 1940s. We’ve somehow just painted ourselves as purple, nationalistic, and self-important. What happened to looking outward?
Twitter trended #govekillsmockingbird and #getgovereading on Sunday in protest to Gove’s proposition to omit from the GCSE syllabus the likes of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The new syllabus itself must include:
- at least one play by Shakespeare
- at least one 19th century novel
- a selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry
- fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards.
The exam boards and individual schools are free to add any extra books they see fit, but the new rules have left them very little room for any 20th-century writing from outside Britain. Even if teachers manage to add in American classics themselves, it’s the sentiment behind Gove’s syllabus which has unsettled and outraged academics, writers and students alike.
Gove responded hastily to criticism, assuring that no one was banning anything and that this was a move to broaden, not narrow, the books studied for GCSE. The Department of Education argued that it merely wants to pupils to appreciate ‘the power of the English literary heritage’ and more pre-20th Century works; that should not however equate to marginalising works from Other Cultures. The British past and its writing history can still be acknowledged without the rejection of works whose author has a nationality which is not British.
Gove is pedalling a mind-set of more borders, more barriers.
It’s not about whether Austen or Dickens is more or less easy to read than the likes of Lee or Steinbeck – academics and students will argue on both sides of that argument – and protesting against Gove’s decision is not so much about Dickens being potentially dry and daunting to sixteen-year-olds whilst Steinbeck is accessible. It’s about dialogue. All these works talk about entirely different issues. Gove is attempting to homogenise the curriculum and make it a cess pit of patriotism that sees texts being misappropriated and used to further aggressive educational fantasies.
Of Mice and Men and The Crucible are themselves anti-establishment and they, alongside To Kill a Mockingbird, open dialogues from social hysteria, the reality of the poor and disabled, standing up against ruling ideology, racial discrimination in the justice system, the reality of the sexual violence against women, to the importance of stepping into someone else’s psychological shoes. These works, being excluded in the name of a more anglocentric syllabus, tackle the reality of society, history, and humanity.
These books matter, beyond the rigidity of GCSE examinations.
Outside the concrete walls of a familiar comprehensive school in South Wales was, and still is, a diverse world, celebrating different cultures and histories. We should be including, not excluding, an alternative worldview in our classrooms. Removing vital texts from education leaves children unable to access these views. Sit students down in a classroom and let them tackle intersectional feminism, racism, corruption, class struggle, mental illness. Put texts on the syllabus which best open a discourse on these issues. Don’t box them up and pack them away because they’re not ‘British’.
Gove doesn’t appear to quite realise that English Literature is ‘literature written in English’ not ‘literature written by the English’. We can have faith, however, in the English teachers who inspired and encouraged students to go on and study Literature further, that they will ensure Gove doesn’t succeed in killing the mockingbird. But as support for anti-immigration parties rises across UK, it looks like the GCSE syllabus is being made to be preserved for the English. As one Twitter user stated: ‘Next up. History: Gove replaces Rise of Fascism and Vietnam War with Arthurian Studies and Jousting.’ We can jest, but the sentiment is there and its real and its worrying.