I suppose I should be grateful that the liberal intelligentsia doesn’t bother to check any of the facts if an opportunity presents itself to attack Michael Gove. They have a fixed idea about him, which is that he’s a Tory philistine who wants to turn the clock back to the 1950s, and they leap on any story that confirms that view, regardless of how far-fetched it is. The reason I’m grateful is because it enables me to scratch out a living putting the record straight.
Last November, Polly Toynbee wrote a column in the Guardian claiming that Gove intended to strip English literature from the national curriculum, an act of cultural vandalism she compared to ethnic cleansing. Why had he perpetrated this terrible crime? Because he doesn’t want children to use their imaginations, of course. ‘Literature is to become an optional extra, and probably not a highly regarded one, for fear it might let the imagination roam dangerously free,’ she wrote.
Complete balls, obviously. In the national curriculum being introduced in September, all children are required to read two Shakespeare plays between the ages of 11 and 14, compared with just one at the moment. Far from being an ‘optional extra’, literature is something all children will be expected to study as part of the new English Baccalaureate. At present, almost a third of pupils don’t study any literature between the ages of 14 and 16. But more will next year, thanks to the changes Gove has made to league tables that give extra weight to GCSEs in English literature.
It wasn’t just Polly Toynbee who failed to understand this reform. Various liberal grandees signed a letter to the Sunday Times decrying the Education Secretary’s mindless attack on literature, including Michael Morpurgo, A.C. Grayling, Robert Harris, Michael Rosen and Miriam Margolyes.
Now those same defenders of our literary heritage are up in arms again, this time because Gove has ‘banned’ two seminal liberal texts from the GCSE English literature syllabus – To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. Apparently, he’s insisting that children should only be allowed to read novels written by trueborn Englishmen, preferably Tories.
‘These works are to be rejected in the name of a more nationally centred syllabus, and this from a confessed admirer of rap,’ harrumphed Christopher Bigsby, a professor of American studies at the University of East Anglia. ‘As the Home Secretary does her best to patrol our borders to keep out international students, who she regards as immigrants, so the GCSE syllabus is to be kept for the English for fear that Romanian novels might move in next door.’
In fact, To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men haven’t been ‘banned’. The new syllabus allows pupils to roam more widely, not stipulating books they must study as part of GCSE courses. The reason for the misunderstanding is because the texts have to include one Shakespeare play, some Romantic poetry, a 19th-century novel and some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1918. Beyond this, they can immerse themselves in any literary work — even Christopher Bigsby’s 739-page biography of Arthur Miller, which I had the misfortune to review.
One is tempted to say to these men and women of letters: make up your minds. Either Gove has made Eng lit an optional extra, or he is insisting that all pupils study William Wordsworth and Charles Dickens in preference to Harper Lee and John Steinbeck. But he can’t logically be doing both.
But logic doesn’t enter into it. They’ve cast Gove as a right-wing bogeyman — a cross between Thomas Gradgrind and Slobodan Milosevic — and nothing can disabuse them. He could fly to Nigeria tomorrow and single-handedly save the 300 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram, and the next day a letter would appear in the Guardian signed by Rosen, Morpurgo and Grayling, accusing him of ‘Islamophobia’: ‘Doesn’t the Education Secretary realise that such acts contribute to a sexist, imperialist narrative in which only a white male authority is capable of “saving” innocent children from so-called “terrorists”?’
The irony is that these left-wing firebrands, so determined to uphold liberal values, are guilty of dehumanising Gove — of turning him into a cardboard cut-out villain — in order to buttress their sense of identity. Perhaps it’s time they re-read To Kill a Mockingbird themselves.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.