To Mock a Twitter Storm: Outrage as Something Changes
Is there a battlefield in education more disputed than the English syllabus? I thought that the recent War of the History National Curriculum had spilled as much blood in the mud of the Somme as soil and sod could soak. But the English syllabuses are more guarded, patrolled and contested than the borders of Gaza or Crimea. If history is a narrative created by its inheritors, then language is the arbiter and guardian of all culture and thought itself.
From the press last Sunday, you would have thought that Michael Gove had disinterred the coffin of John Steinbeck and played bongos on his skull. Social networks blazed with the fury of martyrs as it was revealed that To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men had been declared doubleplusungood. American classics were banned, to be replaced with racism and büggery. After all, without Atticus Finch to tell us otherwise, what was to stop children stitching Oswald Mosley aphorisms into their blazers?
Even from my position, I could see that the debate was raging like a fire in a petrol station, without direction or reason. Nothing had been banned. What had happened was that a syllabus had changed as syllabuses have changed for decades. The focus had moved from one archipelago of literary merit to another.
Who moved my cheese?
But instead of a sober shrug as teachers simply accepted that perhaps Of Mice and Men wasn't the sole vessel of human and literary wisdom and that other novels were available, a Mexican wave of ire smouldered, smoked and then went wild: Gove was banning books, was the consensus. Gove had personally intervened to drop Lee and Steinbeck. I even heard people claim that this was a "chilling first step towards totalitarianism, approved literature, and Newspeak".
It reminded me of whenever Facebook changes the position of the 'like' button and everyone freaks out and starts candle-lit vigils and protest pages – ironically, on Facebook – called "We like where the like is right now". I understand weary, cash-poor departments wondering if they have any Steinbeck compendiums sufficiently knob-free to sell on eBay.
But I can't understand the torrent of articles, blogs and tweets that suggested books that Gove should have actually prescribed instead, ignoring the irony that prescribing texts was exactly what they were getting their knickers in a twist over in the first place. Besides, isn't the whole idea of set text lists rather predicated on the idea of prescription? It seems that what people were upset about was the idea that Gove, the Great Beast, the Cthulhu of Sanctuary Buildings, had gotten his tentacles on the reading matter of children. But he hadn't set a single text.
It got even more mad: a group of protestors staged a sit in at Hydra HQ/ the DfE, reading Of Mice and Men before Gove and his Dementors undoubtedly rounded up the last few copies in the world, burned them in a Satanic Mass and pi$$ed on the ashes. 30,000 people signed a petition demanding that the books be reinstated. I mean, I really liked both books and I'd recommend them to anyone, but some people, it seemed, really, really liked those books – and never more so than after finding out they would no longer be on the set list for exam board GCSE, a list so small anyway that it excludes, well, just about every other book ever written, apart from a handful.
Gove took to the papers to dispute the idea that he didn't like the books, or that he had specifically named their expulsion; and what he did rail against was the idea that almost every student studying GCSE read Of Mice and Men (and only that) and perhaps that might be a somewhat limited horizon for students embarking on an A-level. A consultation process had been designed to permit discussion on this prior to publication, but few had contributed. Those who claimed they hadn't been asked personally seemed to miss the process by which consultations happen, and acted like the human race shortly before the Vogons demolished earth to build a bypass in The Hitchhiker's Guide (which is also non-canon PERSONALLY I AM DISGUSTED BY THE EXCLUSION OF THIS MODERN... etc, etc)
But it was an impossible task to overturn the lie that had raced half way around the world before the truth had put its boots on. People prefer a narrative that suits their worldview over a boring truth that doesn't. I checked legacy English specs over the last decade and found that specs and set lists had changed frequently, presumably to the surprise of no one. But Gove occupies such a pantomime villain role in the minds of so many that it would be impossible for them to imagine any action originating from him that was benign or neutral. And the shame of it is that so many people even blame him for this.
By all means, pin pictures of the Gentleman Rapper's face to dart boards; build plasticine effigies and harrow them with voodoo nails. But changing an English spec isn't the opening bars of Kristallnacht. There are other media capable of raising and exorcising the wraiths of racism, as if the English GCSE were some kind of inoculation against cruelty and intolerance.
And what happened in the end? The exam boards published, and to the surprise and dismay of some, the Flashman novels of George MacDonald Fraser were inexplicably, non-canon; no child would be chip-and-pinned with a prayer to Gloriana. In fact, it was all a bit of a non-event: a bit of Conan Doyle, some Stevenson, Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro's laugh-free dystopian romp about child murder and organ harvesting, the usual. Tennyson. Alan Bennett. Something, I'm guessing, for everyone. Of course, not everyone gets their pet poem or novel included, but so what? You don't hear me gurgling because future generations won't be forced to read Beowulf (written by a foreigner, no less), Paradise Lost or anything by Raymond Chandler, my favourites.
Of course the argument goes that schools will only teach core texts, anxious of grade supremacy. But that, I'm going to suggest, is a matter for schools themselves. I went to an average comp where we studied Tess of the D'Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge for our O-grades, and my English teacher gave me a copy of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady to read outside of the syllabus, presumably because he hated me, as I certainly do James. A core is just that, a core. I teach RE, and once I've collected all my syllabus coupons, I go beyond as much as I can: Wicca, Rastafarianism, Shintoism, etc. I also do the same in my philosophy A-level, depending on each student's capacity. Some kids can handle it, some kids need it like breathing.
But then, when it comes to edu-reporting, it's always silly season. A few weeks ago I read that Russell Brand was going on the A-level syllabus. So far, no sign of the priapic narcissist, thank the Seven Gods. This week, I read that "research" from the OUP shows that consumption of contemporary media (like Despicable Me) enhanced children's vocabularies because they now used words like 'minion' more.
FML, seriously. This, from a sample of children who had contributed to a creative writing competition, and I'm thinking that just maybe the methodology is a bit skewed before we even get started, but there we go. Someone, somewhere will use this "research" to justify teaching English through the medium of Happy Feet or The Clangers or some damn thing. When it comes to breaking news in education, it's wise to count to ten before saying anything.
Next week: reading my blogs will help you meet HOT SINGLES IN YOUR AREA and ADD INCHES INSTANTLY.