Thursday, May 29, 2014

Killing the "Mockingbird": American literature and the British school syllabus

Michael Gove

How the British still love to worry over those upstart colonists and their wanton ways -- right to the classics of American literature.  Some self-appointed guardians of the culture, now with the power to decide and decree, want American writers and their books dropped from UK school exams for being "loaded" with ideas not relevant to British schoolchildren.

Michael Gove is a British Conservative Party politician and Britain's new Secretary of State for Education. He has suggested removing American classics from the curriculum: Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Arthur Miller's allegory of McCarthyism, The Crucible, are some of the works he wants dropped in favor of adding additional British authors writing before the 20th century. 

One Guardian UK columnist, in a comment piece titled "Michael Gove should not kill the Mockingbird," has written that focusing a reading syllabus on British writers "harks back to the myth of a 'pure' origin for English literature, uncontaminated by the unintended consequences of empire, and ignoring the multicultural, multilingual and multinational space that Britain is today. Gove and his colleagues at the Department for Education are fantasising about a nation unencumbered by racial or cultural difference, or calls for greater social and economic equality."

"To Kill a Mockingbird is arguably itself limited by the vision of a white liberal, but it tends to strike a chord with young people because its voice is faltering and uncertain and wide open to just the kind of debate that makes teaching literature about ethics and politics as much as it is about language and form."

Also at The Guardian, John Sutherland writes that while Gove's opinion may be honest, the Secretary's suggested list of authors ignores Scottish literature and calls his campaign to remove American literature "chauvinistic":

" ...Cynics will, of course, hear an echo of President Esposito in Woody Allen's Bananas. 'From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish.' From now on, decrees Michael Gove, the official literature of England will be English literature. 
Gove has harped on this chauvinistic string for some time now. As he told his party conference, on assuming office: 'The great tradition of our literature – Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy – should be at the heart of school life.' (His indifference to Scottish literature is odd for someone who went to an Aberdeen private school.) 
He has expressed a personal distaste for John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Some 90% of exam candidates answer on it, we're told. Gove clearly sees it as contaminated with the ideological prejudices of the left-leaning teaching profession. It's a novella set in a recession, about two migrants on zero-hours contracts. In short, it's a work of fiction propagandising for Roosevelt's New Deal and "social security" – those welfare dragons Iain Duncan Smith is endeavouring to slay. 
To Kill a Mockingbird, another title on the Gove blacklist, makes a collateral fictional push for the 1964 American civil rights bill. Arthur Miller's Crucible (it too will go) is an allegory about McCarthyism. These texts are, Gove thinks (quite rightly), loaded, and he doesn't think the ideological baggage they're carrying is entirely relevant for British schoolchildren. ..."

Here's Sutherland's list of ten American writers and their works that should be on the British syllabus. While his list is short on overt statements of American political ideology, it would be hard to argue against at least a classroom knowledge of these American writers and their creative history.

In the American Grain (William Carlos Williams)
Selected Poems (Anne Bradstreet)
Benito Cereno (Herman Melville)
Beloved (Toni Morrison)
Leaves of Grass (Walt Whitman)
Selected Poems (Emily Dickinson)
The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Edgar Allan Poe)
The Last of the Mohicans (James Fenimore Cooper)
Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller)
The Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger)

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