Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Imperial Preference

Michael Gove's educational policy of "Buy British" continues to wind-up liberals, as he fully intended. The consequence of his changes to the English Literature curriculum may well be to demote such works as The Crucible, Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, but it is a prodigious leap to interpret this as a "ban", let alone assume it reflects a lack of tolerance. You might as well suggest that his antipathy to Arthur Miller's play derives from a secret sympathy for the devil. Of course, only a cynic would suggest that the "ban" story (or "rogue meme" as Gove put it) was intended to set up a strawman for the Education Secretary to demolish.

On the right, the three American works are casually assumed to be icons of progressive cant: anti-McCarthyism, the inhumanity of the Depression and racial injustice. In fact, The Crucible can just as easily be read as a critique of Stalin's show trials and praise for all-American personal liberty and defiance of the state (more High Noon than Atlas Shrugged, admittedly). Of Mice and Men centres on the dream of property ownership rather than revolution, and is casually misogynistic. To Kill a Mockingbird is a conservative lament for lost courtesy and Christian ethics, in which both blacks and poor whites are seen as crippled and half-formed. It ends with the forces of law and order and liberal conscience conspiring to cover-up an extra-judicial killing.

Instead, says Gove, schoolkids in the UK should study: "at least one play by Shakespeare; at least one 19th century novel; a selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry; and fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards". The objection to this is not so much that it is prescriptive, but that the canon is little more than a genuflection to "heritage". A braver policy would have been to ditch Shakespeare altogether, much as his sonnets and his contemporaries have been marginalised from poetry. The pre-eminence of the Romantics is the critical equivalent of buying a Lakeland tea-towel. The final prescription, which has triggered the fear of an American cull, is Gove's standard chauvinism. He is not advocating a ban on non-British fiction of the twentieth century, but instead arguing for a quota in favour of domestic producers. This is a protectionist policy of which the French would be proud.

Unless you believe that twentieth century British literature was technically superior to that of other anglophone countries, or that British themes have a greater didactic value, this preference is unnecessarily parochial, which sits oddly with the oft-claimed need for British students to compete in the "global race". The Labour spokesbot was on-message in emphasising the instrumentality of the subject: "His vision is backward-looking and preventing the rich, broad and balanced curriculum we need in our schools if our children are to succeed in the future economy." The risk of a "trade war" is slight. The US is unlikely to deny its students the opportunity to study Shakespeare because he was born in the Midlands rather than the Mid-West.

The expectation is that Gove's diktat will lead to more Dickens and Austen, who are seen on the left as suspiciously conservative and thus tedious and hard-going to modern minds, which is ironic given that few criticise the choice of Shakespeare. The better reason for avoiding them at GCSE is that you need a few years under your belt to fully appreciate them. Dickens's best work deals ambivalently with experience and memory (thus Great Expectations is better than David Copperfield), and a recurrent motif is regret. Austen's work is poised on the cusp between the realisation of dreams and resignation to fate, which gives psychological depth to her ironic treatment of wealth and its corruptions. You're not going to get a lot of this at 15.

The appearance of the story is not wholly accidental, coming on the back of disappointing election results. Assuming UKIP are on course to cause more damage to the Tories than Labour in 2015, Cameron's failure to win an outright majority in two elections will surely lead to a leadership contest. Gove has spent years positioning himself as an anti-elitist patriot for just such an eventuality, and his changes to the curriculum, History in particular, have played a key part in this. Though a graduate of English, he is happy to encourage anti-intellectualism (directed at "lefty academics") and the John Bull school of literary criticism. What's depressing is the unthinking eagerness of his critics to commodify literature and play the role of free-traders in opposition to his campaign for imperial preference. The one consolation is that Henry James will not be forced on our poor schoolkids.

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