Education Secretary Michael Gove has recently taken it upon himself to “streamline” the English Literature curriculum by removing such celebrated American books as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the syllabus. Alongside several other, lesser-known bans, the decision to axe these classic works of literature has naturally led to the question – why would anyone in their right mind do this?
Gove’s reasoning is to enhance the focus on British writers. He has gone on record saying that he wants pupils to empathise with Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet as much as they do with Lennie and Scout Finch. Which might sound well and good as far as intentions go, but the narrow-mindedness of only protecting local work goes against, and is detrimental to, the true strength of English Literature.
While a significant chunk of England’s literary heritage is in its direct output, an even larger and arguably more important part of it is how it has influenced writers from around the world. American-born Maya Angelou, whose work has also been cut from the curriculum, has spoken eloquently of how she considered the task of writing to be the equivalent of “crossing the English Channel”, testifying to the type of writing that has influenced her own work.
Particularly striking is the fact that authors from Commonwealth countries, whose early education was shaped by the GCSE syllabus, have been discarded as well. Notable among these are Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (A Purple Hibiscus), New Zealand’s Lloyd Jones (Mister Pip) and Australia’s Doris Pilkington (Rabbit-proof Fence). Clearly, the Education Secretary has a very territorial understanding of the term “English” Literature – he only endorses Japanese write Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go) based on his British citizenship.
[pullquote style=”right” quote=”dark”]The man in charge of the schooling system is woefully unaware of the essence of the subject he unabashedly rips apart.[/pullquote] The most glaring mistake in Gove’s cuts is his refusal to acknowledge the universality and significance of such works as Harper Lee’s Mockingbird. While it might be set in a very specific historical US context, its exploration of justice and discrimination remains very relevant, perhaps even more so given the rise of subtle, institutional racism in this part of the world.
As someone who has studied under the British education system outside of the UK – having passed my GCSE’s in Bangladesh – I find it especially ironic that Gove’s decision, aimed at revitalising the syllabus, goes against everything that made the course so beautiful. When I was growing up, my English teachers had to fight to get American writers included in our classes, citing the UK’s readiness to embrace Lee and Steinbeck as a prime example of good education.
How sad then, just as the rest of the world has finally agreed to expand their horizons by including non-British writers in their curricula, that Britain should revert to an isolationist approach. Perhaps the sarcasm is well placed – it could just be that Michael Gove really hates the subject.
Michael Gove’s intention to axe American Classics (To Kill A Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and The Crucible) from the GCSE English Literature syllabus seems to show that he has allowed personal grievances, like his inability to understand Steinbeck, to shape policy initiatives. A change in GCSE syllabus may seem slight, but it has huge repercussions.
[pullquote style=”right” quote=”dark”]The literature they study should be chosen on the merit of its writing, not by the country that writer is from.[/pullquote] I speak as a university English Literature student who chose this degree because American Classics, like To Kill a Mockingbird, now considered outside the education department’s naively ideological “English Canon”, brought me here. I know from fellow students and Facebook that I am not an individual case. There are a host of angry comments from students across Britain gathering on posts regarding this issue and a petition gaining momentum. To ensure that university courses are filled with students who have a passion for their subject, passion has to be instilled in students from a young age.
This move implies that English Literature has only one culture. The subject will enter a stagnant backwater reflecting an out-of-touch Education department nearing the end of its tenure of misreading public opinion. ‘English Literature’ must be a malleable and adaptable term to ensure it thrives, incorporating works from authors outside of England, outside of Britain and from immigrant communities within Britain. It must not return us to a colonial mind-set, and should be the syllabus of cultural diaspora that is our modern world.
In order to interact with an increasingly global world, the texts on GCSE, A-level and University syllabuses have become increasingly globalised. Gove does not seem to have grasped this. If students are to locate themselves on an international platform full of international syllabuses then this definition must be widened, not narrowed.
If Gove applied the same logic to the English modules on offer at my university there would be no future for New Literatures in English, for Arundhati Roy, Chinua Achebe or Ngugi wa Thiong’o. What place do the novels on a Global Novel course occupy within this nationalistic discourse? I would have to pack in my revision for European Theatre right now. To name all the modules relegated would be to fill this entire article with a list. GCSE choices should be no different, and by limiting scope ministers are treating students as infants. Why expand the canon when you can limit it?
In an ever-interlocking world this policy of isolation and strange literary nationalism seems absurd. It is as misplaced as the euro-skeptic desire to seal ourselves off on this island as if we are being invaded by Romans masquerading as Romanians.
This decision will not affect me. It will, however, affect my younger siblings who take their GCSE’s in a few years. Certain texts on the new syllabus are important but so are the texts that they will lose out on. How will my sister react, in her diverse class demographic, when they are confronted by a pre-20th century ‘English’ dominated course that relegates Irish writers? That turns its back on Arthur Miller? The lost children of future English Literature degrees will not relate to this syllabus.
This attempt to define ‘English Literature’ has shown that it is a much broader definition than the government believes it is. ‘English Literature’ has escaped being wrangled into a corner by the education department. Gove’s statements have had the opposite effect to which he might have intended. To Kill A Mockingbird is now trending on twitter and academics, teachers (Lola Okolosie in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section) and students alike are taking to social media sites to voice their concerns over the negative implications of this new syllabus.
By making this policy choice, Gove has come across more like the rabid dog staggering around Harper Lee’s town; not knowing what it is doing or why it is there, than an education minister. It is time to unclasp Lennie’s hands from the mouse of English Literature so it may escape its “English Canon” confinement and flourish like I know this subject can.
But then again, Gove probably doesn’t understand these references. He’s not too fond of American Classics.
Charley Kai John