Recently, Michael Gove has proposed reforms regarding the English Literature GCSE currently in place in the UK. Arguing that there is a need for more British works, and therefore less American fiction, Gove’s proposals have resulted in two classic GCSE texts, To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, no longer appearing on OCR’s draft GCSE syllabus.
While the changes to OCR’s syllabus will offer students a wider range of arguably more difficult texts, and therefore will challenge students and offer them a breadth of study, Gove’s dismissal of popular texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men simply because they are not British is frankly ludicrous. He fails to recognise that it is the study of English Literature that is being debated, not the study of British Literature; his proposals are ill-conceived and unnecessary.
The study of English literature is the study of literature written in the English Language. This allows the subject to offer diversity and range; students can explore other cultures, geographical locations, and global issues through the medium of the English language. If Gove encourages a more British-orientated syllabus, he fails to recognise the advantage of this possibility and, instead of diversifying the range of texts offered as he suggests, he in fact severely limits the scope of literature being studied.
For this reason, the study of American texts should not be discouraged as this ignores the advantage of English literature. If Gove advocates a British-orientated range of texts, this not only eliminates great American works but also various others, such as those of Salman Rushdie and Chinua Achebe. Gove’s approach to the syllabus restricts rather than diversifies.
Furthermore, it has been highlighted that, currently, more than 90% of GCSE candidates are studying Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, while the other text which dominates is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet Gove misinterprets this dominance; it is in fact testament of the greatness of these works. To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men have endured because of their appeal to students of all ranges and abilities. The fact that they dominate the syllabus should not be seen as evidence of stagnation, but rather as evidence of their ability to survive and continuously appeal to students and teachers.
In fact, these texts – which address issues such as race, equality, the human race and its existence – are extremely accessible. They explore issues which are contemporary and relevant, allowing students to engage with the content and be inspired and genuinely moved by the text they are reading. Considering the range of abilities that the English GCSE must address, accessibility is the most fundamental need for the syllabus, and that is exactly what these texts offer, something which Gove ostensibly forgets.
I studied To Kill a Mockingbird for my English Literature GCSE, and it was one of the most inspiring texts I had ever picked up by that age: Lee’s characters are touching, and she deals with difficult issues with sincerity and poise. It is modern literature exploring issues of equality and human rights that remain relevant even today, and this is why they have dominated and remained on the GCSE syllabus.
GCSE students are young and impressionable, and therefore the content of what they are reading is crucial. Such texts offer something relatable, something which they can engage with. As stated before, they are accessible. As a student of English Literature myself, I recognise the importance of this accessibility. Although it is almost certain that I would still have gone on to study English Literature regardless of the GCSE text that I had studied, I am not so confident that I would have felt so inspired by literature as I do today. Texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird offer students an accessible didactic value, helping them to recognise the importance of literature and its moral capabilities.
While I am a huge fan of Dickens, with Bleak House being one of my favourite novels studied this year, I am not so sure that Dickens’ works would offer this to GCSE students of all ranges and abilities. The new syllabus proposes to include at least one Shakespeare play, a selection of Romantic poets, a 19th century novel, a selection of poetry since 1850, and a 20th century novel or drama, hoping to end the dominance of American fiction. Although such works have their own moral, social, and literary value, the way in which this is demonstrated is far more subtle, and therefore far more difficult to identify.
Bleak House is incredible, but whether a GCSE student would recognise its value and its message is unlikely. Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, what Dickens wishes to convey is less clear-cut. Gove may want to offer diversity and promote British literature, but what he will instead achieve is a lack of enthusiasm and a lack of inspiration. The texts currently studied are popular for a reason: they inspire pupils of all abilities.
Therefore, Gove’s belief that it is necessary to amend the syllabus marks a failure to recognise the already immense value of the texts, though American, which are currently studied. They enable students to explore global issues through the English language, possess a continuous appeal, and have an inherent cultural value. These texts are accessible, and in order to inspire students of all abilities, this is fundamental. To discourage the dominance of these texts simply because they are overbearing and American, not British, is neither fair nor valid.
Just as Scout Finch declares regarding the exposure of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, Gove’s decision to reject these texts simply because they are American and dominant is foolish… ‘well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?’