Monday, 26 May 2014

Classics, Gove and the English Literature Syllabus

Frequent visitors to this blog will now that I'm a massive fan of English classics. I'm not studying English literature for nothing. There is something spectacular about the English novel and about how authors from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens have been able to describe the human psyche. However, the news that Britain's exam boards, under insistence of Education secretary Michael Gove, want drop the classic American novels To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the GCSE's syllabuses, makes me, and many others, incredibly angry.

GCSE's are examinations which British students taken by students between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. For subjects such as English, the syllabus is set by examboards. In December, then, the Education Department announced that the syllabuses 'must include: 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. All works should have been originally written in English.' Now it has become clear that novels such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Of mice and Men and plays such as The Crucible are to be dropped because they are American, rather than British. Gove's continuing insistence on a syllabus that drips of national pride is slowly but surely crippling the Education system.

Gove said that the fact that 90% of teenagers studying English Literature during their GCSE's read To Kill A Mockingbird was 'a really disappointing statistic'. There is so much wrong with this sentiment because it shows that Gove is apparently completely unaware of the true purpose of education. Being educated means more than being taught numbers and letters and being prepared for a job. A school, and the education it offers, is in many cases what opens the eyes of students to issues they are never confronted with at home. In a time and age in which many parents work full-time in order to support their families, schools are continuously becoming more important in a child's life as a moral guide. Saying it is 'disappointing' that children are reading about, and thereby educated about, racism and its consequences shows that Gove, the man responsible for taking care of the British education system, has completely lost touch with this purpose of education. Some children may never be confronted with racism and their parents might never tell them what a terrible thing it is. What could be better than a safe environment such as a school approaching topics such as these?

Gove once said he'd prefer it if children read George Elliot's Middlemarch rather than Stephenie Meyers' Twilight series. I will be the last person in the world to claim the latter is better than the former. Middlemarch, despite its occasional tangents, is an incredible novel and an amazing example of the brilliance that the English novel can achieve. However, it is not suitable reading material for a fourteen-year old. Even at seventeen, with my mind firmly set on studying English Literature, I found it hard to get through this novel. Children should be allowed to read what they want and should be allowed to develop their reading preference on their own. What children read in their free time is their own choice. What they are taught in school should be complimentary to their intellectual growth and should not be premeditating how a government wants them to turn out. Gove's insistence on determining what is good and doing so by remembering what he himself was taught in the '80s, means he is no longer in touch with the world the children, for whom the education system is, live in.

The reason this news is especially heart-breaking right now is because it coincides with the European Elections. In Britain, UKIP has become the largest party, being set to send 23 MEPs to Strasbourg. Although Michael Gove is a part of the current government and therefore part of the Conservative Party, he is clearly part of the trend that has allowed UKIP to become so big. By deciding that children should be taught not by what is good and what is informative, but by what is national, he spreads the message that things that are British are better. Who cares that To Kill A Mockingbird is ground-breaking and a novel that should be read by everyone. It is American, therefore it shall not be taught in British schools! 


Classic novels have become such because they are examples of literature whose message resonates with more than just one nation, more than just one gender and more than just once race. These novels pass over language and culture boundaries and touch humanity. By restricting the British literature syllabus to novels written in its own green pastures, Gove is preventing students from actually learning what literature is for and prevents novels from doing what they were written for. This kind of decision plays into the hands of nationalists and means children will grow up without access to novels which allows them to deal with major issues such as racism, sexism and discrimination in a way that is safe and educative. Rather than promoting an education system that breaks down boundaries between people, it seems that rather Gove is helping in creating a country that closes itself off from its neighbours and allows right-wing politics to rear its ugly head.

Source: The Guardian

1 comment:

  1. I admit to liking To Kill a Mockingbird much better when I read it on my own than when I read it in class, but nonetheless it is a beautiful little book that everyone should read. I bow down to Gregory Peck but the movie, while a classic in its own right, is simply not comparable.

    If Gove is going to the Hail Brittania route and wanting to focus on ~British literature~, okay, fine, I can get the reasoning behind cutting American works. But why not make Indian writers from the British Raj era a requirement, too? Oh, wait...

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