‘Spreading privilege’: Why Gove is taking us back in time

25 May


The internet is abuzz this morning with news that Michael Gove is set to remove popular U.S. texts such as ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘The Crucible’ from Britain’s GCSE English Literature syllabus. To those of us who have been following developments in English closely, this comes as no surprise. Last year I submitted an essay for my M.A. on this very topic: to what extent does the Government’s current ideology of the literature curriculum seek to impose an ‘official culture’? I offer here a highly edited version, which I feel is pertinent to today’s debate. In a nutshell: it’s all about official culture, and that culture does not belong to the ordinary people.

Promethean Chains

The warning signs were there back in 2010, when Gove gave a speech at the Conservative conference promising ‘a new deal for teachers’. As in many of his announcements, English played a key role. He stated that:

‘the great tradition of our literature – Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy – should be at the heart of school life. Our literature is the best in the world – it is every child’s birthright and we should be proud to teach it in every school.’

Now we have confirmation from the exam boards that 70-80% of the books on the revamped GCSE spec will be ‘from the English canon’.

The idea of a ‘canon’ is hugely problematic in itself and has been the subject of much controversy over the years. Gove’s particular iteration of it is even more debatable. His language shows his strong belief that older is better: ‘great tradition’ for him means older than twentieth century, as is clear in his list of authors – a strange mix of poets and novelists covering an extremely limited range. His emotive statement that these works should be ‘at the heart of school life’ suggests that not only are such works deserving of love or even passion, but widens their impact from just English to ‘life’ itself. Literature is something vital – but only the right sort.

Gove’s views remind me of Cameron’s bold 2012 mission statement: ‘I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it’.  This rather oxymoronic idea seems to make little sense, but when we link it to his statements on education, perhaps we can begin to pick it apart:

‘Aspiration is the engine of progress. Countries rise when they allow their people to rise… Line one, rule one of being a Conservative is that it’s not where you’ve come from that counts, it’s where you’re going… And to all those people who say: he wants children to have the kind of education he had at his posh school …I say: yes – you’re absolutely right. I went to a great school and I want every child to have a great education.’

With this in mind, ‘spreading privilege’ seems to mean spreading ‘aspiration’ (to higher status? Higher class?), enabling the lower echelons of society to elevate themselves. However, the means to achieve this seem to be not through the mechanisms and values of their own class, but through an acceptance of and indoctrination in those of the middle and upper classes. This is perhaps demonstrated through his acknowledgement that he would like every school to be an ‘independent school, in the state sector’, implying that he wishes to impose his own, upper class (thus, ‘better’) experience on the masses.

In light of Cameron’s words, Gove’s ideas seem to fit neatly into this patronising Conservative principle. Another speech of Gove’s, to Cambridge University in November 2011, goes even further in equating the adoption of a more demanding (in his view) curriculum to a fight against the ‘Promethean…chains of low expectation’ which hold back the ‘public’ – equated here with the ‘labourers’ addressed by Gladstone in 1879, making the class distinction clear, though not stated aloud. What seems clear is the link between class and culture. Gove arguably feels that by not concentrating on his preferred, privileged, traditional authors, we are somehow preventing working class children from achieving their potential and thus casting off the ‘chains’ that keep them at the lower end of society.

A British Curriculum for British Children

A further intriguing, yet troubling, aspect of Gove’s speeches is a focus on Britishness. Gove considers his canon the ‘best’ kind of literature and our ‘birthright’. This problematic statement is puzzling in several senses: Swift was born in Dublin, for a start, and it is arguably difficult to bestow a birthright on the large numbers of students in British schools who were not born in this country. It’s also uncomfortably nationalistic, chiming with Gove’s focus on ‘one of the most inspiring stories I know – the history of our United Kingdom’. Clearly, an emphasis is placed on the study of British culture, which is placed on a pedestal above the literature and history of other countries. We might link this mindset to the new teaching standards (2012), which ask teachers to uphold ‘fundamental British values’ – whatever those are.

This imposition of a nationalistic, middle/upper class ‘culture’ is nothing new. In fact, it points clearly to the regressiveness of Conservative educational ideology.

Timewarp Politics

Back in Victorian times, English wasn’t considered to be a very important subject. People studied Classical languages, which were preferred because there was a simple right or wrong answer when declining Latin verbs. Then Darwin rocked the boat by undermining the Church and suddenly there was a panic – what if everybody just started doing whatever they wanted?! Educators began to look to English Literature to save our souls. Arnold, for example, argued for the diffusion of ‘the best knowledge’ in order to make ‘the reason and will of God prevail’. Of course, Arnold hoped for a classless society in which people were united in their ‘humanity’, unlike the spreading privilege idea which enshrines hierarchy. Nevertheless, the idea that the right kind of literature can be used to strengthen the ‘principle of authority’ is something that Gove seems to agree with.

Gove’s ideas also seem to fit with those of the 1930s and the ‘Cambridge School’ – the followers of critic F.R. Leavis. This group, in response to uncertain times (the rise of fascism, for example) and the explosion of mass media, felt that a cultural elite should be maintained. Only certain authors were deemed worthy of exploration: Austen, Eliot, James, Conrad and a later, begrudging acceptance of Dickens. This is a similar selection to Gove’s, whose emphasis on ‘Austen’s understanding of personal morality, Dickens’ righteous indignation [and] Hardy’s stern pagan virtue’ also suggests a shared preoccupation with the ‘values’ transmitted by literature.

Of course, this view also maintains a rigid hierarchy, which just happens to have the critics, or Gove, at the top – see his ability to remove from the spec a text he simply ‘dislikes’. Mass or low entertainment is seen as something corrupting and inherently worthless, but in addition, any work that might challenge the status quo can be swiftly excised.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is this: having a narrow, pre-20th century, British (or English!) only literature curriculum is simply not fit for purpose in modern education. Nobody is saying we should never study Austen or Dickens. They have written some brilliant books – whether you subscribe to the idea that books have a moral value or whether you just see them as entertainment. In my own teaching I have found that students from all kinds of backgrounds can access and enjoy these texts.

But what kind of message are we sending when we say that these authors are the only ones worthy of study? Firstly, the idea that anything written after 1900 isn’t worthy is frankly laughable. How long do we need to wait before Huxley, Orwell or Priestley are rubber-stamped by the Government?

Then we come back to the idea of nationalism. For the first couple of years of my teaching career, I was working in a school where white British children were only 10% of the school population. My Jamaican, Polish, Afghan, Pakistani and Somali students won’t see themselves represented in the literature we’ll be studying. Okay, we are not going to be able to cover every single background or ethnicity in the texts we read. But how can we talk about the idea of ‘birthright’ in such an uncomplicated way? Not to mention the idea that this ignores world literature, much of which, we must remember, is written in English – shockingly, some of it by brown people. Does a text have to be written on British soil for it to possess value? Does Atticus Finch not convey enough ‘personal morality’ or the treatment of Lennie Small not ‘have something rich to teach us’ because they are not British?

Furthermore, the assignment of privilege to a small collection of texts potentially devalues the reading that children do every day, which may take many different forms. Take, for example, a modern children’s novel such as ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ by Patrick Ness, which deals with themes of friendship, gender, war and genocide, as well as presenting a compellingly drawn world. There is plenty there for children to engage with, including moral issues if you really must insist on that. Moreover, these kinds of texts, without the sense of sanctity surrounding them, perhaps give children greater room to bring their own judgements and opinions to the table. It is hard enough to get many children these days to even pick up a book, without telling them their own choices aren’t good enough.

Ultimately, by discrediting popular, recent and atypical literature, we also devalue everything our children produce. We arguably send a message that their voice is not as important as the voice of an author deemed great – that their work, no matter how moving, creative or, if you must, morally improving, will never become part of the rich tapestry of literary culture. This is not just damaging for the female, black or gay child who may feel alienated from this form of expression. This is not just damaging for every child who sees themselves as distant and separate from literature. This is damaging to literature itself.

We need to find a middle ground – one which keeps the classroom open to all kinds of texts, both traditional and modern. One which allows us to choose the best text for our students on many levels, whether that’s its values, its structure, its language or even just because it is a gripping read – or even take into account the views of students themselves. Give up your total control, Mr. Gove, and let us take the study of literature into the modern era rather than dragging us back into the past.




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