UK education revamp leaves US authors on the shelf

Michael Gove
In this Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010 file photo, Britain’s Education Secretary Michael Gove listens to applause after delivering a keynote speech at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham, England. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, file)

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s education minister says he has not killed a mockingbird, but many literature-lovers don’t believe him.
Michael Gove has outraged some readers and academics with his campaign to put the basics — and Britishness — back into schools.
Longtime American favorites including John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” are off the syllabus for a major high school English qualification under new guidelines that focus almost exclusively on writers from Britain and Ireland.
Some educators fear that could lead to the narrowing of British minds.
“The idea of cutting out American books because they are not British is crazy,” said John Carey, a literary critic and emeritus professor at Oxford University.
Exam boards in England and Wales — which set school syllabuses in line with government rules — on Friday finished releasing their new book lists for the English Literature GCSE, an exam taken by 16-year-olds after a two-year course of study.
Gone are Lee, Steinbeck, Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” and the autobiography of Maya Angelou, who died this week. Gone, too, are African and Asian writers including Haruki Murakami, Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.
The purge of Americans and others is the product — though not, the government says, the goal — of an attempt to make the school curriculum more rigorous. New government rules say GCSE pupils must study “high quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial” works, including a 19th-century novel, a selection of poetry, a play by William Shakespeare and post-1914 fiction or drama “from the British Isles.” (Previous rules mentioned “contemporary writers” without reference to nationality). A requirement to study authors from different cultures has been dropped.
Gove strongly denied that his goal was to banish non-British authors.
“I have not banned anything,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph. “All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden — not narrow — the books young people study for GCSE.”
The education department says the guidelines represent the minimum students are required to learn, and that those who read more widely — and internationally — will do better on the exams. It also says pupils are required to study “seminal world literature” — including American classics — between the ages of 11 and 14.
Critics of the new English rules say they will have a restrictive, rather than broadening, effect.
“Michael Gove wants everybody studying traditional literature, and he wants it to be British,” said Bethan Marshall, chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English. “I think that’s a bit of a mistake.”
This is not the first time Gove, who has been education secretary in Britain’s Conservative-led government since 2010, has faced strong opposition to his plans. His overhaul of primary education was called “neo-Victorian” by a Cambridge University professor, and his proposal to make history lessons more British in focus was condemned by many academics.
Some educators welcomed Gove’s attempts to raise standards. Jonathan Bate, an English professor at Oxford who advised on the latest curriculum changes, said he had been discouraged to discover that many pupils studied no British novels for their GCSE course.
“I think there are so many riches in the last century’s literature in these islands that all pupils should have some acquaintance with it,” Bate said.
The new book lists include a wide sample of modern British literature and drama, from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” to Kazuo Ishiguro’s” novel “Never Let Me Go,” Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys” and “Anita and Me,” a coming-of-age novel by comedian and author Meera Syal.
The 19th-century novels on offer include Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”
But debate on the changes has focused on the loss of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men,” which several generations of Britons remember — mostly fondly — from their schooldays.
Few commentators had anything negative to say about Lee’s beloved tale of a girl learning about racism and justice in the American South. Outraged fans of the book even got the hashtag “Mockingbird” trending on Twitter after Gove’s changes were announced.
Steinbeck’s novella about the friendship between two migrant workers during the Great Depression proved more divisive. Times newspaper columnist Janice Turner welcomed the removal of Steinbeck’s book, which she said was studied for all the wrong reasons — “because it is short, simple and has a didactic ‘message’: bullying is bad.”
Carey said he sympathized with Gove’s efforts to get students reading literary classics, but regretted the loss of the two American books.
“It’s true … ‘Of Mice and Men’ is set just because it’s short, but it is nonetheless a marvelous book for teaching,” Carey said. “It’s a wonderful book, deeply human. I think the same about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ — a book that can transform the way you think.”
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