To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book. It is one of many great books, and it happens to be written by an American. It is one of many great books written in the English language, and it happens to be written by an American, and it happens to be written by a woman. You see, great books are written in many languages, by writers male and female, of many nationalities. One of the key roles of teachers is to introduce young people to great books, at the appropriate times, and in accordance with their developing love of reading and awareness of the world. By now, I hope, you are all nodding in agreement.
So when an English Education Secretary says that young people are not reading enough, that they are not reading difficult enough books, and that he wants to make sure that they are reading ‘a wide range of texts’, what is there to disagree with? Well quite a lot , actually. Michael Gove’s announced changes to the literature requirement for GCSE English caused more than a little anger this week, with media channels, writers, bloggers and commentators rushing to proclaim that he had ‘banned’ American literature from English schools, including one or two which had become classroom staples for recent generations. (see To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men axed as Gove Orders More Brit Lit).
In reality, what he had actually done was to set out a minimum requirement for anyone studying GCSE Literature - a Shakespeare play; poetry from 1789, including the Romantics; a 19th-century novel; and some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1914, to be precise. Besides believing that this would provide a much-needed injection of his favourite ingredient, ‘rigour’, he further defended the changes by adding, “Beyond this, exam boards have the freedom to design specifications so that they are stretching and interesting (sic), and include any number of other texts from which teachers can then choose” and that teachers had welcomed a “specification that allows for Keats and Heaney, Shakespeare and Miller, the Brontes and Pinter.” (see Michael Gove Attacks ‘Fictitious’ Claims He Has Banned US Books From School).
The telling word in this statement is ‘allows’. Of course, the syllabus ‘allows’ for the reading and study of any other works of literature, but TIME doesn’t. In reality, overstretched teachers will stick to the texts which are guaranteed to come up in the exam, because they will ultimately be judged by their students’ results. I have written before about this effect (see Of Mice and Flies: Death by Examination), and how it leads to the demise of reading rather than its further development. Reading for pleasure and enlightenment gives way to learning how to write ‘critical’ essays and preparing for the test. Not that we in Scotland have anything to be complacent about here. Admittedly there are fewer restrictions on the choice of texts which young people can use in response to exam questions (see National 5 English Course Assessment Specifications) , but the introduction of a compulsory Scottish text in national courses recently was a mistake, and I say that as someone with a deep regard for Scottish culture and who has read, taught and enjoyed a considerable number of Scottish texts, both fiction and non-fiction. If this is indeed social engineering, as some would claim, then the fact that we are not quite in the Govean league of social engineering is nothing really to be proud of.
You see, there are two important principles at stake here. The first is that it is not the role of politicians to determine what young people read. If it was then we may as well make teachers redundant, send reading lists home to parents and their
kids, and let them get on with it. If Michael Gove had really wanted young people to read more widely, then what he should have done was to remove the specified texts completely from the exam requirements, then teachers (and students) would truly have to argue the merits of their chosen texts. Nor should it be the role of examination boards to determine what young people read. As I said earlier, that belongs to the trained professional, the teacher. And that is the second important principle.
“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Postscript: Michael Gove’s announcement had two immediate effects. Three of the four main examining bodies in England immediately removed the aforementioned American authors from their list of specified texts, and sales of To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon increased significantly.