Conservative education secretary Michael Gove has had numerous works by American authors removed from the English literature GCSE syllabus, expressing a wish that students instead study work by predominantly British writers, and much of that dating from before the 20th century. If you’re in need of an illustrative example, chosen completely at random, that means that while the American Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is now most likely off limits, there may still be a chance that school pupils will be allowed to read the English George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Books previously taught which are now no longer deemed appropriate for the classroom include beloved works such as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Exam board OCR says Gove ‘strongly dislikes’ the latter in particular, finding it ‘really disappointing’ that it was previously studied by 90% of English literature students, suggesting that the reading habits of a generation may now be moulded by the personal tastes of one man. Were one looking to draw a connective thread between the aforementioned titles, one could point to their deep, humanistic concern with social justice and the suffering of the most regularly oppressed segments of society, but what would that possibly have to do with the decision of a millionaire Tory cabinet minister in 2014?
Around three quarters of the new syllabus is drawn from the English canon, with required texts for the OCR exam from 2015 including one pre-20th century novel by a British author, Romantic poetry and a Shakespeare play. The move has been met with criticism suggesting that the changes make the subject less accessible and inviting to teenagers, throwing up linguistic and cultural barriers that may further deter them from reading for pleasure.
The Sunday Times quotes Bethan Marshall, a senior lecturer in English at King’s College and chairwoman of the National Association for Teaching English, as calling it ‘a syllabus out of the 1940s and rumour has it Michael Gove, who read literature, designed it himself. Schools will be incredibly depressed when they see it. Kids will be put off doing A-level literature by this. Many teenagers will think that being made to read Dickens aged 16 is just tedious. This will just grind children down.’ On the plus side, that grind may lead them to identify more strongly with the average experience of characters their own age in Dickens.
He was chief hack and music editor of webzine Brazen from 2006 to 2010, and hosted Left of the Dial on Subcity Radio from 2008 to 2011.
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