What the Dickens Is Wrong with Teaching Children to Love ENGLISH Novels? as Right-On Teachers Whinge about Michael Gove Dropping American Books from Lessons

Daily Mail (London), May 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

What the Dickens Is Wrong with Teaching Children to Love ENGLISH Novels? as Right-On Teachers Whinge about Michael Gove Dropping American Books from Lessons


Byline: A.N. Wilson

THE Secretary of State for Education has come up with a revolutionary idea. An idea so revolutionary, in fact, that it has provoked 'fury', 'outrage' and 'dismay' among educationalists.

What is this dangerous new idea, which has left teachers' unions and teacher training establishments foaming at the mouth? Is he trying to reintroduce the cane? No. Is he trying to reduce teachers' salaries? No.

He has simply suggested that the English Literature syllabus taught in our schools should focus principally on, erm, English literature.

One of the largest examination boards, OCR, has confirmed this week that their syllabus will be changed. They have dropped as set texts two novels written by American authors: John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men and Harper Lee's Pulitzerprize-winner To Kill A Mockingbird. Out, too, goes New-York-born playwright Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

Since most of the educational liberal establishment appear to hate Mr Gove, it has not been difficult for news outlets to collect soundbites from professors and other worthies dismissing his taste as narrow, insular and boring.

A professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia has said 'the Union Jack of Culture' flutters over Mr Gove's department.

And on Radio 4's Today programme, right-on presenter Evan Davies jestingly tried to turn Mr Gove into the Nigel Farage of literature by saying that the Education Secretary was banning 'immigrant' literature.

But Mr Gove isn't trying to make our children's curriculum more narrow. Surely any fair-minded person who actually listened to what the Education Secretary was saying about this issue would conclude that, on the contrary, he was trying to liberate young readers from the straitjacket in which they have been stuck for the past few decades and to make them aware of the prodigious riches of their British heritage.

BUT by bravely sticking his head above the blackboard again and again, Michael Gove has become something of a lightning conductor for Left-wing hate.

Comedians on Radio 4 'comedy' show The News Quiz were greeted with roars of laughter when it was stated that Mr Gove was 'a foetus in a jar' who had a face that 'makes even the most pacifist of people reach for a shovel'.

Children's writer Michael Rosen attacks Mr Gove for every new policy announcement. I honestly believe that these Gove-haters would attack him if he simply said he wanted to raise levels of literacy and numeracy.

Though there are many areas of life where my sympathies are pro-Labour and against the Tories, when it comes to education, the truth is that the Gove-baiters are cynically playing politics with our children's chances of learning.

Would I say Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck or Harper Lee are bad writers? Not a bit of it. They are all excellent writers.

Atticus Finch, the hero of Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, is as fine and fiercely noble as any man could be. Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men is a neat parable about poverty, injustice, the cruelty of the mob -- but it is a slim 187 pages, written in deliberately plain, homespun prose.

And Miller, Steinbeck and Lee are all American. There is just something a bit odd, isn't there, about these three writers being, for very many British students, the only writers they ever study?

Is it asking too much that in the land that gave Charles Dickens birth, British children should be offered the chance to enjoy the wonderful treasure trove of his novels and Christmas stories? I am afraid, according to those who run the educational establishment, that it is asking too much.

Typical is Bethan Marshall, chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English, who has delivered the following judgment on Charles Dickens.

'Many teenagers will think that being made to read Dickens, aged 16, is just tedious. …

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