During my years at high school I really wasn’t aware of this. I thought the literary texts set for the English syllabus that my classmates and I had to read, study and, tiresomely, answer questions about in exams were reasonably interesting at best and downright boring at worst. But I never imagined that they were controversial. That they were, to use a vulgar idiom, hot stuff.
Back then, in fact, nothing could have seemed less controversial. Those texts usually consisted of piles of scruffy, dog-eared and scribbled-on books with drab, faded covers that the English teacher lugged into the classroom at regular intervals during the school year. He or she would then distribute them among us with a decided lack of decorum – chucking the decrepit books out from his or her table, to each of our desks, like a battle-hardened soldier neutralising a complex of enemy trenches by bunging hand-grenades into them.
Sorry though they were in appearance, what was in those set texts has over the years proved to be a hot potato: for parents, for teachers, for politicians and for various annoying people who’ve appointed themselves guardians of ‘public morality’.
For example, in the 1970s, while I was living in Northern Ireland, the Free Presbyterian parents in my district – followers of the Reverend Ian Paisley to a man and woman – withdrew their children from the mainstream education system and enrolled them in a denominational school they’d built themselves, just up the road from where my family had their house. Establishing their own school meant that the parents, plus the Free Presbyterian church, could create a curriculum and ensure they had strict control over what their children were learning… and reading.
It wasn’t until a decade later that I read an interview with the Free Presbyterian clergyman who’d been one of the main movers in the founding of the school. He cited two reasons why his congregation had no longer wanted their offspring to study in a mainstream school. Firstly, because they were being made to learn about evolution in the science syllabus; and secondly, because they were being made to read J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye in the English syllabus.
Regarding the second bone of Free Presbyterian contention, Salinger’s famous novel of juvenile delinquency, I couldn’t help but wonder. If the Free Presbyterians found Holden Caulfield’s language too spicy – in the book, he used terrible words like ‘Goddamned’, ‘crap’, ‘Christ’s sake’ and ‘sexy’ – how on earth did they protect their children from hearing even worse cursing and swearing when they walked along the street normally? (After all, cursing and swearing are things that most Irish people, north and south, are pretty good at.) Did they send them outdoors with pieces of cloth stuffed into their ears?
Anyway, last week saw a much bigger kerfuffle about the books that high-school children should be expected to read in English classes. This involved Michael Gove, David Cameron’s Secretary of State for Education in England. Like those Free Presbyterians from 35 years ago, Gove isn’t a fan of some of the material that kids currently are being asked to read. He isn’t objecting on religious grounds but I can’t help but detect faint echoes of those 1970s Free Presbyterians in his outlook. They didn’t want their children coming into contact with English literature that might expose them to bad attitudes, bad behaviour and bad language. Gove seemingly doesn’t want children to come into contact with English literature that hasn’t been written by English people.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m not an admirer of the meerkat-faced Gove (whose writ, thankfully, doesn’t apply beyond England’s borders to Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales). Gove seems to have acquired his half-baked ideas about what is good and proper for the school-pupils of 21st-century England from decades of cosy immersion in the Boys’ Own Paper, the Eagle comic, P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories and the old Ladybird series of children’s history books – each slim volume of which would tell the life-story of some fine, upstanding and Christian specimen of British manhood (Captain Cook, Admiral Nelson, David Livingstone, Clive of India) and occasional British womanhood (Queen Elizabeth I, Florence Nightingale) who helped Britain build its mighty empire and teach the world everything it needed to know about civilisation, cricket and the virtues of having a cold bath every morning.
Gove stands accused of trying to force American books like John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird out of the GCSE English literature curriculum in England. Although Gove subsequently denied it, there were allegations by a member of the OCR, the body that sets examinations and qualifications for GCSE and A-levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, that Gove had been meddling with a view to removing American literature from England’s English classrooms. In particular, Gove was said to ‘really’ dislike Of Mice and Men.
(c) Penguin Books
“I have not banned anything…” Gove retorted. “All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden – not narrow – the books young people study for GCSE.”
But people have argued that Gove’s way of making the GCSE book-list more accommodating has ended up making it less accommodating. Richard Adams, the Guardian’s education editor, wrote the other day: “the new syllabus leaves less flexibility for studying modern authors from outside the British Isles…” So if Gove hasn’t actually cast To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men into the deepest pit of hell, he seems to have left them scrabbling at the edge of the abyss. Actually, looking at the list of recommended authors, playwrights and poets, there isn’t much scope for studying literature from parts of the British Isles that aren’t England, i.e. works by Irish, Scottish and Welsh writers. There are a couple of non-English poets, including Seamus Heaney, plus Robert Louis Stevenson, who’s represented by The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but that’s about it. Here’s a link to Adams’ Guardian piece:
In early 1977 my family moved from Northern Ireland to Scotland and from then until 1982 I attended a Scottish high school. Since reading about the Gove controversy, I’ve racked my brains to recall which writers I had to study during those five-and-a-half years. These are the ones I can remember.
Authors: Thomas Hardy (Tess, Far from the Madding Crowd), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), Jack London (The Call of the Wild), Lewis Grassic Gibbon (Sunset Song), Richard Wright (Black Boy), John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men, The Pearl), George Orwell (Animal Farm), John Wyndham (The Kraken Wakes), D.R. Sherman (Old Mali and the Boy), Barry Hines (Kes).
Playwrights: William Shakespeare (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth), Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, The Crucible), Harold Pinter (The Birthday Party), Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), J.B. Priestly (An Inspector Calls), Willis Hall (The Long, the Short and the Tall), Bill Naughton (Spring and Port Wine), Barry England (Conduct Unbecoming) and Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Poets: Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, W.H. Auden, John Betjeman, T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In addition, I was lucky enough to have a couple of English teachers who enjoyed reading aloud short stories to their classes. So that way I got introduced to short fiction by the likes of Ernest Hemmingway, Ray Bradbury and Frank O’Connor.
Obviously, there are works of great merit on that list, but looking at it overall it seems pretty uninspired, grey and fusty. I’m surprised by the amount of drama we covered, though I suppose doing a lot of plays in the classroom made life relatively simple for teachers. They just needed to assign roles to individual students, make them read the play aloud and ensure that everybody else kept quiet and listened – and bang, they had another lesson prepared. This approach meant, though, that I became familiar with Shakespeare, Miller, Pinter, etc. by hearing their work acted out, usually very badly, by youngsters with broad Scottish-Borders accents. (I dreaded being assigned a role in those play-readings myself, because I’d say my character’s lines in a strong, rural Northern Irish accent, which my classmates found very amusing. In other words, I couldn’t even read the play aloud in the same comically-inappropriate accent that everybody else had.)
The plays by Willis Hall, Bill Naughton and Barry England had been acclaimed when they were first performed in the late 1950s and 1960s, and by the late 1970s they’d been deemed ‘safe’ enough to be included on school syllabuses. Ironically, they’re almost forgotten today, which shows the dangers of trying to jazz up a school reading list with contemporary (or relatively contemporary) works – you have no real idea of the works’ ‘staying power’.
We weren’t exposed to that much American literature, but I’m reasonably sure that the works by Steinbeck, London, Wright and Miller were among the more popular ones. Their straightforward American vernacular made them accessible to us and we could understand many of their cultural references because we’d seen hundreds of American TV shows and Hollywood movies. So generally, I think, they appealed to those classmates of mine who weren’t avid readers. If they’d been expunged by from the syllabus then, as Gove seems to be doing directly or indirectly in England now, and the space left behind had been devoted to more Shakespeare or more material by the likes of J.B. Priestly, I suspect for many people English lessons would have seemed a lot duller.
One thing that struck me as being odd, even back then, was that we were studying literature at a Scottish school and yet we did almost zero Scottish literature. I remember reading Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, but that was it. Indeed, it wasn’t until I enrolled for a Scottish literature course in my third year of college – out of curiosity – that I discovered that Scotland actually had some sort of literary culture and it was worth reading.
I know that in recent years the Scottish government, under the authority of the SNP, has promoted the teaching of more Scottish literature in Scottish schools, so that kids are expected to read works by George Mackay Brown, Iain Crichton Smith, Robin Jenkins, etc. This has prompted at least one blogger to claim over the past week that what Gove is trying to achieve in England is exactly the same thing that Scottish Education Minister Mike Russell is trying to achieve in Scotland: http://bibliodaze.com/2014/05/michael-goves-imperialist-curriculum/. Also, the arch-Tory Daily Telegraph has portrayed Russell’s policies as a sinister attempt at social engineering, steering Scottish schoolchildren away from the glories of ‘English’ English literature and turning them into nationalistic Little Scotlanders: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scotland/9644205/Mike-Russell-overruled-experts-on-Scottish-books-in-English-curriculum.html.
I disagree. For a start, the Telegraph’s assertions are annoyingly ignorant. It claims that Scottish teachers “are being forced to abandon Shakespeare and Dickens in favour of ‘dire’ modern Scottish works,” a comment that anyone familiar with the writing of Mackay Brown, Crichton Smith, Jenkins and so on will find insulting. And I defy anyone to find anything in, say, George Mackay Brown’s short stories that encourages readers to become small-minded ethnic nationalists. Incidentally, the Jenkins novel on the new Scottish syllabus, The Cone Gatherers, is about the closest thing to Of Mice and Men – number one on Michael Gove’s hit-list of American books that he thinks are over-sexed, overpaid and over here – that the British Isles have produced.
More to the point, though, I think it’s fair enough that children in any country, studying novels, plays and poems written in their native language, should have to read a core group of titles representative of their country’s own literature. Even the most left-wing and radical of Gove’s opponents wouldn’t expect him to impose a book-list that had no titles from England on it at all. That would be crazy. (Whereas, three-and-a-half decades ago, I found myself in the position of being an Irish pupil in a Scottish school and actually encountering more Irish writers on the school syllabus than I encountered Scottish ones. With hindsight, that was crazy.)
What’s important is that there should also be plenty of scope to study works from further afield – from the British Isles (which, if you’re a pupil in Scotland, would include some classics by ‘Shakespeare and Dickens’, so important to the Daily Tory-graph) and from North America. Gove’s Yankee-go-home mentality can go hang. In addition there should be recognition of the fact that much great English-language literature has come too from Australia, Africa, India and elsewhere. Recently, Robert McCrum gave some worthy suggestions at the end of an article he penned about this topic for the Guardian – V.S. Naipaul, Patrick White, Nadine Gordimer, J.M Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje, Doris Lessing, Peter Carey, Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth. Here’s McCrum’s full article:
But from the current evidence – and no matter how much Michael Gove may deny it, it’s happening under his watch and the indications are that his dead hand is at work – the direction the set texts seem to be heading in England’s schools is away from a culture of internationalism and inclusion and towards one of parochialism and introversion. Which is unhealthy if you want to encourage kids to read and to become bold and adventurous readers.
But enough of the highbrow discussion. Here’s a link to a web-page where you can buy a voodoo doll of Michael Gove to stick pins into:
(c) The Guardian