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Gove right to rein in American literature

MICHAEL Gove, alumnus of Aberdeen's Robert Gordon's College, has caused yet another glorious stushie.

Imperially in charge of education in England, he has let it be known that he wants to see fewer American novels on the English literature GSCE and more English ones. In particular, he wants to cull John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird. It has provoked the kind of unholy backlash that is usually reserved for those determined to wipe out seals and whales.

Among other things, the would-be serial killer stands accused, usually by academics with vested interests, of parochialism and philistinism. According to one hyperventilating professor of American studies, "the Union Jack of culture" is fluttering over "education central".

For what it's worth, I rather admire Mr Gove. Unlike so many of his colleagues, he has a quick wit and intellectual heft. He is, moreover, an admirable writer, as befits a former reporter on the Press and Journal. Nor has he made any bones about his love of books and literature.

Often, indeed, he gives the impression that he'd be far happier browsing in a second-hand bookshop than defending government policy on the Today programme. When he talks of "the great tradition of our literature" you can be sure he has read FR Leavis. Of course, he wants to put English literature at the forefront of the curriculum. Why would he not? But his critics remain unimpressed. Give children Dickens to read? What next? He'll be wanting to apprentice a new generation of chimney sweeps!

It is always heartening, however, to see people stand up for books they regard more fondly than members of their own family. Mr Gove, it's said, has a particular antipathy towards Of Mice and Men, which apparently was studied previously by 90 per cent of teenagers. This is a staggering figure and suggests that something has gone seriously awry. Not, by the way, that it's any different in the United States. One of Steinbeck's better novels (which is not saying a lot), it still sells, after more than six decades, tens of thousands of copies a year, largely to junior-high school students who're force fed it. Why? As Robert Gottlieb, erstwhile editor of The New Yorker, has said, "It's short, it's easy to follow, and it's full of feeling." It has also, he might have added, been filmed, which is always a handy teaching aid.

But what is this obsession with American literature? As one who reads it constantly, I nevertheless find it odd that educationists would rather drum it into young minds than that of their own culture. It goes without saying that no-one in their right mind would advocate children reading narrowly.

Readers don't think along nationalist lines. They want to rove without a compass, following whichever tracks take their fancy. The more they read, the better, be it Flaubert or Faulkner, Beckett or Bellow, Kafka or Flannery O'Connor. Indeed, I would argue that looking constantly westward has made us myopic. We need to read more of world literature and more in translation than in the past.

We need to open up minds rather than close them. Canons and syllabuses may have a practical, scholastic use but they are in essence locked rooms which deny access to other ways of seeing, other ways of imagining and telling stories.

As it is, teaching literature has become no more satisfying than droning on about dates and names. What new has any of us to say about Of Mice and Men? Or, come to think of it, Sunset Song? Coincidentally, the new Higher English syllabus will be launched in August. For the first time, and in the teeth of opposition from the usual girners and cringers, pupils ("learners" in the jargon) will be required to answer one question on one Scottish writer.

This is worth one-fifth of the available marks. Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, is to be congratulated for making this small but significant advance. It is a start and, one hopes, a statement of intent.

What is ultimately required, however, is a change of attitude so that future generations come to appreciate the literature of their own heath in the context of all literatures. For no-one writes in a vacuum and nor should anyone read in one.

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