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The British Government Axes American Novels

This sucks if you’re a book nerd who lives in the U.K.

According to USA Today, the list of books U.K. students read for national exams will begin to focus more on titles from British authors, meaning classics like The Crucible, Of Mice and Men, and To Kill A Mockingbird will no longer be required reading in British schools.

Education Secretary Michael Gove led the charge on this decision.

The Sunday Times put it this way:

Three-quarters of the books on the government-directed GCSEs, which will be unveiled this week, are by British authors and most are pre-20th century.

“Of Mice and Men, which Michael Gove really dislikes, will not be included. It was studied by 90% of teenagers taking English literature GCSE in the past,” said OCR, one of Britain’s biggest exam boards. “Michael Gove said that was a really disappointing statistic.”

This reminds me a lot of the Common Core reading requirements here in the U.S. that we discussed on this blog a while back—and, by the way, I still don’t fully understand Common Core.

Anyway, would love some input from those of you who live in England. Are you cool with this decision? Is there another side to this story?

More on the decision here. 

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29 Comments Post a comment
  1. So odd to me. Why geographic boundaries have anything to do with good writing baffles me

    >

    Like

    June 4, 2014
  2. Michael Gove is doing nothing but bad things for the UK education system, and it’s affected everyone from 4 years old to university level (not to mention teachers and schools themselves). Personally I disagree with all his policies!

    Like

    June 4, 2014
    • Sounds like he has an axe to grind for some reason. So weird.

      Like

      June 4, 2014
  3. I hate Gove with a passion as the man is an idiot and is doing more harm then good with his reforms for education. The qualification is called GCSE English not GCSE British Victorian authors so why he’s got a bee in his bonnet about non-British authors being on the reading list I dont know as there’s still plenty of Shakespeare etc.

    Like

    June 4, 2014
    • Wow. Sounds like there’s more disdain for Gove than I realized.

      Like

      June 4, 2014
  4. I wrote about this on my blog (hope you don’t consider the link self promoting spam – the Gove bit is in the second half of the post for the time pressed). The man infuriates me. His response to the furore this created was that he was being attacked by ‘culture warriors on twitter’. I would have thought that the government minister in charge of education should be aspiring to be a culture warrior himself. http://neverimitate.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/mr-gove-needs-to-read-more-books/

    Like

    June 4, 2014
    • Thanks for sharing. It’s a relevant post.

      Like

      June 4, 2014
  5. Not allowing students to study this book is criminal. If all for kids reading Shakespeare, but to stop students from reading a great work of fiction (that is relatable and relevant), on this basis that it is a foreign book, is utter stupidity.

    Like

    June 4, 2014
  6. I’m British and I’m not a fan of Michael Gove either.

    I was outraged to hear about these reforms when I read about them in the paper a few days ago but there is another side to the story which I actually do agree with. I read a very interesting column discussing the GCSE literature reforms in The Guardian on Saturday. I read the column in the print edition but I found it online. You can access it here.

    Instead of dictating what students must study, Jonathan Bate (the guy who wrote that column and who proposed the reforms) thinks that we should “abandon the notion of set texts altogether, and let teachers tailor their choices to the particular circumstances of each class”.

    I agree wholeheartedly with that. From my own experience, I went through the GCSE and A Level system relatively recently (I’m now at university) and literature was a subject I studied at both GCSE and A Level. The GCSE choices are quite restrictive and do not allow students a lot of leeway to follow their own reading interests, whereas at A Level (the next step up from GCSE) you get a lot more choice. I have always loved reading and literature but there are lots of high school students (or secondary school, as we usually say in England) out there who struggle with reading. Surely widening their choice of books to study can only be a good thing?

    Re: the whole English vs. American literature debate. I agree that it shouldn’t be a question of geographic borders but according to Bate: “In recent years, [he has] been increasingly alarmed at how many [school students] have not read a single work of English literature written before 1900, apart from Shakespeare”.

    There is great literature all over the world: English, American, Russian, South American….. And that is precisely why I agree with the idea of scrapping rigid rules for set texts and encouraging more diversity in the GCSE literature syllabus.

    I am interested to hear what you and 101 Books readers think about this other side to the debate.

    Like

    June 4, 2014
    • I have been following this with interest and read the article you refer to. My view, and that of teacher friends who have commented, is that it is an impractical ideal. In the teaching time available there is little scope for tailoring; lesson plans are prepared and approved in advance and require a LOT of work. Good texts, carefully chosen by educators who know what it is like at the coal face, enable good lessons. Gove is a twat and has already caused huge damage to teacher morale with his ever changing, ill though through ideals.

      Like

      June 4, 2014
    • It also leaves the door open for schools to scupper their students’ educations with some misplaced texts. A white teacher might not see the damage they are doing to a class made up of largely BME students by not including works that are relevant to them, or just include BME characters out of tokenism. It puts a lot of pressure on the teacher- most, I imagine, would simply use the set texts they had used in previous years.

      Like

      June 5, 2014
  7. It’s a little more complicated in theory – the idea is that this will encourage more teenagers to have an appreciation of their heritage – but it doesn’t seem to be that way in practice.

    Gove had a similar philosophy with the history curriculum. Essentially his argument was that the curriculum focused too much on the wider world picture at the expense of students learning about their own heritage. He might have had a case here – I can remember learning a fair bit about the ancient Egyptians, Romans, French Revolution among others, but I can’t remember learning much about the Victorian and Georgian eras at school – both key historic eras. I also spent a fair bit of time on ‘international’ subjects like the world wars.

    Having said that, I definitely had whole terms (semesters?) of history classes focusing on William the Conqueror; the Tudors; the English Civil War – it’s difficult to say for certain what the ‘right’ balance between the two is.

    Earlier this year, Gove was critical of the negativity in teaching World War One, wanting more of a focus on the heroism – which seems naive to the extent of totally missing the point. He’s even accused Blackadder Goes Forth – a classic British sitcom set in WW1 – of being liberal propaganda.

    I have read the argument that the fact the ‘injustice’ texts in the English curriculum tend to be American (e.g. Mockingbird) can lead students to think of injustice as being something that happened in America, and a British alternative, something like Oliver Twist maybe, could encourage students to see the dark patches in our own past.

    There’s been a lot of coverage of the story, but that’s the first I’ve heard that Gove actively dislikes Mockingbird. Given that the policy fits into his wider approach, I’m pretty sure that’s an incidental detail.

    Long story short, there may be something to the idea, but very few people, except dyed in the wool Tories, trust Gove to carry it out properly.

    Like

    June 4, 2014
  8. I don’t know why they don’t love our books. We sure fawn over everything their royalty does.

    Like

    June 4, 2014
  9. Emily #

    I think we should be teaching not only American and British literature but literature from all over the world. Singling in on one country does not teach perspective at all. They should not be reducing but expanding.

    Like

    June 4, 2014
  10. I think it only applies in England and Wales and not Scotland, which has it’s own education system.

    Being Scottish, and having been educated in Scottish schools, we had to read Scottish authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, Neil M Gunn, Robert Burns etc.

    But we also studied English and American authors, although Shakespeare and Walter Scott I found very difficult to understand.

    I think it is irrelevant the nationality of the author – it’s the content which matters. Regarding Harper Lee’s book, when we did it at school it taught us about racial discrimination which was not something we had in the UK in the 20th century. It’s a very good book.

    It’s ironic that British author Lee Child writes book with an American hero and an American way of writing. If you did not know any better you would think Lee child was American!

    Like

    June 4, 2014
    • “it taught us about racial discrimination which was not something we had in the UK in the 20th century” – yes, we absolutely did! In the 1940s and ’50s, many boarding houses used to have signs in the windows saying “No Dogs, No Irish, No Blacks”. And after World War II when many Caribbean immigrants arrived in London, they faced a lot of racial prejudice.

      Racial discrimination continues to this day in the UK, albeit to a much lesser extent. As an example of this: London letting agents refuse black tenants. Sadly, racism is alive and well.

      Like

      June 5, 2014
  11. Typical British centric attitude (I’m British-American) Surely the books should be based on merit not the country it comes from. I loved reading American books as both a teenager and a college age student. To focus so heavily on the classics also seems like a retrograde step to me. Include some, definitely, but not to the exclusion of other eras and countries. I’d certainly rather read Anna Karenina than Middlemarch that’s for sure.

    Like

    June 4, 2014
  12. I’m British and Michael Gove’s constant meddling with our curriculum infuriates me. His decisions are irrational. If and when I have children and they go to school, I hope these decisions will have been reversed and school children will be taught books from a diverse range of countries not just Britain.

    Like

    June 4, 2014
  13. Another Brit here. Gove is a poisonous Philistine whose meddling with the UK education system would be laughable if they weren’t so dangerous. It’s scary how much impact one man’s out of touch, outdated, unfounded opinions can have on a whole supposedly democratic country.

    Like

    June 4, 2014
  14. Well, no more Mark Twain for you Brits. Too bad. Next thing you’ll ban Shakespeare. Rumor has it that he was an Irishman.

    Like

    June 4, 2014
  15. I don’t think this is a xenophobic decision (as many of the commenters here have assumed). Remember that a quarter of works are still from overseas authors, which, if I’m honest, isn’t that different from the way things are currently. I studied Of Mice and Men, Great Expectations, Romeo and Juliet and An Inspector Calls- wow, would you look at that, 1/4 of my set texts came from overseas.
    Cutting out Of Mice and Men seems to be more of a personal dislike than anything else. I hated it at school, but as an English tutor I’ve learned to appreciate it. The fact that 90% of kids were taught it doesn’t seem like a disappointing statistic to me. I don’t know what Gove’s beef is with it, but a lot of people find it pretty miserable. Maybe, at 15, we’re not quite ready to deal with that- I certainly wasn’t.

    Like

    June 5, 2014
  16. I also meant to say it’s more worrying that less books come from the 20th century. Great Expectations was prosaic drivel, and definitely inappropriate for me at that time. Much of the greatest American literature comes from the 20th century, and that’s what we’re losing. America has no history, and that’s why, with it’s cloisters and its monarchs, musty old Britain will always treat it like an idiot cousin.

    Like

    June 5, 2014
  17. Janeslog is absolutely correct. There has been a lot of misreporting of the territorial extent of this bizarre policy. Education in Scotland is devolved – it is the responsibility of the Scottish Government – so what Mr Gove (who sadly is himself a Scot) and the (English) Department for Education suggest is of no import north of the border.

    It’s more than 35 years since I left my (Scottish) school, but I cherished my reading of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, which remains my favourite book. The only Scottish literature we read was ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, which I continue to love. We (rightly) had annual Shakespeare plays to digest, but it’s a matter of huge regret to me that we never studied the poetry of Burns (lots of English Romantics and Metaphysical Poets – especially the sublime Donne), alongside the Arthur Miller, Robert Bolt, William Golding, Steinbeck, Bronte, and DH Lawrence we dissected. I’m therefore delighted that the new Scottish Curriculum For Excellence means that students in Scotland require to answer a question on a Scottish novel, play or poetry – I believe my life would have been enormously enriched if I’d studied Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s ‘Sunset Song’ while at school.

    I don’t think it’s a bad thing for students in England to be encouraged to read some nineteenth century literature (whether it be Austen, Bronte, Gaskell, Dickens, Trollope, or Hardy), and I have some sympathy for Gove’s defence to the furore that they should be able to identify with Elizabeth Bennett as well as Scout Finch. I never cease to be amazed by smart, educated, male colleagues who think Austen is all about tittering women in frocks, but broadening the options is good and context is all. A blanket ban on Harper Lee and Steinbeck would be terribly sad, though.

    The context issue came home to me last year when my reading group read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Thomas Hardy and then Stephen Kelman’s novel ‘Pigeon English’ about a young African boy on a squalid, contemporary south London housing estate. In my blog I realised that my life in a prosperous rural village in some ways had more in common with Hardy’s novel than with the lives of lots of young people in modern London (where I work half the week). I can see that makes ‘selling’ Hardy a tough gig for many teachers in inner city schools, but then Alabama was utterly outside my teenage experience, too! Save Atticus!

    Like

    June 6, 2014
  18. Los Angeles here. It sure makes me wonder what’s really prompted this. And is this just “required” reading lists or any lists? (We had/have “suggested” reading lists too.) To Kill A Mockingbird is such a favorite, that I just can’t imagine anyone being robbed of the opportunity to read it. Or Steinbeck, Angelou or Miller, for that matter.

    Like

    June 6, 2014
  19. Reblogged this on crystalchandlyre and commented:
    This is a bit sad.

    Like

    June 6, 2014
  20. It is 45 years since I did my English Literature and Language at O’level – Mill on the Floss, Julius Caesar. I have gone on to read thousands over the years and write a few myself. I think we also have to consider that the key here is that we teach children to be literate in the first place and then to develop a passion in them to keep reading and possibly writing after school too. This means that whatever the books they are given as part of the curriculum should be superbly written, engaging and get them enthusiastic. I do not believe that the book choices should be based on nationality – if it is in English then it should be considered on its merits. I was lucky and had an English Lit teacher who brought our books to life and that is the other element that is essential. As for Mr. Gove – I do not believe that educational changes should be made by incumbent ministers for education who come and go with the political tide. I also wonder about the so called advisors on educational policy and what their agenda is.

    Like

    June 11, 2014
  21. A lot has been said. If the book mentioned are no longer allowed in school, they can still read it at home I hope.

    Like

    June 13, 2014

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