“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

The above quote is from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I studied at GCSE level. Give it a few years, though, and it seems you’ll be hard pressed to find many young people who can identify the book or the quote. Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove has moved to abolish teaching of the American classic, along with texts like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, on the English Literature GCSE syllabus. In the new scheme, 70-80% of books studied will be books from what exam board OCR describes as ‘the English canon’. The demand to drop the books was reportedly made by Gove himself in an effort to get students to focus more on British writers.

OCR told the Sunday Times:

Of Mice and Men, which Michael Gove really dislikes, will not be included. It was studied by 90% of teenagers taking English Literature GCSE in the past. Michael Gove said that was a really disappointing statistic.”

Though Gove hasn’t outright ‘banned’ these texts, the shift is a disastrous one. I’m a Masters student taking English Literary Studies, hoping to graduate in December, but studying English wasn’t always the plan. Before GCSE level, I hadn’t enjoyed the subject: I had always loved reading, but before then the teaching and the novels we studied had failed to inspire me. I studied To Kill a Mockingbird and The Crucible at GCSE and my whole outlook changed. They were two powerful, compelling and, crucially, important texts that made me realise just how much I loved the written word, and without them I wouldn’t have taken English at A-Level and later at university.

Literature is nothing without diversity. Gove seems to think that English Literature is a product of England, as opposed to the English language. Our country is one with an immense literary heritage that is rightly celebrated, and we should be doing all we can to pass on those great works to future generations, but most 15-year-olds aren’t going to be inspired by the works of Dickens and Shakespeare.

Everyone finds their own route into literature, and it isn’t our job to force them down any specific path.

This is not a criticism of texts by those authors, far from it: their works are indisputably classics, but are too dry and weighty to act as an introduction to literature or to inspire a young teenager to delve into more writing of their own accord. Everyone finds their own route into literature, and it isn’t our job to force them down any specific path. There is a phenomenal body of literature in the English language from around the globe waiting to be discovered, and placing any sort of limitation on that possibility of discovery is reprehensible and misguided.

There is still the opportunity for schools to introduce foreign literature in the remaining percentage Gove hasn’t set aside for English texts, thankfully. Incredibly troubling is the quote from OCR suggesting that Gove dropped the aforementioned texts because he ‘disliked them’. Welcoming personal preference into education is not just barely understandable, but dangerous. Education cannot be dictated based on likes or dislikes: there are always going to be parts of a subject that appeal more or less on a person-to-person basis, but that being merit for exclusion is laughable. In an ideal world, this reform would lead to a concerted effort by schools and pupils to introduce and discover this literature themselves, but I know that’s unlikely. It’s hard enough to get students to enjoy English as it is, and Michael Gove’s doing his best to make it a hell of a lot harder.

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  • Bex
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    It baffles me. While I loved Shakespeare and Austen at 15, this risks alienating so many students, like my younger brother, who finds reading a chore. And to take away books based on a personal dislike is abominable. Exposing children to other perspectives is how they learn empathy and understanding beyond their own limited sphere.

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  • John MacArthur
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    It’ll be interesting to see whether Mr Gove backs down and justifies the removal of popular texts solely on the basis of personal preference. If he doesn’t, he should be immediately removed from office since he clearly has no understanding of the mechanism of education. I think his approach is frankly toxic and one can only hope someone can repair the damage after he is moved on.

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  • Conor O’Grady
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    As an English undergrad myself, I have to say that I’m with Sam Everard on this one. Gove is clearly – and wrongly – blinkered by what he deems as classics. Firstly, the whole point of reading literature is to experience and learn about different nations, cultures and ways of life. Gove’s plan to make an exclusively all British literary syllabus is ignorant to this fundamental notion; it is utterly nonsensical and prejudiced. Secondly, Gove needs to open his eyes and be more realistic: the American texts that he wants to eradicate are currently on the GCSE syllabus for a reason. English is a compulsory subject and these texts cater for all GCSE students – they are accessible, somewhat engaging and easy to follow (even to the students who dislike the subject). If anything, Gove should be seeking to implement and create a syllabus that combines a range of classics alongside global contemporary texts. An exclusively British literary experience has no pedagogic point and, in many aspects, is wrong.

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