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Primary Education News
News Michael Gove's monocultural version of the English literature curriculum | Lola Okolosie
Removing 'seminal world literature' as a compulsory element only serves to promote a nationalistic, ossified vision of England
Michael Gove and his education department are at it again. This time they are playing roughshod lord and master over the new GCSE English literature curriculum. It would seem that the bruising battle and inevitable defeat sustained over his changes to the history curriculum did not, sadly, result in combat fatigue. In what can only be described as the policy equivalent of a dawn raid, the coalition government have removed "seminal world literature" as a compulsory element. In doing so, they have given English teachers a short two-month window in which to register their disapproval. It appears, however, that unlike the national outcry over the changes to the history curriculum, in English, protest against the move boils down to words of condemnation rather than a co-ordinated action. The consultation process closes on Tuesday, 20 August.
Perhaps we shouldn't judge too hastily and rather view the excision as a sign of Gove's burgeoning forward-looking vision of English literature. In this alternative reality, the secretary of state for education is following a progressive argument that has long raged within English teacher circles; it is that by the very label "world literature", we are viewing it as a separate and distinct entity from the accepted canon. In reality, it goes, we should impart to our students a sense of all literature enabling the understanding of our commonality of experience and desire. The truth, however, is that we have a draft proposal so utterly prescriptive in terms of content that it leaves no room for such lofty interpretation.
Last year, the programme of study stated students should "increase the breadth of their reading through: at least one play by Shakespeare; a selection of representative Romantic poetry; at least one 19th-century novel; a selection of poetry since 1850; British fiction or drama since the first world war; seminal world literature written in English."
In the months that followed, the government seems to have scrapped its erstwhile syllabus and consulted key stakeholders on the content of GCSE English literature. Launched in June 2013, this latest document quietly omits as compulsory the study of world literature. Many teachers could be forgiven for expecting a sense of continuity across the secondary syllabus, as 11- to 14-year-olds will be expected to study literature from other cultures. Here I suspect Gove's team are anticipating a round of applause for relegating texts by authors such as Anita Desai, Chinua Achebe, and Harper Lee to younger year groups.
Stephen Twigg MP, Labour's shadow education secretary, describes the move as "mind boggling" and "out of date" and I would have to agree. There is much here to perplex the English classroom teacher. Where to begin? An arbitrary array of literature is given special dispensation from Gove et al, with three of the five areas of study centred on the 19th century. Why, as the NUT asks in the ongoing consultation, the Romantics in particular over and above all other poetic movements?
Why either postwar drama or fiction and not both, when it would seem that an overlap exists between the focus on Romantic poetry and a selection of poems from 1850 onwards? Why, oh why, the notion that "detailed study of a range of high quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial whole texts", cannot include literature in English from across the world? True literature, it would seem, was only really written during the 19th century by English people, for which read men. For Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT, the largest teachers' union, it demonstrates how Gove "has failed consistently to listen to the voices of teachers, parents, learners".
How best to take the document's laughable assertion that "through reading in particular, pupils have a chance to develop culturally, emotionally, spiritually and socially"? Which culture in particular do we want students to develop? The many questions suggest a patent lack of sense behind these proposals. What we have in its place are a set of ideological convictions that view the study of English literature as a means through which a nationalistic and ossified vision of England can be propagated.
Perhaps the opening line of LP Hartley's racy novel The Go-Between can provide some kind of defence for the removal of world literature from the curriculum. In it we are told "the past is a foreign country". If that is indeed the case, much of the cultural and social development Gove's proposal hopes for would be achieved with the narrow and prescriptive content outlined above. Yet, the country reflected back at us isn't one that mirrors the diversity and complexity of the world we now inhabit. Surely there should be room for both the old and new?
The canon has always been an ideological entity. Enforcing a monocultural and traditional view of it serves to demonstrate a set of political ideals that are well past their sell-by date. We should all let Gove in on this little secret, before it's too late.