Alex Massie

Michael Gove hasn’t banned Steinbeck - but perhaps he should have.

Michael Gove hasn't banned Steinbeck - but perhaps he should have.
Text settings

I've never quite understood why so many people hate Michael Gove. I mean, really hate him. To my mind his heart is so obviously in the right place that I'm happy to forgive him his occasional excesses. It may not quite be the case that anyone who so thoroughly upsets the teaching establishment must be doing something right but it is very plainly something more likely to be right than wrong.

Which, I suppose, means I do understand why so many people hate the Education Secretary. As the left often reminds us (albeit usually tediously) speaking truth to power is rarely popular.

But no, Michael Gove has not banned  the teaching of To Kill A Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men. Nor has he suggested the English literature GCSE begin with Shakespeare and end with Milton. The whole stramash over changes to the curriculum has, as Martha Gill says, been a triumph of mendacious idiocy.

It kinda makes me wish Gove had binned Steinbeck and Lee. Not because they're bad books (they're not, though nor are they the last word in literature) but because they're just far too familiar.

Not to pupils but to their teachers.

It seems quite remarkable that nearly 70 per cent of children sitting the AQA English literature GCSE should be taught the same novel. And even more remarkable that this should be the only novel they have to read for their GCSE. And yet that appears to be the case: 70 per cent of these pupils read Of Mice and Men. The same pattern apparently holds for courses set by other exam boards.

In which circumstances is broadening the curriculum really such a bad thing? I doubt it. If anything it is an overdue measure. Not least because the teaching profession appears to be soaked in Groupthink. What else could explain why a handful of middlebrow texts appear to have assumed sainted, iconic status?

It is obviously true that not every 15 or 16 year old will leap at the chance to read Bleak House. But then they won't all relish reading Steinbeck either. Apparently asking children to read something written before 1900 will "grind them down" and "put them off" the idea of studying English at A-Level.

Jesus wept. I suppose we should not be surprised that  Bethan Marshall, chairwoman of the National Association for the Teaching of English, thinks children will find it "tedious" to be asked to read a broader range of books but I fancy she may really mean teachers might find preparing materials for a new curriculum seriously tedious.

Because that's the issue. There's an excellent argument to be made for changing large parts of the curriculum every five years, not least because doing so would keep teachers lively. Familiarity breeds staleness which spawns bad teaching. It encourages a get-by by going-through-the-motions approach to teaching.

Of course that's unfair on many, even most, teachers. But even the best need refreshing from time to time. But if English literature (or history!) is ever tedious it's probably because it's not being taught well. Certainly not well enough. It is, after all, a subject that's largely about telling stories and if children find that dull then, again, it may be because they are not being taught well enough.

Sure, tastes and abilities vary. Paradise Lost is not for everyone but if we shy away from teaching children indisputably great works because they might be difficult then we're cheating the kids. We're saying they can't be expected to handle, far less enjoy, complexity. Just as importantly we're saying that we don't think our teachers are up to it. (Granted, this is the implied message given by many teaching unions.)

Perhaps they're not. In which case let's find some new teachers. Ones who think there's more to literature than Of Mice and Men and more to teaching than going through the motions.

It's a big library out there; explore it.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.