UK education revamp leaves US authors on the shelf

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 10:15am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 10:15am

Britain's education minister says he has not killed a mockingbird, but many literature-lovers don't believe him. Michael Gove has outraged some readers and academics with his campaign to put the basics - and Britishness - back into schools.

Long-time American favourites including John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird are off the syllabus for a major high school English qualification under new guidelines that focus almost exclusively on writers from Britain and Ireland.

Exam boards in England and Wales have released their new booklists for the English literature GCSE, an exam taken by 16-year-olds after a two-year course of study.

Michael Gove wants everybody studying traditional literature
Bethan marshall, national association for the teaching of english 

Gone are Lee, Steinbeck, Arthur Miller's play The Crucible and the autobiography of Maya Angelou, who died on May 28. Gone, too, are African and Asian writers, including Haruki Murakami, Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.

The purge is the product - although not, the government says, the goal - of an attempt to make the school curriculum more rigorous.

New government rules say GCSE pupils must study "high quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial" works, including a 19th-century novel, a selection of poetry, a play by William Shakespeare and post-1914 fiction or drama "from the British Isles".

Previous rules mentioned "contemporary writers" without reference to nationality. A requirement to study authors from different cultures has been dropped.

"I haven't banned anything," Gove wrote in The Daily Telegraph. "All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden - not narrow - the books young people study for GCSE."

The education department says the guidelines represent the minimum students are required to learn, and that those who read more widely will do better in the exams. It also says pupils are required to study "seminal world literature" - including American classics - between the ages of 11 and 14.

Critics of the new English rules say they will have a restrictive effect. "Michael Gove wants everybody studying traditional literature, and he wants it to be British," says Bethan Marshall, chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English. "I think that's a bit of a mistake."

This is not the first time Gove, who has been education secretary in Britain's Conservative-led government since 2010, has faced strong opposition to his plans. His overhaul of primary education was called "neo-Victorian" by a Cambridge University professor.

Some educators welcomed Gove's attempts to raise standards. Jonathan Bate, an English professor at Oxford who advised on the latest curriculum changes, says he was discouraged to discover that many pupils studied no British novels for their GCSE course.

"I think there are so many riches in the last century's literature in these islands that all pupils should have some acquaintance with it," Bate says.

The new booklists include a wide sample of modern British literature and drama, including George Orwell's Animal Farm and William Golding's Lord of the Flies. The 19th-century novels on offer include Dickens' Great Expectations.

But debate on the changes has focused on the loss of To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, which several generations of Britons remember - mostly fondly - from their schooldays.

Few commentators have anything negative to say about Lee's beloved tale of a girl learning about racism and justice in the American South. Outraged fans of the book even got the hashtag Mockingbird trending on Twitter after Gove's changes were announced.

Steinbeck's novella about the friendship between two migrant workers during the Great Depression proved more divisive. Times newspaper columnist Janice Turner welcomes the removal of Steinbeck's book, which she says is studied for all the wrong reasons - "because it is short, simple and has a didactic 'message': bullying is bad."

Carey says he sympathises with Gove's efforts to get students reading literary classics, but regrets the loss of the two American books. "It's true ... Of Mice and Men is set just because it's short, but it is nonetheless a marvellous book for teaching," Carey says. "It's a wonderful book, deeply human. I think the same about To Kill a Mockingbird - a book that can transform the way you think."

Associated Press