In a peculiar display of cultural xenophobia, Michael Gove, education minister in the UK government, has banned American classics from the school exams syllabus. For many years Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird have been set texts for students taking English Literature as a subject. His highly personal decision, (he is said to particularly despise Of Mice and Men,) has sparked off a storm of protest.
Twitter has been trending with defenders of these two iconic books. The Arthur Miller play The Crucible, is also struck off the list. From next year, the focus is back on the British canon with the required reading being a novel pre-dating the twentieth century by a British author such as Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, a romantic poem, and a play by Shakespeare. All exam boards will have to follow these guidelines. One tweeter sagely remarked that Michael Gove might have done well to read To Kill a Mockingbird himself. He then could have taken Atticus’ advice that it was polite to talk to others about what they were interested in. His educational ideas are highly personal and widely thought to be reactionary. Some say they take British education right back to the 1940s.
Bethan Marshall, who chairs the National Association for Teaching of English, expressed her fears that children would be ground down by being forced to read Dickens, and that it would put them off further study at a higher level. She fears that the “tedious” curriculum will be “incredibly depressing” for schools when they see it. The Department of Education retaliated by stating they are putting the focus back on “tradition.”
The professor of American studies at the University of East Anglia compared the move to the effort to tighten immigration control at the country’s borders. Christopher Bigsby said it was an attempt to stop “Romanian novels moving in next door.” Actor Mark Gatiss, the creator of BBC’s Sherlock series, wrote about Gove, saying “This man is a philistine.” Gatiss wondered what gave “the wretched” Gove the right to decide what children should and should not read.
Bigsby went on to analyze the banned books and question their value. He notes the core messages in each. The Crucible is all about a man who has the bravery to oppose those in power, To Kill a Mockingbird deals with racial prejudice and justice and Of Mice and Men commiserates with the poor and illiterate. They are all about empathy, understanding, and the bigger human picture. Any multi-cultural country would wish to encourage a wider world vision by sharing such stories outside of the known.
Gove’s idealistic view of teenage reading matter had him telling an independent schools conference last year that he would much prefer to find one reading Middlemarch by George Eliot than one of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Literacy advocates have long upheld that it does not matter what children read, as long as they find something they enjoy reading. Harry Potter alone is credited with bringing millions of hitherto book-averse kids to a love of literature. Gove though, finds it “incredibly disappointing” that 90 percent of all students of English in England were studying Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men.
Dame Helen Mirren recently said that no child under 15 should be allowed to read Shakespeare as it was her firm belief that any first experience of the Bard should occur in the theatre at a production. Her ideal age for this to happen was 13 or 14. Her own first taste of Shakespeare was a performance of Hamlet when she was fifteen years old and she was electrified. She made these remarks on the 450th anniversary of his death this year on April 23.
Another British theatrical great, the playwright Alan Bennett, also said recently that his preference was for American writers, and that he did not find anything in contemporary British writing that spoke to him. His favorite author was Philip Roth, who has not appeared on exam curriculums for this age group, nevertheless, he made a strong case for the eminence of American writing.
Clearly these luminaries are at odds with Mr Gove, education minister, who seeks to inflict analysis of Shakespearian text upon reluctant teens and to ban them from experiencing the great writers from across the Atlantic.What experience does he possess to make him right, and them wrong? He read English Literature at Oxford and was a Times journalist before entering politics.
One might be inclined to assume that this man has no children of his own, and speaks from a vacuum, but in fact he is a father. His children are aged 11 and 9 and his wife, Sarah Vine, told an audience last week that she had seriously considered sending them abroad to live. This would be to shield them from the hatred they see directed toward their father. Her own mother lives in Italy and she had thought of sending them there. She later retracted the idea, saying they were not “shrinking violets” and that this would “toughen them up” but she did think there “would be payback.” She said she received a lot of emails from people “who really, really hate Michael.”
Harper Lee, speaking through her character, Miss Maudie, said it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. Mockingbirds only make music for folks to enjoy. All great writing, including the Pulitzer prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, is music for all readers to enjoy. By banning it from British schoolchildren’s awareness, Michael Gove is determined to kill the mockingbird.
By Kate Henderson