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Syllabus of Errors

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook keeps an eye on the British press—largely because it’s interesting, and sometimes fun, to read; but also because, now and then, a little nugget emerges which tells a larger story. 

Case in point was the explosion last week when it was reported, in hazy detail, that Britain’s secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, had revised the reading syllabus for Britain’s English curriculum by expelling certain popular American titles—Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee—and substituting British authors such as William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. 

Progressive Britons, aided and abetted by social media, had a fit. Gove was denounced in print as a “fundamentalist” with a “misguided sense of patriotism.” A popular BBC dramatist denounced him as a “dangerous philistine.” The Guardian piled on, as if on cue, soliciting comments from (among others) a lecturer in English at King’s College London who complained that requiring 16-year-olds to read Dickens “will just grind children down.” A hashtag denouncing Gove went viral on Twitter.

All of which, needless to say, was so much noise. It turns out that Michael Gove had banned nothing from the syllabus but had, instead, encouraged the expansion of reading lists, in these carefully chosen words:

Students should study a range of high-quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial whole texts in detail. These must include: at least one play by Shakespeare; at least one 19th-century novel; a selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry; and fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards. All works should have been originally written in English.

In The Scrapbook’s humble view, this seems like common sense for a literature curriculum in the land that gave the world Jane Austen, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the English language. Indeed, Gove went out of his way to explain that the new guidelines would broaden, rather than restrict, opportunities to read contemporary authors as well as canonical texts. He went on: “Do I think Of Mice and Men .  .  . and To Kill a Mockingbird are bad books? Of course not. I read and loved them all as a child. And I want children in the future to be able to read them all.”

Which leads The Scrapbook to two observations. First, it is a measure of the bitterness felt by the political left in Britain that it should have set aside its reflexive anti-Americanism to attack the current government by defending American authors. That’s a rare role-reversal we won’t soon forget! 

The other observation is that, all things being equal, Michael Gove is self-evidently intent on raising the intellectual level of Britain’s English syllabus but feels constrained to say nice things about John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, and Harper Lee. Well, if it takes a venerable American institution to state the obvious, allow The Scrapbook to grab this one by the horns: Steinbeck is a mediocre prose stylist, The Crucible is antiquated left-wing agitprop, and To Kill a Mockingbird is a sentimental children’s story best ingested in movie form. If this emboldens any secondary school in Great Britain to toss Of Mice and Men in favor of Richard III, we’ll gladly take the blame—and credit.

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