Michael Gove has been in the news a lot lately. For those of you readers lucky enough not to know who Michael Gove is, he’s the UK Government Minister responsible for education in England (fortunately not here in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK).
He’s been in the news a lot lately for a variety of reasons – I suspect the underlying reason is his ambition to be Prime Minister. His department recently published new guidelines about what students should study for their English literature GCSE qualification. These guidelines state that
‘students [should] have a chance to develop culturally and acquire knowledge of the best that has been thought and written.’
‘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.
All works should have been originally written in English.’
This has attracted widespread criticism, not least because Gove has remarked that he is disappointed that at least 90% of current English literature students study the American novel ‘Of Mice and Men’, and that the syllabus should be broadened. In response, teachers claim that these new and rather prescriptive guidelines will narrow, not broaden, the syllabus. And The Guardian has hit back with various authors offering alternative suggestions for set texts.
All well and good, it’s great to have a public debate about what should be read in schools and how to encourage children to read. But there’s an unspoken assumption on both sides here. If you look at a lot of the justifications for the Guardian’s choices, they mention that these have been chosen because they raise issues around racism, sexim, colonialism, religion, free speech etc etc etc. Only Linda Grant says ‘I don’t believe the English syllabus is the place for “issue” books which contain an easily digestible message like “Racism is Wrong”.’ And too mant authors have picked books for which there can be only one reasonable response to the issues raised.
So what is the point of teaching literature? The syllabus itself shies away from explicitly claiming that literature should be used to teach social issues. But this has been lost in the debate, so many commentators seem to want literature to be used to make points about the societies in which it’s based. But if we do that, don’t we risk leaving out all the literature that either ignores those issues or doesn’t fit in with those easily digestible and unambiguous messages?
One of my favourite books is ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ by Orwell, but there’s no denying that in certain places it has a nasty whiff of anti-Semitism about it. Likewise, many of Evelyn Waugh’s novels aren’t exactly politically correct, but his writing’s sublime. So is Kingsley Amis’ whose ‘Lucky Jim’ is one of the funniest books ever written, and also utterly and unthinkingly sexist in its hero’s attitude towards women. Graham Greene is obsessed with sin and redemption in a way that seems very out of keeping with modern times. I can see these authors being left out of English schools because their attitudes don’t chime with current mores, to the detriment of students’ education. Fair enough, if literature’s main function is to help children grow up to be nice people. But in teaching literature that way, its great range and power will be diminished.