So this morning I log in to Twitter to find that Michael Gove has decided that American classic novels like To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice And Men, along with classic plays just like The Crucible, are not good enough for the English Literature GCSE syllabus. He would prefer learners to read British texts instead.
To say that I think this would be moronic is an understatement. Of Mice And Men is a text that I have personally taught and it had a massive impact upon the teenagers who were in my class. I cannot say the same about every text I have taught to that age group. Austen would not have had the same reach. Nor would Charlotte Bronte. Nor would Charles Dickens. And I say that as a great admirer of all three of those writers’ works.
I made a quip to my husband this morning that if we’re going to focus on British writers, we should have Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis on the syllabus. After all they’re both highly successful contemporary writers, who work in a wide variety of media and who have both produced exemplary prose worthy of study.
On a whim I tweeted it. Then this happened…
For those who can’t see, it says RETWEETED BY NEIL GAIMAN
This is pretty incredible, given that I am a massive fan.
The 47 retweets and 82 likes that followed were also incredible.
It’s not often you find yourself at the centre of a zeitgeist.
This has been a great day, I’ve really enjoyed this whole thing. It’s been great getting tweets from other people with other suggestions too. Other writers that I like and respect like Jasper Fforde, Stephen Fry, Terry Pratchett and Alan Moore. Other successful writers like Grant Morrison, J G Ballard, Douglas Adams and Nick Harkaway were suggested too.
But it doesn’t really matter what I think.
Rather unfortunately, the crux of this matter rests with someone else.
And this matter is very important. We’re defining what literature the vast majority of 14-16 year olds in this country are going to be exposed to in their formative years. We’re deciding that lessons they’re going to be taught, what life lessons they’re going to be exposed to through their reading. What they read during these years will have a massive impact upon whether or not they read for pleasure as adults or whether they regard reading as distasteful and something to be endured or avoided.
The texts that Gove is considering removing tackle massively important themes. Like Loyalty. Friendship. Love. Honour. Justice. Integrity. Equality. He regards it as a “disappointing statistic” that 90% of learners have read ‘Of Mice And Men’ which touches on the vast majority of these in a simple, direct and elegant way which still speaks to teenagers and young adults across decades and thousands of miles.
Incidentally – those themes I just listed? They are the ones I admire most in the work of Gaiman and Ellis. I adore Spider Jerusalem’s passion for the truth, his pursuit of the facts, his dedication to uncovering every sordid and hidden little political detail in his city. I still read and re-read Good Omens by Pratchett and Gaiman, which addresses the fundamental nature of Good and Evil in this world along with the notions of destiny, innocence and freewill.
I wasn’t kidding when I said that those writers should be included in the syllabus for study. These are the sorts of themes that our young people should be examining, deconstructing, discussing and ENJOYING. These are the sorts of texts that should be forming part of the gateway to the world of literature, wider reading and cultural awareness. Alongside those wonderful classics by Harper Lee, John Steinbeck and Arthur Miller. The advantage that writers like Gaiman, Pratchett and Ellis have though is that they are still alive. They are accessible. Reachable. Still talking. Still writing. Still working.
Michael Gove would rather that we go back to the tired texts that have been picked over, pulled apart and written about for decades. For hundreds of years. By people who carry more authority and more weight than the average fourteen year old will ever muster. Michael Gove would rather than we study texts where academics have already determined the right and wrong answers about the vast majority of the issues. Where people have already decided what opinions are acceptable to hold about those texts.
Michael Gove would like our young people to study texts which reinforce gender stereotypes, highlight the existence of class boundaries and promote the notion that Britain is a world economic and military power. He would like our young people to live in the past, to be shielded from the complex nature of this international world and cocooned within blind and outdated nationalism.
I always believed that Michael Gove was unfit for his post. This decision of his confirmed it.
How can someone who has studied English Literature at Oxford University believe that reinforcing nationalism is more important than exposure to the best examples of literature that the world has to offer? How can someone who is in charge of the education process for the overwhelming majority of this country’s youth allow his personal preferences and tastes in influence his policy decisions? How can someone with this level of influence believe that the past is more relevant that the present we are living in, or the future that our young people are going to build?
This man is not fit to be the Secretary of State for Education.
And it is this man whose opinion dictates what happens next.
Even on a day like today which has been filled with joy and excitement, the feeling which dominates me most at the end of the day is Fear. Fear about what else Michael Gove might come up with next. Recently I’ve been watching the hashtag of #weneeddiversebooks on twitter. Michael Gove would do well to read some of the responses and rethink his blinkered and narrow minded approach to education policy, especially when it comes to literature. But sadly, I don’t think he ever will.*[Got something to say? Submit to Project Shandy]*