Goodbye, Steinbeck; All Hail, Shelley

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

LONDON — When government shapes a nation’s literary education, politics inevitably plays a role. That has come clear in the case of the influential and controversial British minister of education, Michael Gove, who was accused of jingoism this week for new syllabus requirements that have led to the removal of classic American works like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Crucible.”

At issue are the minimum requirements for students taking the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) English exam, usually given when they are 15 or 16. Gove had complained that many taking the test had read only one novel, and, for 90 percent of those students, that was John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Paul Dodd of Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations, one of the boards that set and grade the test, said Gove had called that “a really disappointing statistic.”

Given those numbers, Gove argued that he wanted British schools to broaden the choice and variety of literature, not limit it. New regulations require that students study at least one play by Shakespeare, at least one 19th-century novel, a selection of poetry since 1789 and “fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards.” The government does not prescribe — or proscribe — any particular work.

Some examination boards have chosen to replace some recommended U.S. novels with British ones, like Meera Syal’s “Anita and Me,” a 1997 multicultural coming-of-age tale, and “Never Let Me Go,” by the British-based Kazuo Ishiguro.

But dropping the works has caused a ruckus online and in newspapers and weeklies like The Spectator and New Statesman. The books left out include Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” removed in the week the author died; Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”; and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” And at least one exam board, Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, has no U.S. novels or plays on its list of proposed texts.

Toni Morrison, asked about the changes while at a literature festival, said that the British “will regret it.”

Morrison said: “It may be that the academies will catch up with the artists who write literature, and it won’t have these nationalistic categories, and so on. So you’ll have literature.”

Gove, a Conservative and former journalist, responded to the criticism by arguing that students were reading too narrowly, and that beyond the core requirements, exam boards had no restrictions on their choice of authors. Suggestions that U.S. works were being banned, he said, were “rooted in fiction.”

A spokesman for the education department said the requirements represented “the minimum” students must learn and that exam boards could include literature from anywhere.

Teachers and teachers’ unions, which have criticized Gove for his efforts to change the educational system, said he should not interfere. Last year the National Union of Teachers called for his resignation, asserting that he has based policy “on dogma, political rhetoric and his own limited experience of education.”

The Conservatives, faced with a challenge from the populist and nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, have been emphasizing their desire to control immigration and protect British values. Gove has been in trouble about the politics of such cultural issues before. In this centenary year of the start of World War I, he has criticized British satirical shows, plays and films like “Blackadder” and “Oh! What a Lovely War” for promoting “left-wing myths that belittle Britain” by portraying the British command as fools who thoughtlessly sent young men to needless death. He insisted that Britain’s role in the world was “marked by nobility and courage.”

Christopher Bigsby, a professor of American studies at the University of East Anglia, struck a political note when he compared Gove to the home secretary, Theresa May. “As the home secretary does her best to patrol our borders to keep out international students, whom 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,” he wrote in The Guardian.

Gove, who called himself an Americanophile, said he would like students to read more from the 19th century, too. “I want young people to encounter as many books as possible from different cultures,” he said. “I want pupils to grow up able to empathize with Jane Eyre as well as Lennie, to admire Elizabeth Bennet as much as Scout Finch.”