Isn’t it time we stopped distinguishing between English Literature and Literature in English? Fine writing in this wonderful worldwide language of ours is not exclusive to the shores of the British Isles, although of course we have over the centuries produced some crackers here.
GCSE (and before that O Level) syllabuses have long offered students the opportunity to taste a small selection of the best. In recent years that has included the requirement to study ‘other cultures’ texts. That has led to the inclusion of texts such as Meera Syal’s Anita and Me, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Purple Hibiscus and Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. These are perfectly decent books but they don’t – really don’t – compare with the high spots of English Literature such as Great Expectations and, yes, Harper Lee’s near-perfect To Kill a Mockingbird or John Steinbeck’s gut-wrenching Of Mice and Men. And I speak as someone who taught English literature in secondary schools for decades and has written GCSE study guides for Hodder on several of the above texts.
Now we are told – by a spokesperson for one of the examining boards and reported in a Sunday newspaper – that Michael Gove has personally intervened in the new GCSE syllabuses to be published this week and ‘banned’ To Kill a Mockingbird, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Of Mice and Men on the grounds that they’re American.
Well, let’s just remember that there are three examination boards (in England) and their syllabuses, which have to be approved by Offqual, will all be different. Second, it would be most unusual, if not unprecedented, for a secretary of state to issue edicts about which texts should or should not be included as options so although it may be true, as stated, that he dislikes Of Mice and Men and irritated someone at OCR by saying so, I take the rest of it with a generous pinch of salt. It smacks to me of Gove’s ever-active enemies looking for ammunition.
And there’s something else which quite literally doesn’t add up. We’re told that three quarters of the books set in these syllabuses are by British writers. Well, if Gove has, as alleged, banned non-British writers who wrote the other quarter? The 75/25 per cent balance sounds about right to me because of course, English Literature students should have the chance to encounter the 19 century novel, Shakespeare, poetry from different eras and some of the wonderful writing of the 20 and 21 century such as Animal Farm. Lord of the Flies and, indeed Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and many many others. Real Education is about flinging open doors which might otherwise remain shut and leading pupils through them.
But you can do so only much in eighteen months for a single exam and in practice each individual will study only a handful of texts. Exam boards select from a huge and rich repository of excellent possibilities and change their syllabuses from time to time so that texts come and go – partly to give teachers and examiners a change and to keep it fresh. It isn’t because there is anything ‘wrong’ with the texts which are being rested.
I shall reserve final judgement until I’ve seen the syllabuses themselves – and so will anyone else who thinks student learning matters more than political sniping.