Collage by Marta Parszeniew
I've taught GCSE English to students from a variety of backgrounds, and I have friends throughout the teaching profession. These days, two things bind us together: a sneaking suspicion that, if the kids saw the real us, they’d be blown away by how cool we actually are, and a 24-hour hatred of the education secretary, Michael Gove. The reason being that the man who once declared it was “time for a revival of jingoism” is now reviving it within our schools.
You see, British kids just aren't British enough any more. Once, every child of Albion carried within their heart the sure knowledge that his country was the greatest the world had known. He could recite The Knight’s Tale, Paradise Lost and most of Wilfred Owen by heart – plus, he could expertly dispatch with his own two hands, if so commanded, a German. Now, all that has changed. Why? Because for too long the children of this sceptred isle have been allowed to study the literature of foreigners at GCSE.
No longer. Gove, not content with morphing the teaching of history in Britain into a parade of ruddy great English heroes, has turned his attention to the English Literature and Language GCSE syllabus. The syllabus now contains four elements, as prescribed by the Department of Education: at least one play by Shakespeare, at least one 19th century novel, a selection of poetry since 1789 (including representative Romantic poetry) and fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards.
This last part is crucial, as it has replaced a requirement for the study of “literature from other cultures”. Now, Gove’s ongoing nationalist project means that the scope to study literature from outside of Britain is severely hampered. It is yet more evidence, following the ban on sending books to prisons, of a determination to control our reading. It is, says David Russell – an English professor at King’s College London – “ideological in the sense of a famous definition of the word: as promoting the imaginary relationship of people to their real conditions of existence. People are not wrong to feel displaced, alienated and angry. It's just got nothing to do with what books schoolchildren are reading."
On a practical, classroom level it means, to begin with, that American texts that were part of the core GCSE syllabus – John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – will now only be taught if teachers have the time to stretch beyond what they must teach in order for their students to pass exams. Gove is widely disliked in the teaching community, and every single schoolteacher I spoke to for this article blasted him for basing significant legislation around his nationalistic fetishism.
“Where do I begin with Gove?” a friend of mine who teaches English at a secondary school in the northwest of England asked me the other day. “The free school fiasco; the culling of local education authorities and the loss of all that expertise; the changes to pay that mean teachers will be competing for pay rather than working together for the good of the students; the closing of PGCE courses with the expected result that young teachers aren't prepared for the rigours of the profession, do a pretty rubbish job, hate it, then leave. It never ends, really.”
For English teachers, the changing of the syllabus is just another sign that the Secretary of Education doesn’t listen to them. The assumption is that Gove wants to be seen to be making waves – that he is propping up a reputation as a Man Who Gets Things Done on the backs of the teachers who have to implement his ideology. An ideology that represents a very conservative version of Britishness.
Of Mice and Men, The Crucible and To Kill a Mockingbird are, of course, all texts that present a real challenge to the Conservative coalition’s brand of individualistic capitalism. The Crucible draws parallels between 17th century witch-hunts and the sinister harassment and prosecution of communists and supposed communists in the 1950s, while To Kill a Mockingbird shows the poisonous nature of racial hatred and the myriad complexities of racially divided communities. Even taking into account the temerity these stories have to take place in some foreign country to the left of Wales, are these really not issues Gove thinks an English mind could engage with?
Michael Gove at a primary school in Ipswich (Photo via)
Regardless, Gove’s pals have rallied round. In The Times, a newspaper Gove used to work for, Janice Turner called Of Mice and Men a “one-note parable” and held the fact that it has only one female character up as an example of its inferiority. I mean, whatever, but I’ve always figured that Steinbeck was making a point about the place of women in society at the time. His “one-note parable” can be read on a basic level and then it can be read on a level that encompasses sexual and racial politics, the benefits of socialised healthcare and the inherent problems of a market-driven society.
For teachers, the text is a lifesaver because it gives children of all abilities, from all backgrounds, the chance to develop their reading skills. I know this myself from having taught English one-on-one at GCSE and A-level to teenagers from a variety of backgrounds. Students don’t respond to where the text is from, they respond to the text.
The new syllabus has been spun as an attack on American literature, but it’s worse than that. It is, in fact, an attack on all literature that is not defined as being from the UK. “Steinbeck – conveniently white, conveniently dreary – is a smokescreen,” says Andrew Warnes, a professor of American and African-American literature at the University of Leeds. “It allows the government to also exclude, through the back door, literature from the Caribbean, Africa, Asia... which might just make us stop in our tracks and revise our comfy faith in the benign nature of the British Empire”.
Of course, the Department of Education would disagree vehemently with Warnes. In fact, just look at the first paragraph of their own exhilarating tome, "English literature GCSE: A myth buster":
[The new GCSEs] will give pupils the chance to study some of this country’s fantastic literary heritage, including works by Jane Austen, George Orwell, Kazuo Ishiguro and Meera Syal.
That’s right: Meera Syal. Who could say the archive of post-colonial writing is being underserved when the woman behind Goodness Gracious Me is there, rubbing shoulders with Orwell?
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Jay Prosser is a reader in humanities at Leeds University’s School of English. An academic whose teaching has encompassed the Anglo-American canon, but whose work deals particularly with cross-cultural translations, he sees the Govian project of constructive jingoism as fundamentally flawed: “There is no national English literature any more – and there hasn’t been ever,” he declares. “Even Chaucer, one of the first writers to write in English after the Normans ‘Frenchified’ English, borrowed most of his work from ‘foreign’ writers. You can say the same of Shakespeare. You cannot find an English literature in the 20th century that has not been inflected to different degrees by the Americans. Where are we going to put Henry James, TS Eliot? And where’s Gove going to stop? Should we get rid of Beckett because he was Irish and wrote some of his stuff in French? Oh, and while we’re at it, Joyce?”
For John Howard of King’s College London, “Gove’s defence of ‘tradition’ is a hidebound, old-guard, elitist reaction, as predictable as it is lamentable. Most sadly, this further disempowers teachers and hinders student preparedness for university-level open inquiry and for a complex world of flux.” It instead prepares young people, in whatever small way, for a world of UKIP paradigms, where to be British carries some innate unique quality.
Is this Gove’s response to the UKIP rise? A small token of nationalism aimed at the cradle of British intelligence and designed to appeal to people who define Britain as whatever was there 60 years before their birth, and nothing more? Not even. This has everything to do with the agenda and personal ambitions of a man in need of a cause and some attention.
England shouldn’t be engaging with a vision of the world that divides people into “us” and “them” – and it is particularly absurd when thinking about literature, or art of any sort. Imagine a student of English music who ignored outside interests. Imagine a historian of English painting who daren’t cite Picasso. Art, by its nature, is distinctly un-myopic, as is Britain in 2014. Imagine Britain today without a Caribbean or an Indian influence – it’s practically impossible. With that in mind, I would argue that Gove’s plans are, in fact, distinctly un-English.
In a sense, Gove seems to be trying to resurrect imperialist capitalism in English schools. In the classroom, the traditional English canon – arbitrarily defined – is taught. Outside the classroom, schools are told to emphasise the financial benefits of education. One teacher told me that the hallways of her school are plastered with a poster that reads: “Five GCSEs with English and Maths will earn you £1million in your lifetime.” And that’s Gove’s message: Fuck Arthur Miller and fuck Toni Morrison, just show me the money.
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