Gove Puts the “English” Back in the GCSE Syllabus

Here is a piece that I wrote for the Books section of the University of Warwick’s newspaper The Boar on Michael Gove’s recent moves to change the English Literature GCSE Syllabus. The piece here is the first part of the collaborative article (i.e., my section of it), which is exactly as it appears on the paper’s website at http://theboar.org/2014/05/31/gove-puts-english-back-gcse-syllabus/#.U4x9zPldVFM – with the exception of one typo being corrected:

Education Secretary Michael Gove has recently taken it upon himself to “streamline” the English Literature curriculum by removing such celebrated American books as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the syllabus. Alongside several other, lesser-known bans, the decision to axe these classic works of literature has naturally led to the question – why would anyone in their right mind do this?

Gove’s reasoning is to enhance the focus on British writers. He has gone on record saying that he wants pupils to empathise with Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet as much as they do with Lennie and Scout Finch. Whichmight sound well and good as far as intentions go, but the narrow-mindedness of only protecting local work goes against, and is detrimental to, the true strength of English Literature.

While a significant chunk of England’s literary heritage is in its direct output, an even larger and arguably more important part of it is how it has influenced writers from around the world. American-born Maya Angelou, whose work has also been cut from the curriculum, has spoken eloquently of how she considered the task of writing to be the equivalent of “crossing the English Channel”, testifying to the type of writing that has influenced her own work.

Particularly striking is the fact that authors from Commonwealth countries, whose early education was shaped by the GCSE syllabus, have been discarded as well. Notable among these are Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (A Purple Hibiscus), New Zealand’s Lloyd Jones (Mister Pip) and Australia’s Doris Pilkington (Rabbit-proof Fence). Clearly, the Education Secretary has a very territorial understanding of the term “English” Literature – he only endorses Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go) based on his British citizenship.

The most glaring mistake in Gove’s cuts is his refusal to acknowledge the universality and significance of such works as Harper Lee’s Mockingbird. While it might beset in a very specific historical US context, its exploration of justice and discrimination remains very relevant, perhaps even more so given the rise of subtle,institutional racism in this part of the world.

As someone who has studied under the British education system outside of the UK – having passed my GCSE’s in Bangladesh – I find it especially ironic that Gove’s decision, aimed at revitalising the syllabus, goes against everything that made the course so beautiful. When I was growing up, my English teachers had to fight to get American writers included in our classes, citing the UK’s readiness to embrace Lee and Steinbeck as a prime example of good education.

How sad then, just as the rest of the world has finally agreed to expand their horizons by including non-British writers in their curricula, that Britain should revert to an isolationist approach. Perhaps the sarcasm is well placed – it could just be that Michael Gove really hates the subject.

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