The Blog

The Rabid Dog and the Dead Mockingbird


Michael Gove's intention to axe American Classics (To Kill A Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and The Crucible) from the GCSE English Literature syllabus has been realised by the OCR exam board. Ironically, although this Education Secretary resembles a Moomin he isn't too keen on literature. He has allowed personal grievances like his inability to understand Steinbeck to shape policy initiatives and enter the political realm. A change in GCSE syllabus may seem slight, but it has huge repercussions.

I speak as a university English Literature student who chose this degree because American Classics now considered outside the Department for Education's naively ideological "English Canon", like Harper Lee, brought me here. I know from fellow students and Facebook that I am not an individual case. There are a host of angry comments from "culture warriors" across Britain gathering on posts regarding this issue and a petition gaining momentum. To ensure that university courses are filled with students who have a passion for their subject, passion has to be instilled in students from a young age. The literature they study should be chosen on the merit of its writing, not by the country that writer is from.

This move implies that English Literature has only one culture. The subject will enter a stagnant backwater reflecting an out-of-touch Education Secretary nearing the end of his tenure of misreading public opinion. 'English Literature' must be a malleable and adaptable term to ensure it thrives in a postcolonial world. It must not return us to a colonial mindset. This definition must equally incorporate works from authors outside of England, outside of Britain and from immigrant communities within Britain. It must be the syllabus of cultural diaspora that is our modern world.

In order to interact with an increasingly global world the texts on GCSE, A-level and University syllabuses have become increasingly globalised. Gove does not seem to have grasped this. If students are to locate themselves on an international platform full of international syllabuses then this definition must be widened; not narrowed.

If Gove applied the same logic to the English modules on offer at my university there would be no future for New Literatures in English; for Arundhati Roy, Chinua Achebe or Ngugi wa Thiong'o. What place do the novels on a Global Novel course occupy within this nationalistic discourse? I would have to pack in my revision for European Theatre right now. To name all the modules relegated would be to fill this entire article with a list. GCSE choices should be no different and by limiting scope ministers are simply treating students as infantile. Why expand the canon when you can limit it?

In an ever-interlocking world this policy of isolation and strange literary nationalism seems absurd. It is as misplaced as the Eurosceptic desire to seal ourselves off on this island as if we are being invaded by Romans masquerading as Romanians.

This decision will not affect me. It will however affect my younger siblings who take their GCSE's in a few years. Certain texts on the new syllabus are important but so are the texts that they will lose out on. Rather than embracing cultural diversity this syllabus rejects it. How will my sister react, in her diverse class demographic, when she is confronted by a pre-20th century "English" dominated course that relegates Irish writers? That turns its back on Arthur Miller? The lost children of future English Literature degrees will not relate to this syllabus.

This attempt to define 'English Literature' has shown that it is a much broader definition than the government believes it is. 'English Literature' has escaped being wrangled into a corner by the Department for Education. Gove's statements have had the opposite effect to which he might have intended. To Kill A Mockingbird is now trending on twitter and academics, teachers (Lola Okolosie in the Guardian's Comment is Free section) and students alike are taking to social media sites to voice their concerns over the negative implications of this new syllabus.

By making this policy choice Gove has come across more like the rabid dog staggering around Harper Lee's town; not knowing what it is doing or why it is there, than an Education Secretary.

It is time to unclasp Lennie's hands from the mouse of English Literature so it may escape its "English Canon" confinement and flourish like I know this subject can.

But then again, Gove probably doesn't understand these references. He's not too fond of American Classics.

Gregory Peck spies Gove in the distance.

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