Education Secretary Michael Gove has supposedly “banned” classic works of American literature, including Of Mice And Men and The Catcher In The Rye from the new schools English curriculum. It’s in all the papers so it must be true.
But it’s not true – and even if it were true, it would hardly be a scandal. For years, for decades even – the problem certainly dates at least as far back as my own late Seventies/early Eighties schooldays – the same predictable texts have dominated the syllabus to the exclusion of all else. What most of these “texts” have in common is that they’re American, short and “relevant”.
I mean “relevant” as in, the kind of stuff that the trendy lefty teachers who first inserted these works into the syllabus imagined would be beneficial in shaping the minds of bored adolescents. Hence the uber-popularity of Steinbeck’s schlocky, Depression-era novella Of Mice And Men.
At under 180 pages it allows teachers and reluctant schoolkids alike the sop of imagining that they have sort of, kind of engaged with a whole, actual, proper book, rather than the usual gobbets of text.
It’s set during the Depression and the Depression is, like, bad but also good, m’kay because it shows people suffering under the hardships which can probably be blamed on capitalism – and therefore stirs the adolescent social conscience.
And it’s got violence in it, directed at blameless mentally impaired people. So we learn important lessons like “violence is bad, m’kay” and “we must be nice to mentally impaired people”.
But a great work of literature so great that everyone should read it because it’s so amazingly great? I don’t think so.
Not that you would guess this from the many outraged “professionals” who have been queuing up over the last couple of days to condemn either Michael Gove’s philistinism or his ruthless elitism.
Here’s a taste from the Twittersphere:
“Gove’s parochial view of literature appeals me. Being old and Englishdoesn’t automatically bestow a text with great worth or relevance.” [I think the word this literary expert was searching for was “appals”, don’t you?]
“Eugh I didn’t think I could hate Gove more after history debacle, but now this attack on US literature happens”
“We cannot have books removed from a literature syllabus simply because the Education Secretary doesn’t like them. Pure fascism”
“Shortsighted decision by Gove that sets literature back into the domain of dead white men. Properly angry about this.”
And here’s a sample opinion from one Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer in English at King’s College, London, and chairwoman of the National Association for the Teaching of English:
“It’s a syllabus out of the 1940s and rumour has it Michael Gove, who read literature, designed it himself. Schools will be incredibly depressed when they see it. Kids will be put off doing A-level literature by this. Many teenagers will think that being made to read Dickens aged 16 is just tedious. This will just grind children down.”
Really? All Dickens is unsuitable for 16 year olds now? Even A Christmas Carol? Even Oliver Twist?
And, what, we’re supposed to think it’s somehow a bad thing that Gove “read literature” and “designed” the syllabus himself? Surely it’s a sign, on the contrary, that he knows whereof he speaks, that he cares about what he’s doing and is paying great attention to detail?
But anyway, setting all that aside, the story isn’t true. Gove’s new, more rigorous curriculum does not state that Of Mice And Men – or any other work of US literature – shouldn’t be studied. It merely specifies what should be studied as part of every child’s grounding in English Literature.
The GCSE requirements, which ought hardly to be controversial, are:
- At least one play by Shakespeare
- At least one 19th century novel (not short stories)
- A selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry
- Fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards
Answers on no more than two sheets of lined A4 paper, please, as to why this much-needed restoration of standards to Britain’s debased curriculum deserves anything other than the highest praise.