I love a good book. In fact, I often love a bad book. Whether I have always wanted it to be the case or not, I have always ended up working with books. This path is now seeming pretty inevitable for me – virtually pre-ordained – as if somewhere there can be found a map of my life, and eventually it will lead me back to the book business because, though I might not be the fastest reader in the world, or the most well versed in every current literary trend, when I boil it down reading really is one of my favourite things.
I think this is why I have been stewing for so long on that harbinger of doom: Michael Gove’s sack load of education reforms. Gove’s plan to make our GCSE English Literature syllabus more ‘traditional’, followed by the Prime Minister’s urgings that schools promote ‘British values’, appears to be sending the message to children that English literature is for the English. Stick to your own. I admit I am one of those middle class liberals made frequently and neurotically nervous by any vague patriotic movements, while probably in fact being mired by my own naivety. However, from my (albeit rather clichéd) perspective, the recent targeting of literature in schools does look like yet another way to make the next generation of workers and leaders feel as though they are not citizens of the world, but citizens of an island – that the only way to save our values is by prioritising our small nation and disconnecting with the art and literary history of the countries around us. The current Tory rhetoric deeply embeds this fear that we are somehow losing our culture via our ‘traditions’, that at the moment we really need to focus on being ‘British’, and we can do it through our young. Along with the changes to the English syllabus, there are a handful of other odd Conservative education reforms since 2013, including a strange ‘British’ approach to ancient history…
This all certainly raises the question, ‘what are our traditions?’ I feel that what Mr Gove is searching for no longer exists. A lost Tory utopia filled with bowler hats, Victorian ethics and Morris dancers sporting stiff upper lips. When churning around my understanding of these dilemmas I often internally reference Mary Poppins, the Tories playing Mr Banks, parading about in his pinstripes telling the children to buck up their ideas and look forward to a life of rigid education and frosty wealth, until Labour, acting the role of Poppins, wins the 2015 general election and gains the upper hand. She will stamp out Mr Banks’ best laid plans and bring the children a life of colour, a breadth of experience and cross-cultural friendship, ultimately vital to their growth as human beings (Nick Clegg is of course Mrs Banks, stomping around preaching a liberal agenda, while never following through when it really matters, and ignoring the direct pleas of her children. Thanks a lot, Sister Suffragette).
As an Oxford graduate of English Literature, it seems odd that Mr Gove should want to discourage children from reading novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. He is spreading the dangerous notion that the stories of Harper Lee and John Steinbeck are somehow less relevant to our children because they aren’t about British experiences. His reforms reduce these great works to stories of nation, and not stories of universal human experience of great value to young people. Both texts address prejudice, violence, love, patience, and so much more, and studying them encourages young people to contemplate these themes in the context of their own lives, and not just that of the time and place in which they’re set. In some ways I agree that the set GCSE texts could be updated or refreshed, as these have been set texts for such a long time, but I would always rally against limiting them to British or English texts alone. He may not have banned international texts (smart move), but it can’t be denied that he has made it incredibly hard for children to study a modern text from outside of Britain (the requirements are: at least one Shakespeare play, poetry from 1789 on including the Romantics and a 19th century novel, as well as a work of fiction or drama originating from the British isles since 1914). Don’t even get me started on the idea of introducing Meera Syal to the syllabus. Holy hell. Why not bring in Dawn French too? Or Jeffrey Archer?
Earlier this year Tristram Hunt was content to maintain many of Gove’s reforms, but with the tide of anger regarding Gove’s nationalist agenda through English Literature, Labour have stated that they feel the literature reforms to be “ideological” and “backward-looking”, but Richard Adams stated in the Guardian that “Defenders of Gove’s reforms pointed out that the changes improve the chances of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World from being studied at GCSE level.” But it does however make it less likely that children will study works like The Handmaid’s Tale, Beloved or Catcher in the Rye (the source of my title quote). I disagree with Hilary Mantel’s opinion that there should be no set texts on the curriculum and that children should be tested on whatever they fancy. It’s unrealistic to expect children to just pick up a book, especially when there are so many ways in which they can source their entertainment now. But, also because many children don’t come from homes where recreational reading is expected, let alone encouraged.
I was lucky – we always had books lying around our house, and I was encouraged by my parents to start diving into the books on their shelves from an early age. I wasn’t always choosing quality though – I was choosing anything that sounded fun, so the ‘grown-up’ stuff that sounded fun to my 11 year old self was usually Terry Pratchett and the odd thriller. Set texts enable teachers to hand over a book that is decipherable for children of varying abilities, they can tie together themes from other subjects taught at school (art, religious studies, history etc), but most importantly they bring great literature into children’s lives and offer them an ethical or artistic debate. They may absolutely hate it, but they may absolutely love it – and both perspectives are of great value. Reading a book at school can give a child a thirst for more, and set them on a long and fruitful quest for knowledge – something I think we all expect from our education.
Some other interesting articles on the Conservative education reforms: