Is the new GCSE syllabus a form of literary jingoism?

17/06/2014  -  11.37

Dr Aidan Byrne, Senior Lecturer in English, Media and Cultural Studies.

Michael Gove has apparently ‘banned’ American classics such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from the GCSE English syllabus in favour of a British-oriented curriculum.

On weeks like this, the literature academic in me wants to weep… and so does the media critic in me. Bad ideas are reported badly and suddenly a furore breaks out leaving nobody any the wiser. So let’s look at Literaturegate closely. What exactly does Michael Gove propose? The rubric insists that GCSE students study ‘high quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial works” including a 19th-century novel, some poetry, a Shakespeare play and either a post-1914 novel or play from ‘the British Isles’, and the Secretary of State insists that rather than banning anything he’s broadening the curriculum. 

What this actually means is that Gove has dropped texts he sees as too leftwing and too concerned with ‘issues': he’s known to particularly dislike Of Mice and Men. Gone are the voices of American civil rights activists like the recently deceased Maya Angelou, great writers of children’s lives like Mark Twain and leading modernists such as TS Eliot. 

In their place are some accessible and interesting authors: I’ve taught Meera Syal’s Anita and Me at university level with some success, partly because it’s a warm and thoughtful novel, but partly too because it’s set in a village just outside Wolverhampton. In, too, are texts that seem to fulfil Gove’s 1950s fantasies. The insistence on a 19th-century novel seems fetishistic, despite my own addiction to Anthony Trollope, Austen and Maria Edgeworth  Why not the 18th century? What’s so special about the 19th? The obvious candidate for me would be Dickens’ Hard Times: a tale of recession, childhood poverty and Mr Gradgrind, a miserable teacher determined to suck the joy out of education, chimes perfectly with the depressing and reactionary cultural landscape inhabited by the Secretary of State for Education. 

'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!' (1.1.1)

The surest way to kill off any future appreciation of the Victorian classics is to make children trudge through hundreds of pages looking for a ‘moral’, a ‘message’ or an ‘answer’ to stick into an exam question. Sadly, I fear that Mr Gove’s preference for the 19th-century is because in his version of that period, Britain was Top. The flag waved over the Empire and everybody knew their places. 

I don’t want schoolchildren to know their places. I want them to question everything, and to read voraciously, hungrily and enthusiastically. I want them to read work which points out that there are other valid ways to see the world, and myriad ways of expressing it apart from Victorian Realism. 

The other aspect of the Gove Curriculum that bothers me is the assumption that literature has to be divided up with maps. Why is American literature suddenly irrelevant? Is there something magically better about British English writing that the rest of us haven’t detected? There’s also a little sleight of hand going on: Gove’s ‘British’ is actually an English curriculum. There’s a Robert Louis Stevenson novel representing Scotland, Seamus Heaney (against his will, I suspect) is the Northern Ireland representative and Wales (in Dylan Thomas’s centenary year) may as well not exist. I fear the reduction of our children’s intellectual horizons down to state borders. As Euroscepticism preaches a narrow little-Englandism, our children will be taught in schools that there is nothing they can learn – or love – beyond the sea or across the Marches. 

Books don’t have passports and all the interesting cultural work is done on the fuzzy edges of communities, not in the privileged centre of the majority. There are hundreds of excellent English and British authors and I hope the new curriculum gives them the exposure they deserve, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is our rulers’ motive. 

Would Shakespeare have approved of the new curriculum? I doubt it: his work ranges from Egypt to Denmark to Cyprus, while his quotations, references and stories come from Latin romantic poets, saucy Italian story cycles, Danish history, Celtic myths, ancient Greek histories of Ethiopia. His explorations of Englishness and Britishness indicate a healthy disregard for unthinking nationalism, while he never stopped his own reading at some imaginary cultural border. Let’s not deny ourselves the pleasures he took for granted.