Disagreeing with both sides – Mockingbird, Gove and the literary cannon

Posted: May 26, 2014 in education
Tags: , , ,

I have to make a confession, and I fear that my British readers are going to judge me harshly for it. It’s a stance that makes me wretchedly uncomfortable, but that I feel I must make. So here goes.

I don’t agree with a criticism of Michael Gove.

I'm as surprised as you are Michael.

I’m as surprised as you are Michael.


There. I’ve said it. Happy now? People are throwing stones at our much-maligned education secretary and I don’t agree with them.

But why?

The enemy of my enemy is not my friend

Lets be clear, I’m not saying that I agree with Gove. If we were to meet face to face we might just about agree on the benefits of breathing oxygen and not getting caught in bear traps. Except that we’d each wish that the other one was silenced by the trapper’s steel jaws.

When Gove says that the English curriculum should be about Shakespeare and Dickens I don’t agree, for the same reason that I don’t agree with his emphasis on dates and facts and British events in the history curriculum. I think it’s an old-fashioned, small-minded approach that limits pupils’ perspective, causes problems for teachers and misses many of the benefits of education.


The wrong fuss

Many people I respect, including the Interesting Literature blog, have leapt up to defend the books being abandoned under Gove’s reforms. They point out the merits of books like To Kill A Mockingbird, which are being lost to the generation of pupils about to be taught under the Gove curriculum. They want them to stay on the curriculum.

I don’t doubt for a minute that the books they’re defending are greats, and that many pupils would benefit from reading them, but I think that misses the point.

Like Gove, these critics are defending a literary cannon. They are implicitly saying ‘these books mattered to me, so everybody should read them’.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, I think that’s crap. That’s the same thinking that got Gove to where he is, and that got their beloved books taken off the curriculum.

Skills and emotions

Education isn’t about cramming kids’ heads full of facts. They don’t need that. They have the internet.

Nor is it any longer about access to the classics. You can get them from a library, a charity shop, an online e-book store. In the UK, even those without my privileged access to technology can get hold of these books cheaply and easily.

Education is about teaching skills and building passions. Lessons in literature should teach pupils how to engage with books in an excited, critical way. They should build their passion for reading. And both of those things will be better achieved by letting the teachers pick the books. That way they can find books that they and their pupils will get excited about.

A pupil who is given a story they like, who develops a passion for literature, may discover countless excellent books in life. One who has books that mean nothing to them crammed down their throat will be put off.

Everybody’s tastes are different. Not everyone is going to love Macbeth or Grapes Of Wrath. Yes, some pupils will be surprised to find they enjoy them. But many will be unsurprised to find that they don’t. The person who can best make that call, who understands the pupils in each class, is the trained expert in literature and education who’s in there with them. Not a politician, not a literary critic, not a blogger or an outraged reader signing a petition, but an individual teacher living at the chalkface.

By all means criticise Gove’s narrow curriculum, but don’t try to replace it with one of your own. Instead give teachers the freedom to do their jobs.

  1. Well I agree with you, AND I disagree with Gove, and i love all the mentioned books. It is not an Education Secretaries place to be deciding what children must read. The purpose of education ought to be (but rarely seems to be) to encourage thought, debate – and the love of learning so that the child will want to explore for him.herself. And, as you say, it is the teacher whose job it is to ignite the passion for all that. What is on the syllabus for GCSE should be of a wide enough choice so that the beleaguered teacher can find both what they might have enough passion for to create that ignition, and what the children they are teaching might catch a fire for.

    I think this is class politics in action. Those who come from homes where reading may have been fostered and part of the wallpaper from an early age could probably get on fine with the Beowulf or even Ulysses by GCSE, but those who do not have the habit of reading may well be put off it by wonderful texts which seem alien.

    • That point about class background is a very good one, and I suspect is Gove’s blind spot. He believes that because something excited him it should be able to excite everyone.

  2. Jon Taylor says:

    That is an excellent criticism of the criticism and the the thing being criticised!

    Gove is far too wedded to the ‘Cultural Literacy’ theories of E.D. Hirsch to ever give up the idea of a canon that all students must learn lest they be forever socially disadvantaged. The problem is that the ideologues on the right react to that theory by denouncing anyone who speaks of ‘skills’ or flexibility in curricula as irredeemable wishy-washy liberals with poor standards. It makes it tempting to fly to the other end of the spectrum and start claiming that facts are nothing compared to skills.

    I really hope that we can overcome the facts vs skills dichotomy and realise that both are absolutely essential. You can’t learn skills properly without detailed facts, facts are worthless when rote-learned for their own sake.

    I don’t feel qualified to say how that might apply to literature, but you *must* surely be right that literature is about inspiration. For that you would have to meet the students where they are before challenging them to broaden their horizons. You’re also on to a loser if the teacher feels straight-jacketed and uninspired themselves.

    • I do think that concepts of cultural literacy and cultural capital have some value, but they’re often tied to particular assumptions about a core, mainstream culture. In days of ever increasing diversity, it seems more important to teach kids to navigate the many different strands of culture and find the ones of value to them than to plug them into a mainstream that no longer really exists.

      Good to know Gove’s at least working off some kind of theory though.

  3. brennalayne says:

    Thank you, from a former English literature teacher, for acknowledging who should be choosing the books!

  4. Sue Archer says:

    Andrew, I think you’ve made a really great argument here. I agree that the most important thing is to build passion for reading, because without that motivation, students are not going to learn the skills. And every class is different, even within the same school or the same area. I say this as a fan of old classics like Shakespeare, newer greats like To Kill A Mockingbird, and many works of popular fiction that will likely never be considered “classics.” This reminds me of a time during my M.A. in English when I compared a book we were reading in class with The Dead Zone by Stephen King. Everyone stared at me and appeared to be thinking, “You read Stephen King? How can you possibly compare his books to great literature!” I decided not to pursue my Ph.D. largely because the academic community clearly did not hold my perspective on what great literature is all about. And I’m seeing the same bias happening in the discussions about Gove.

    • Thanks Sue. Like you, I think it’s a shame that books not considered ‘classics’ are so often ignored, regardless of their cultural impact or literary merit. That said, people like China Miéville and The Tolkien Professor are doing good work breaking down the barriers, so hopefully in generations to come we’ll have less of an issue with academics (who should know better) and politicians (who I wish knew better) looking down their nose at certain genres and creators.

      • glenatron says:

        Ah yes, the old “Margaret Atwood’s not Sci-fi, she’s Literature” argument. Endlessly disappointing when people truck out that form of argument.

  5. glenatron says:

    Part of my programme for government would be to do everything in my power to extricate politics from teaching. I cannot think of a single time when that has worked out well. I know there must be accountability, but honestly the best thing we can do for the children we want to see learn and the teachers who want to teach them is to stop telling both sides how to do their job.

    • Absolutely. Politics can do good things for education – having a national curriculum brings real benefits. But once you’ve got the main structures in place it turns into oppressive micro-management, and that’s when the politicians should be told to back off.

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