Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dropping American Texts Enrages Brits

A decision to drop classic American texts from British classrooms has critics and the Internet in an uproar. Education secretary, Michael Gove, has been taking serious heat for dropping To Kill A Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible and other works. From The Guardian:
Although a statement from the Department for Education insisted that it was not banning anything, Paul Dodd of OCR attributed the change directly to the education secretary. "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," he told the Sunday Times. 
Christopher Bigsby, professor of American studies at the University of East Anglia, and the biographer of Arthur Miller, said the "union jack of culture" was now fluttering over Gove's department.
"These works are to be rejected in the name of a more nationally centred syllabus, and this from a confessed admirer of rap. As the home secretary does her best to patrol our borders to keep out international students, who she regards as immigrants, so the GCSE syllabus is to be kept for the English for fear that Romanian novels might move in next door."
The move provoked a furious reaction on Twitter, with the hashtag Mockingbird trending. The actor Mark Gatiss, co-creator of the BBC drama Sherlock, tweeted: "Since when was the wretched Michael Gove allowed to dictate what children read? This man is a dangerous philistine."
In fairness, though, this is hardly book burning. No one is being prevented from reading those American classics. But is it really so heinous for a country to support its literature strongly? So shocking that there is a faction who want British kids to read British novels? There is way more great literature out there than can be assigned in a single academic lifetime. And how do you choose what should be included? Of all the ways that literature in education can be selected, this does not seem to me to be the worst.

It’s possible, though, that I’m in the minority as the outcry against dropping these American texts from British curriculum continues to grow and more than 50,000 names have already been collected in an online protest. From the petition page:
Michael Gove says he hasn't "banned" any books. But by telling teachers we have to teach Romantic Poets, a 19th century novel, a Shakespeare play and a British text, he is narrowing the curriculum and taking choice away from teachers. With all the other demands on us, it will be hard for any teacher to teach more than these set texts and we simply don’t believe these choices are the right ones for all students. We love literature and want to share that love. This syllabus risks building resentment and dislike of our literary heritage.
Even so, Gove does have some defenders, among them Alan Taylor who, in the Herald Scotland, writes:
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.
As soon as Taylor asks the question, he answers it.
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.



Blogger Sue Bursztynski said...

Speaking as someone who lives in a country where viewers are overwhelmed with American films and TV shows, often at the expense of local shows, I don't see anything wrong with having a minimum local content requirement. But insisting on removing classics like those mentioned to make room for ONLY local content is not the same thing at all. Especially when it's because some politician doesn't like a particular book. You can really overdo the patriotism thing. This world is big and linked more than it ever has been before. Anyway, that list of required local texts sounds very much like "dead white males" (with the occasional Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte to break it up).

Monday, July 7, 2014 at 8:52:00 PM PDT  

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