In the past few days a furore has arisen, if the comments of some of my Facebook friends are anything to go by. As far as I can make out, there is a feeling that this “nasty, reactionary, self appointed arbiter of taste”, Michael Gove, our present Education minister, has banned “To Kill a Mockingbird”, along with other American texts, which often deal with radical themes, from the school GCSE English Literature syllabus, and this is to be replaced by less controversial, pre-twentieth century, often in the literary canon, English texts.
The story isn’t quite as stark or as simple or even as strictly true as the previous statement suggests of course; it rarely is. As an aside, while social media is great for drawing our attention to matters of importance, it can and does aid the spreading of half truths also. The following might serve to give some background and alternative perspectives: click here and here, and here and here, for examples. With reference to the last reference, I quite accept Mr. Gove’s explanation he is not going to remove the book from the syllabus and his desire to raise literature standards; more of which later.
Before I go on, let me declare my passion. I was into “education, education, education” long before Tony Blair coined his famous phrase. I have also written on the subject in some of my writings (freely available on this website). In fact, I had every intention to have a go at writing further on current education issues, including writing about what I believe the purpose of education in schools ought to be. Some of that will have to wait so what I write now is by nature of a “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” aperitif. The reason is simple: right now my son is two and a half weeks from completing his GCSEs and, for reasons that will be revealed, I want to write, focusing on the secondary school experience up to completing GCSEs, between him completing his exams and him getting his results. Other than stating that his GCSE English Literature prose texts were “To Kill a Mockingbird”, along with another of the radical “to be removed” US texts “The Crucible”, and the radical, quintessentially English text, “Animal Farm” to complete the set, I am under strict instructions not to talk about him in this blog… and “radical” is not how I would describe his respectable school!
Anyone who knows me will know that books are my passion. I often have several books that I am reading on the go at any one time, on all sorts of subjects, along with stuff that is becoming increasingly available on the Internet. I am well read on many of the English classics and have delved into a fair bit of modern stuff also, even though I tend these days to focus on and dabble in non-fiction. Like most, I have my preferences but try not to impose these on others. Having just re-acquainted myself with the eighteenth century, religious skeptic, David Hume’s “On Standard of Taste”, I feel I can cite this great philosopher to state that in my view no-one has the right, or is qualified to declare, what books young people could and should read. While having been around and popular for a long time, such as a Dickens or an Austen, may be one of the tests, it is not the only one, and while I regard “The Tale of Two Cities” and “Pride and Prejudice” as great books, there are many others and how do we rate them and which ones (if any) do we get our children to read? Looking back (to my day) I recall studying Forrester’s “The Gun” (which I liked) and Grossmith’s “The Dairy of a Nobody” (which I didn’t like then but do now) for my “O-Level”. I suspect we are now spoiled for choice. I suggest the smart move is to go for balance and well written books the students can both relate to and learn from.
Getting children to read and enjoy and understand the importance of reading is the first challenge and it is a big one. Other than concerns about appropriateness of material, most reading matter goes as far as I am concerned; certainly I am happy with what is currently on the syllabus. As a parent, I see it as my responsibility and have tried to interest my child. I am also grateful when inspirational English teachers have reinforced this. The bottom line is that I would much rather that schools and parents decide which books are chosen than politicians or some other elite. It is all about balance. Plays and poetry (also important) aside, I would like to see children exposed to a wide spread of reading, from many different authors. I would like them to explore and embrace the richness of the English language and be exposed to alternative, even uncomfortable, ways of thinking, be made more aware of the world that was lived in and we live in now, including its rich diversity, as well as encourage them to read simply for the love of reading.
There are far bigger issues of course around education and that will be the object of my next post. I don’t know enough about Mr Gove and his agenda to comment but when hot off the press a primary school teacher friend tells me the curriculum is becoming even more narrow and straight-jacketed with even more emphasis given to testing in order to reinforce what, sadly, often amounts these days to b******t concepts like ensuring excellence and learning objectives or, as a another teacher friend tells me, there are even more less essential things he is obliged to attend to besides teaching or, as our local grammar head tells me, his school is now only being funded for three “A levels” per sixth form student, not four or more as is the schools current practice and future intention, then the alarm bells begin to ring and I wonder if we are losing the plot altogether. I am mindful that children are not the same and, while some may delve into Dickens classics, others won’t go much beyond the equivalent of the book someone close to me read last: “The Three Gollies”. The system needs to serve those in all parts of the learning spectrum.
The focus on passing exams and on notions of utilitarianism that has been around long before Mr. Gove, remains a concern, even though I quite accept and advocate the need to drive up standards, as they are slipping. This is pertinent, given the recent discussion on local children failing to get into my town’s grammar schools and my local comprehensive failing its Ofsted inspection. My brief excursion into teaching in the early 70s was when a left wing agenda led, it has been argued, to a dumbing down of education in the interest of forcing the comprehensive ideal and mixed ability teaching, and long after I left school teaching until the present day the liberal elite are still trying to get schools to teach stuff I don’t necessarily agree with, often with an ethical twist, as a perceived anti-dote to some of society’s ills. My point is that neither the left nor the right nor any politically driven ideology should hold undue sway in our education system and education is not about exams nor academic priorities nor the values and fixations of politicians or the intellectual elite … but the discussion will continue, so watch this space …