What the British ministry of education has done appears to be getting people talking about literature, so there’s that going for it.
But there does appear to be a lot of rancor about Michael Gove’s decision to eliminate nearly all American authors from the list of books available to teens seeking to pass what is vaguely comparable to a Regents test in English literature.
Gove, Britain’s Secretary of State for Education, has approved an overhaul of what books can be read and written about for the country’s English literature portion of the General Certificate for Secondary Education. It’s not an outright ban on American authors; just swapping out Harper Lee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Miller and other masters for more Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Shakespeare and contemporary British writers like Meera Syal.
He calls it raising standards and toughening up the exams by asking British teens to read more complex and language-rich books than, say, “To Kill A Mockingbird or “Of Mice and Men,” which he personally loathes. His critics use other words, including “chauvinistic” and “insular.”
His argument is that the list is merely the minimum a student should read. Nobody is saying teachers can’t add American authors to the curriculum, although students won’t be allowed to write about them for the GCSE. Kids should read more anyway, and of course good students and good teachers will be happy to expand the list despite what the tests are asking for. It’s all to the good.
American educators know exactly how much ‘what’s on the test’ influences what’s studied in the classroom.
“Test-driven curriculum is becoming more and more imbedded in our schools,” said Howard Miller, a professor of education and chairman of the Department of Secondary Education at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry. “It’s … possible that what’s happening in Britain will happen here. It’s not a ‘clear and present danger,’ but the potential is there. The New York State exams do not … require or expect or imply what exactly you need to be reading, but there’s a strong push from the (political) right to go back to the canon, to what liberals call the old lists of Dead White Men.”
Literature these days is inclusive. Students read authors from different social classes, different racial backgrounds, different ages, both genders; they learn about history and society through the eyes of winners, losers and those on the sidelines. They learn to put experience and what constitutes truth into context. And yes, you can do that by reading only the authors from a single country because places like Great Britain have huge immigrant populations to draw on for different stories, Miller said.
But should you? Aren’t you limiting your future to a more egocentric and colloquial vision of reality?
He had no answers.
“The world is becoming more open and more closed at the same time,” he said. “Education is always in the middle of the battlefield. The bullets whisk by and occasionally hit.
“It’s less likely they’ll succeed in insulating their students. It’s very hard to avoid the rest of the world these days,” he said. “There are workarounds.”