Disagreeing with both sides – Mockingbird, Gove and the literary cannon

I have to make a confession, and I fear that my British readers are going to judge me harshly for it. It’s a stance that makes me wretchedly uncomfortable, but that I feel I must make. So here goes.

I don’t agree with a criticism of Michael Gove.

I'm as surprised as you are Michael.
I’m as surprised as you are Michael.


There. I’ve said it. Happy now? People are throwing stones at our much-maligned education secretary and I don’t agree with them.

But why?

The enemy of my enemy is not my friend

Lets be clear, I’m not saying that I agree with Gove. If we were to meet face to face we might just about agree on the benefits of breathing oxygen and not getting caught in bear traps. Except that we’d each wish that the other one was silenced by the trapper’s steel jaws.

When Gove says that the English curriculum should be about Shakespeare and Dickens I don’t agree, for the same reason that I don’t agree with his emphasis on dates and facts and British events in the history curriculum. I think it’s an old-fashioned, small-minded approach that limits pupils’ perspective, causes problems for teachers and misses many of the benefits of education.


The wrong fuss

Many people I respect, including the Interesting Literature blog, have leapt up to defend the books being abandoned under Gove’s reforms. They point out the merits of books like To Kill A Mockingbird, which are being lost to the generation of pupils about to be taught under the Gove curriculum. They want them to stay on the curriculum.

I don’t doubt for a minute that the books they’re defending are greats, and that many pupils would benefit from reading them, but I think that misses the point.

Like Gove, these critics are defending a literary cannon. They are implicitly saying ‘these books mattered to me, so everybody should read them’.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, I think that’s crap. That’s the same thinking that got Gove to where he is, and that got their beloved books taken off the curriculum.

Skills and emotions

Education isn’t about cramming kids’ heads full of facts. They don’t need that. They have the internet.

Nor is it any longer about access to the classics. You can get them from a library, a charity shop, an online e-book store. In the UK, even those without my privileged access to technology can get hold of these books cheaply and easily.

Education is about teaching skills and building passions. Lessons in literature should teach pupils how to engage with books in an excited, critical way. They should build their passion for reading. And both of those things will be better achieved by letting the teachers pick the books. That way they can find books that they and their pupils will get excited about.

A pupil who is given a story they like, who develops a passion for literature, may discover countless excellent books in life. One who has books that mean nothing to them crammed down their throat will be put off.

Everybody’s tastes are different. Not everyone is going to love Macbeth or Grapes Of Wrath. Yes, some pupils will be surprised to find they enjoy them. But many will be unsurprised to find that they don’t. The person who can best make that call, who understands the pupils in each class, is the trained expert in literature and education who’s in there with them. Not a politician, not a literary critic, not a blogger or an outraged reader signing a petition, but an individual teacher living at the chalkface.

By all means criticise Gove’s narrow curriculum, but don’t try to replace it with one of your own. Instead give teachers the freedom to do their jobs.