Shelley you can’t be serious, Mr Gove?

Today’s stooshie in the world of literature is the news that Michael Gove wants to take Harper Lee, Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck off the curriculum for English literature in favour of pre-20th century works by English authors, notably Dickens, the Romantics and Shakespeare. I have nothing against those dead white chaps – indeed, a little bit of revolutionary fervour from Blake, Byron and Shelley wouldn’t be a bad thing to instil in teenagers these days, nor would Dickens’ understanding of how economic dogma, poverty and selfishness ruins lives – but they’re really not necessarily the best way to teach children about literature.

Studying English literature is not really about the texts, nor the writers themselves. It is about learning how to approach, analyse and respond to any given text. To understand the form, shape and methods underlying the content and to fully understand that content – both in the context in which it was written and originally read, and in the world today. In order to do that you must first engage a student’s interest in the subject. Teachers – people who know about teaching, the clue is in the job title, Michael – understand this, which is why they choose works that their class can engage with.

Despite the fact that books are often chosen from a canon that have been accepted as being the best in their field, that is mainly because they are exemplars of the form at a given time. It is not about celebrating that literature, its subject or its authors in particular. It is because they have more to say about the way literature relates to the world as a whole: how it is relevant.

I was in the first cohort that ever studied for GCSE, that notoriously socialist, internationalist programme introduced by left-wing firebrand Baron Baker of Dorking. It was the first time a coursework component had ever been considered (50% of the final mark) and I remember far more clearly spending hours writing for coursework critical responses and creative pieces on Lord of The Flies, The Importance of Being Ernest and To Kill a Mockingbird than I do anything I revised for exams (nothing at all). No long-term benefit was gained from doing exams aside from assessing my fitness to study the subject at A-Level then university.

However, this is not a post about the English exam system, it is about how the secretary of state for education appears to have decided that there is not enough of a focus on English (not Scottish nor Welsh in the reports so far) writers in the curriculum.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was the sole US text we studied in those two years, yet it was the one that the class responded to most strongly. Because we were fully engaged with the story, it was easier to pull up and out from it to examine subtext, narrative structure, viewpoints, imagery, use of dialects, prejudice and injustice and many other facets of the writing. The same was true of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men at A-Level.

Studying Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, was an exercise in trying to work out what the hell was going on, why they talked that way and why several murders, lots of stupid, unlikely decisions and under-age sex were so celebrated. Yes, now I understand and appreciate Shakespeare, but at 15? No. It’s useful to approach him early to get an ear for the language for later study as Romeo and Juliet is the “easy” one, but as a route into literature, not so good.

Likewise, studying the Romantics (and you can bet Gove doesn’t include Mary Wollstonecraft nor her daughter in his list) properly requires a grasp of concepts that most undergraduates struggle with, and a good grounding in European revolutionary history. I’ll bet most Eng lit graduates still can’t easily articulate a decent explanation of the Sublime, nor why Byron is still so celebrated in Greece.

I don’t think we did Arthur Miller until A-level (and I’m not sure dropping him from GCSE is that big a blow as the others) but both The Crucible and Death of a Salesman are accessible texts that have important messages and are also demonstrations of political and economic allegory. They also allow students to see that the televised and cinematic versions of America from the period are not the whole story.

And this is what Gove is really about: testing students on why something is good and laudable according to the “canon” rather than allowing them to immerse themselves in the importance of literature as a whole as a global enterprise – to think critically about what the function and value of literature is. In fact, English is usually a student’s introduction to thinking critically about everything.

I apologise if this little rant might seem out of place in such a blog, but such a conservative move is, to me, a symptom of a wider attack on literacy and critical thought for the sake of nationalist dogma to appease the rising Right. Everyone who loves literature as a living, growing community – and I hope that’s you – should resist such attempts to fossilize it and put children off its study.

Update: Apparently the changes to the syllabus itself are not new and were first published in 1st November 2013. It’s the exclusion of certain texts in an as-yet unpublished list that were the hook for the Sunday Times story. It’s possible the Times was just trolling for a backlash over a slow bank holiday weekend, which it got. There’s not much to disagree with in that document, but I still think the central argument holds, that there is an ideological narrowing of focus. I await the final list with interest.

Students should study a range of high quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial whole texts in detail. These must include:

  • at least one play by Shakespeare

  • at least one 19th century novel

  • a selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry

  • fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards

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