Gove and English Literature

You’ve probably seen that there’s been a huge popular backlash against Gove’s plan to remove American classics To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the GCSE English Literature specification, in favour of more works of UK origin.

I am very much not an expert on English Literature (my O-level teacher once described me as “not a literary soul”) but I can see that these two works were good choices for the syllabus – they cover important, timeless themes and have characters that are relatively easy to identify with but still have complexity. They are also “accessible” – not the sort of work that immediately feels “hard” due to its vocabulary, very long paragraphs or voluminous nature. Does that mean they are a soft touch?  I don’t think so. The accessibility means that less able kids can still engage with the works and demonstrate positive achievement, but the most able will still be able to show their ability too – surely English Literature is very much a subject for “differentiation by outcome”.

Among other things, Gove wants kids to cover Shakespeare, a 19th Century novel and Romantic poetry. My response to this is, I’m afraid, very much determined by memories of my 15 year old self. And that 15 year old self hated Dickens and the Brontes, and similarly loathed Keats and Shelley. It’s not that I hated reading – I absolutely loved it and devoured a wide range of fiction and non-fiction books. But Dickens’ angelic child heroines and comic characters with their contrived speech made me cringe and the Brontes’ work seemed melodramatic. I simply couldn’t relate to the Romantic poets at all – it all seemed too overblown – but loved lots of other poetry from Hopkins to Hughes.

Now I dare say that Gove (and indeed some English teachers) feel that it would have been “good for me” to be forced to appreciate all these works I didn’t like – they’d probably even suggest I’d come to like them. I’d certainly dispute the latter – whilst I like Hardy now, for example, being forced to read his work at school (when I found it simply indigestible) put me off him for years (and I still don’t like Dickens, incidentally!).  Would it have been good for me? Well, for me personally, it probably wouldn’t have done much harm, other than making me very fed up in English lessons coming up to O-level. But I was someone who already read voraciously and knew that reading was a great source of pleasure. Had I been a kid less inclined to reading, not surrounded by books at home, I think being given so “traditional” a diet might have put me off for life.

There is, in any case, a wider issue here. The job of the Education Secretary is not to micro-manage syllabuses. Education Secretaries are politicians, not educationalists or experts on any specific subject area. Of course it is appropriate to review syllabuses on occasion to consider whether they are doing what they’re meant to and to amend the content (though not too often, please!) –  but the detail  should be those with expertise in that subject and experience teaching it, not a politician with neither. In this case it’s made worse by the fact Gove appears to want to impose the syllabus of his 1980s grammar school on the entirety of the school population. But even if we had a sensible and well-informed Education Secretary, it’s still not their role.

I am waiting with bated breath to see if Gove is planning to force us to revert to those old 4-figure log tables in the maths syllabus, since he thinks calculators are the work of the devil…


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3 Responses to Gove and English Literature

  1. sarah evans says:

    This is a very romantic view of the study of literature! I didn’t think much of my O Level Maths and it certainly put me off the subject for life but I still think I would have been an even more ill formed adult than I am already, if I had only ever done adding up which was the bit of Maths I could ‘do’ and therefore quite liked.
    In an ideal world, yes English lessons would all be inspirational and leave students with a life long love of great literature but would you really want students going through their education never having read a Romantic poet or a nineteenth century novel? There is a cultural capital that is their heritage – whether they happen to like it or not.
    To an extent, Gove and his advisors are reacting to some of the second rate literature that has been on exam syllabi over the last thirty years. Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird are not great favourites of mine and I suspect they have been set texts because they are seen to raise Big Issues, as you in part acknowledge. Clearly they have value, but so does an awful lot else. There has got to be some selection criteria I think, at least for part of the syllabus.
    Has it got to be a politician who makes that selection? I suppose we do want politicians who have strong values and a sense of the significant cultural determinants of our society might be an indication of values. The problem is of course strong values are not necessarily the ones everyone would choose….

    • teacherposts says:

      Now that’s the first time anyone’s said I have a romantic view of anything, Sarah!

      I agree, of course, that we can’t necessarily like everything we study. However,I’d argue that the position is rather different in subjects such as English literature and history where the study is not inherently hierarchical as it is in maths and science – learning trigonometry really is essential for further study of maths, but people are surely not fundamentally ill-equipped for studying literature further if they have missed out on the Brontes or Dickens?

      I’d agree that I wouldn’t want people never to have studied a nineteenth century novel or a Romantic poet. But I am not convinced they should have to study them for GCSE and be formally assessed on them.

      I actually quite liked the rather odd literature syllabus we followed when I was at school, which had no specific set texts at all – there was almost unlimited free choice, and all the questions were rather general – typically the “compare and contrast” type. Admittedly the rather bizarre choice of texts made by our teacher (novels Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird; drama A MIdsummer Night’s Dream and The Browning Version) made this rather difficult at times!

  2. Joy Clark says:

    I have to confess I have been wondering the same thing regarding log tables and calculators . . . it wouldn’t surprise me one bit! 🙂
    J x

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