Michael Gove- the little grey man of literature Image by new3dom3000 under creative commons
I tweeted a few days ago that Michael Gove’s reforms to the English GCSE curriculum reminded me of Putin’s Literary Canon pronouncements a few years back– nationalistic, narrow-minded and reductive. For anyone who hasn’t heard, the head of OCR’s head of GCSE and A-level reform claims that Michael Gove has personally intervened to ensure that where novels like Of Mice and Men and To Kill A Mockingbird would have originally been studied, students will now be examined on a work of fiction or drama originating from the British Isles since 1914.
I am deeply concerned that the education secretary has been allowed to interfere in the English Literature curriculum without consultation with teachers and universities about this. There is no university department which teaches an English Literature degree without reference to writers from outside the UK, for the simple reason that literature is not something which is restricted by geographical borders- it is designed to challenge and breakdown barriers, not to reinforce them in such an arbitrary and mindless way.
And, to steal David Cameron’s favourite phrase, let us be perfectly clear, while there are plenty of students who could and would engage with the works of Jane Austen and Dickens, there are plenty of students who would find the language and volume of reading a struggle. Lower ability students will be penalised as they will require extra support to access the lexis, syntax and context of these novels in the limited contact time that they have with their teachers. So this latest reform will do to the novel what his plans to have primary school children learning and reciting poetry by rote will do- turn more and more students off Literature.
Students used to ask me why I chose to study English Lit at university- and I would tell them it was because I couldn’t decide what subject to study. When studied properly, literature allows you to study history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, politics, religion… it broadens the mind. That’s what worries me about this latest announcement, it’s so incredibly reductive it makes me wonder if Gove isn’t one of those little grey men from Michael Ende’s Momo, ripping the colour and fun out of education for every child in the country because they are at odds with his personal values.
Doubtless anyone who reads the news will have heard about the recent outcry about the censorship of racist language in the latest version of Huckleberry Finn from New South books, in which the n- word has been replaced with “slave” and “injun” with a more standardised spelling, which they doubtless feel will be less shocking to parents on the boards of schools which they feel shy away from studying the text because of the racist language.
My two pennies worth? Aside from the fact that it is a satirical novel which criticises slavery (a pretty decent reason in itself not to censor) what is this sanitized version of history teaching children? I’m sure there are things in the past we would all like to airbrush away, unpleasant things we would like to sweep under the carpet, but I don’t think an oppressive period in history should be one of them.
When I was teaching I taught Of Mice and Men to my GCSE groups, and rather than shying away from the racism, sexism and prejudice against disability that are used in class, we tackled it head on. For example, which vocabulary did the students feel was appropriate to use? Why did they think that the author had used it? This gave rise to meaningful discussions which lead to the student deciding that Steinbeck’s portrayal of Crooks did not make him a racist, but reflected the attitudes towards black people in the era the novel was written. We discussed the Jim Crow laws. The students learned about the Ku Klux clan. We listened to Billie Holliday singing Strange Fruit and the students learned more about the historical period than they otherwise would have by avoiding the use of the n word.
I think it is more useful to teach young people and readers in general to open their minds to what they are reading and allow them to feel comfortable in challenging the attitudes and values presented in the text.
I was browsing the BBC website at lunchtime today and came across this feature on banned books in schools. I never encountered this kind of thing as a teacher, but I have always been profoundly amused at parents who believe that by stopping their children reading books they can somehow shelter them from the more unpleasant aspects of life.
Does anyone have any thoughts or feelings on this? I like to think when I have children I will be able to trust that they are mature enough to read the books and discuss themes like race, sexuality, drugs, violence or religion in an open and supportive way. That’s what my Dad always did with me. No books were off limits. Somehow I’ve managed to avoid ending up pregnant or addicted to narcotics. Go figure.
Seriously though. What do you think of this as a reader? Or as a parent? Or as a child?
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