It’s difficult to agree with Michael Gove, and perhaps yet more difficult to like him. And so, when I and millions of others heard about the changes that are being made to the English Literature GCSE syllabus, I, as an English Lit student, felt justifiably outraged. Taking To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice And Men off the syllabus? Two wonderfully rich and principled novels written by two iconic and incredible authors? And that’s without even going into the travesty of ditching poor old Arthur Miller, who is arguably one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century. Will children never be introduced to the kind and clever Atticus Finch? Will they never cry over Lennie’s fate? Will they never be able to empathise with the tragic figure of Willy Loman?
However. And this is a big however. After considerable research into the subject, it struck me that perhaps the Education Secretary has something of a point. In an article Gove has written himself, he states that fewer than one in 100 teenagers who sat the most popular English literature exam last year based their answers on novels published prior to 1900. In addition, only 1,236 out of 300,000 students read Pride and Prejudice, 285 studied Far From the Madding Crowd and just 187 completed Wuthering Heights as part of the test. Looking at these figures, I was vaguely appalled. More than 90% of students’ answers were based on the same three books – Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird. Whilst this overwhelming ratio should not in any way diminish the significance of these great books, it is nonetheless fairly shocking that the best part of 300,000 pupils are reading the same three novels using the same set of York notes and writing down the same tedious answers.
Maybe things need shaking up a bit. We should never refer to these books as ‘dreary’ or ‘tiresome’ (as far as I’m concerned, anyone who owns a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird should put it in a glass case in their house and treat the pages as sacred, it’s that good) but there is an infinite collection of great literature out there that children of the next generation should be introduced to. This stops these superb novels being referred to as boring, it stops literature becoming a cliché (I can already see people rolling their eyes when I tell them To Kill a Mockingbird is my favourite book – clearly, I see them thinking, my taste in literature is far from extensive) and thus there is some justification to what Gove is saying.
It seems that reactions on social media websites have helped to demonise Gove into something he is not. Christopher Bigsby, a professor at the University of East Anglia, wrote that “These works are to be rejected in the name of a more nationally centred syllabus…As the home secretary does her best to patrol our borders to keep out international students, who she regards as immigrants, so the GCSE syllabus is to be kept for the English for fear that Romanian novels might move in next door.” One Twitter user wrote “I’m not surprised Gove axed #tokillamockingbird it preaches tolerance and acceptance which is something his policies work against”.
Are these reactions not just a little extreme? Are changes to the GCSE syllabus really an extension of the government’s immigration policy? Many of the Victorian authors Gove has chosen for the new syllabus have preached tolerance and acceptance in their novels – George Elliot and Silas Marner and Thomas Hardy and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, to name a couple. Whilst many might not agree with the method, Gove’s intentions are clear-cut and respectable.
In an article in ‘The Daily Telegraph’, he recalls his time touring a whole host of American independent ‘charter schools’ and writes that he was hugely impressed by the way reading is perceived by children over there. It is seen as a strength, as something everybody should indulge in – not a dull, forced exercise as many children in Britain see it. A love of reading is promoted in many schools opened in inner-city areas and one school even challenged its children to read fifty books a year! (Blimey, even us English students probably aren’t that up to scratch.)
“The children I met were smart and lively” he writes. “But they were also, overwhelmingly, from the most disadvantaged homes. That didn’t mean their teachers lowered the bar. Quite the opposite. They wanted to give those children a chance to enjoy the glittering prizes – so they set expectations high. I want the same culture here.”
Maybe we should take what Michael Gove says into account. Why do teachers patronise children in what he calls Britain’s “anti-knowledge” culture? If reading is seen as a thing to be celebrated, an activity to enjoy and learn from, then a child should theoretically relish a good Dickensian novel when it’s placed on the desk in front of them. Challenge is good and healthy – it’s long and it’s difficult but ultimately it shakes things up and may hopefully in the long-run create more intellectually curious students. At first, it seems like a ludicrous idea to take great works of American Literature off the curriculum. But perhaps we are due a shake up – we are in Britain, after all, and maybe for many pupils’ first classic reading experience they should be introduced to something a little closer to home.
But whichever side of the fence you come to land on, whether you agree or disagree with Gove and his plans, there should be no doubt on either side that fostering a child’s love of reading is the ultimate goal in the classroom.