On Gove's Dickensian agenda

Category: Ideas and Arguments
Published on Tuesday, 27 May 2014
Written by Martin Pravda
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It comes as no great surprise that Michael Gove does not like students studying John Steinbeck’s classic novella Of Mice and Men. The book which lampoons the capitalist myth that hard work rewards and instead shows the gritty reality of poverty, racism, sexism and ableism rife in an economic crisis is somehow not quite in tune with Tory ideology. It is much more preferable, we are told, for our youngsters to plough through ‘The Great British Canon’ so they can become vastly aware of our rich cultural heritage. The new GCSE English curriculum is to scrap Of Mice and Men along with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in favour of novels by Charles Dickens. One wonders whether it is the entirety of Dickens’s work we are supposed to bequest as our heritage, or are we to subtly leave out the blatant antisemitism imbedded in characters such as Fagin or the overtly racist short stories he wrote with Wilkie Collins?

Of course it would be wrong to rule out the literary merits and significance of Dickens as a novelist, and his work deserves to be studied, warts and all. But one also wonders which of his epic Victorian novels are going to be handed out to young GCSE students, for many of whom this will be their first experience of reading a book. In an already tight academic schedule will there be sufficient time to closely read his major works in class, and guide students through the many sections which feature archaic language or describe customs which are unfamiliar today, or will this all be set for homework? As an undergraduate I once only just managed to blag my way through a seminar on Bleak House having got only a third of the way through (in my defence this was a good 250 pages in!). As a product of a generation who neglected my ‘literary heritage’ I suppose this lethargy is only to be expected. Gove’s vision is a generation of youth who will embrace such tasks enthusiastically. Erasing John Steinbeck will remove with it the corrupting ‘Americanisation’ of students which Of Mice and Men is to be blamed for. Young people of tomorrow will repel the urge to listen to Gangster Rap and will instead ritually recite Tennyson at one another as they linger about town.

Gove’s ambitious new policy is largely based on ideas originating from the right wing American educationalist ED Hirsch, who promoted a concept known as “cultural literacy”. He believed that the teaching of literature should be shaped through the acquisition of “certain facts, ideas, (and) literary works that people need to know in order to operate effectively as citizens of the country in which they live”. In essence, the teaching of literature is to be boiled down into a promotion of British values taken from the canon, helping to instil a sense of nationalistic togetherness. This in turn will aim to undermine any notion of class division. In Hirsch’s plans Gove presumably hopes for a curriculum which will accustom a generation into accepting absurd fables such as “We are all in it together”.

I expect that he will fail to achieve this. This is not to say that good old fashioned nationalism hasn’t the fertile ground at the moment (the recent Ukip election results would suggest otherwise) but that Dickens is simply not suitable as core reading for a diverse set of learners today. Dickens’s novels contain many captivating stories which a confident reader who is aware of Victorian history could enjoy. It brings with it the potential for plenty of lively discussions on topics which remain relevant such as inequality, egalitarianism and imperialism, there are also many moral dilemmas which create opportunities for students to dissect and debate. Today many of these discussions are had in A-level classrooms studying the AQA module “Victorian Literature”, designed as a next step for students who have achieved at GCSE level. Of course there are many readers who are perfectly capable of enjoying Dickens without having gained any qualification, but it is likely to be those fortunate enough to have been brought up with access to books and who have been encouraged to read who will be successful. Those from less privileged backgrounds will be left behind, and the experience of failure will have its likely effect of alienating the underprivileged from ever reading for pleasure, a concept already lost for many living through our increasingly target driven culture. ED Hirsch’s design will therefore deepen class divides further rather than pulling the nation together.

Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird make far better choices for a GCSE syllabus as thematically the texts are instantaneously relevant to the lives of young people while also remaining accessible to new readers. It is of course important for anyone studying these novels to understand the basics of 20th century American history, particularly the brutal extent of racism, but for a young person brought up in a multicultural Britain under an increasing threat from the far right none of this is too hard to grasp. In an excellent piece for the Guardian this week Anna Hartnell argues that Gove’s decision to remove the two novels ”fails to recognise the dynamics that make up modern Britain”. For instance, a constant theme running throughout both books is the notion of identity and the importance of accepting others. Across both novels a reader is presented with themes surrounding class, gender, race, disability, mob culture and murder, all topics which provoke valuable discussions which young people living in a multicultural society would benefit from having today. They both use mostly modern language and are written in such a way that is easy enough to dissect meaning, so the inexperienced reader is not faced with an instant irremovable barrier. Yet their complex themes also provide plenty to work with for a more confident reader meaning the text can be appropriate for a classroom with a diverse range of abilities.

It is worth noting that already the GCSE curriculum requires students to study a Shakespeare play in order to achieve a GCSE language grade. For many students the task of overcoming the difficulties of historic verse is already a troublesome ordeal. Of course, the skills and enjoyment this can bring can be of great worth, but one expects that if English classes for many simply become the study of words and passages which are a struggle to comprehend, then studying literature will become nothing more than a daunting prospect. The inclusion of John Steinbeck and Harper Lee gives a student a healthy balance between modern and classic literature, without which literature could easily seem merely a primitive thing of the past.

It may be that some do not enjoy the experience of reading Of Mice and Men or To Kill a Mockingbird. While I think that both novels are very suitable texts for a GCSE syllabus, some students and teachers may think that other novels would make better reading. I don’t personally hold much faith in a rigid national curriculum and I lean towards the ideas of radical educationalists such as Paulo Freire. He believed that in a perfect educational environment teachers and students should be given the autonomy to decide their own curriculum layout together. In a study based on his experiences of teaching in shanty towns across Brazil, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues that the negative relationship an underprivileged learner has with the society he is living in often also results in a negative relationship between the learner and their teacher. Freire believed that the only way to overcome this to remove from the teacher the status of imposing a curriculum onto a learner, and that instead the role of a teacher should be merely that of a facilitator. This model of education is obviously unattainable in mainstream classrooms under a neoliberal regime However, I do think that given the level of alienation that exists in schools today (particularly those in impoverished areas) educationalists should be trying out some elements of this approach, such as seeking far greater student feedback. Living in the age of neoliberalism and austerity has brought about a situation where the left is unfortunately on the back foot, so arguments such as these will need to be long fought for.

In the current climate though it’s important for us to recognise that the removal of John Steinbeck and Harper Lee from the English curriculum is a further ideological attack at multicultural values, and one which is likely to deepen the gap between privileged and disadvantaged young people. We should therefore outright reject the imposing of a British Canon onto young people. It is after all Gove who would do well to reread the classic Victorian texts. He might want to pick up Nicholas Nickleby and remind himself of the passages depicting the repugnance of “Dotheboys School”. Perhaps then he could consider the damage which his own government driven welfare cuts and the ideological attacks on the poor are bringing to a new generation of students who are slowly being pushed back to the squalor of Dickensian Britain.


Further reading

Freire, Paulo (1972), Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York)