A literature curriculum “cabined, cribbed, confined”

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.


I am absolutely stupefied. Not so much on the specific choice of books – of mice and men, for example, has been on the syllabus for a very long time and a change is no doubt in order. But this Orwellian dictation of choice scares me on two levels.


Firstly, literary merit. There are many valuable pieces of literature from pre-20th century Britain – the Brontes, Shakespeare, Dickens and so on. Many of these texts changed forever their literary forms. However, the forms have indeed changed. Compare, for example, Wordsworth’s Daffodils with Ted Hughes’ poem of the same name. While both poems describe experiences relating to daffodils, the language and techniques result in drastically different effects. Although, almost by definition, the Conservative party wants to return to an earlier era, the techniques and themes of modern literature are never going to return to what they was, and nor should they; literature both mirrors and shapes the society within which it is formed.


We know that Conservatives are not really fans of a pluralistic, multi-cultural society. But to virtually obliterate ethnic and international voices in this way is actually terrifying. To quote from To Kill a Mockingbird (one of the books struck from the list):

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

Books help us to experience other perspectives, other views, other cultures. To censor in this way is not just counter-productive in terms of literary study, it is morally repugnant – every culture and community  deserves a voice and every student deserves to experience cultures beyond their own.


If we want to reduce racism, instead of blindly blaming immigrants for every social issue, texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird are vital. If the only literature that students read are the patriarchal, white texts that dominate pre-20th century British literature, those one-sided views are insidiously promoted.


Mr Gove, while I recognise the importance of valuing one’s own culture, and the natural nostalgia you may feel for the texts you read in your own school days, please accept the power that literature has to shape thought and culture. Much as a democratic and open society is richer for having a plurality of perspectives and cultures, so too is our curriculum.


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