Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Corrections and clarifications: he is an angry and patronising little man

So Michael Gove has corrected all the "culture warriors" such as myself with his customary patronisingly rude imitation of politeness. He is not banning To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men et alia. He is simply requiring that all students at GCSE "cover ... a whole Shakespeare play, poetry from 1789 including the romantics, a 19th-century novel and some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1914." After that they can study what they want. War and Peace maybe, or the complete works of James Joyce. After all, English teachers are quite likely to have nearly three hours a week with their students, and they will have very little else to do beyond acquiring an absolutely secure grasp of English grammar (something linguistics professors have been struggling with for decades) and addressing the "shameful" inadequacies in their ability to read and write which will no doubt still be hampering them until Mr Gove's glorious revolution has fully run its course.

There are two key points here, that make me, if anything, more despairing of Mr Gove's attitude to the teaching of English Literature than I was before I read his Telegraph statement. First, it is absolutely clear that he equates genuine engagement with and study of literature with a stamp-collector's quest to "cover" all of it. When he cites "the bests schools'" approach to studying literature it is invariably in the form of a list: "[At] King Solomon Academy, in one of the poorest parts of London, ... all children are expected to read Jane Austen, a Shakespearean pastoral comedy such as As You Like It, and a Shakespearean tragedy alongside George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, William Golding, Erich Maria Remarque and Primo Levi." There is nothing here, or anywhere else,  about what children might gain from all of this reading. The key to good literature teaching, clearly, is quantity not quality. So long as you can say that you have "covered" every great classic known to (English) man then you have done literature, and can presumably move on.

Second there is the absolute contempt in which he holds the nation's teachers for whom he is responsible. He presents as "sad" the fact that 190,000 GCSE students last year studied Of Mice and Men whilst only 3,000 studied Pride and Prejudice, Far from the Madding Crowd or Wuthering Heights. Has he ever, I wonder, asked himself why that is?

Teachers, under pressure from all sides to deliver genuine educational outcomes in limited time and in the face of unrelenting pressure and criticism want to deliver those outcomes as efficiently and meaningfully as they can. Students at GCSE need to engage with the novel form: to understand how characters can be developed, themes established and worked through and features such as setting used to engage with those themes and characters. They can get this from studying any of the four novels Mr Gove lists, but they can get it from Of Mice and Men in about half the time that it would take with any of the others.

And would they be missing out anything significant as a result? Frankly, no. Mr Gove professes himself to be "an unabashed Americanophile" but his contempt for Of Mice and Men has clearly clouded him to its literary merits. He "read [it] and loved [it] as a child" but quite obviously does not regard it in the same light as the others he lists. And one has to ask why. Partly the reason, clearly, is that it was not "written in Britain." Then there is the fact that it was not "written before 1900." And finally there is the biggest issue: it is not LONG. A reluctant reader does not have to slave for weeks simply to get to the end of the story. And so for all these reasons he does not see it, or To Kill a Mockingbird, as important literary texts which must be "covered" to ensure an adequate grounding in the classics.

So Mr Gove, who sees an absolute antithesis between the enjoyment and the study of literature, believes the first duty of English teachers to be to teach students the stoic value of persistence in "covering" the maximum range of English Literature. And worse still he condemns as feckless and lazy "culture warriors" anyone who tries instead to engage students with books and bring them into the community of those who, unlike our Education Secretary, read and study literature for the intellectual stimulation, emotional engagement and sheer pleasure that that can bring.

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