Dear Mr Gove. Do not be such a parochial prat

An Ermine notes with displeasure that a certain Mr Gove appears to have charged out of the stable with his blinkers on. To wit he has decreed English Literature will be dictated thusly

Students taking the OCR exam from 2015 will be required to study a pre-20th century novel, Romantic poetry and a Shakespeare play.

i.e. none of that damned American stuff like To Kill a Mockingbird. Or perhaps appositely, The Grapes of Wrath, maybe…

Now unlike the NUT I’m not implacably against Mr Gove. I do agree that our children should leave primary school being able to read, write and do ‘rithmetic including tables. And that whatever today’s equivalent of maths O level should at least have acquainted the little dears with differential calculus. But hasn’t anybody told Mr Gove that the past is a different country?

I had the bad luck to have to do Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations at O level. The prose is turgid, dense and repetitive. It’s like trying to read a newspaper with a 1″ loupe – you can’t stand back enough to get an overview. Let’s face it, here was a dude who was paid by the flippin’ word. Plus the gruesome detail is of an age that was a different country. I cite Exhibit A

A now economically worthless document because my human capital is worth jack shit in the marketplace. One line stands out ;)

An economically worthless document because my human capital is now worth jack shit in the marketplace. One line stands out for all the wrong reasons ;)

Now I was to become an engineer, and had already done maths and physics early to get the suckers out of the way. You will already see the signs of weakness in the humanities in the History grade 1 . But I wasn’t so terrible at reading – but I just could not get enough overview of the tedious turgid tripe that is Great Expectations.

Over thirty-five years have rolled by since I sat that exam and flunked Eng Lit because I hadn’t read enough of the the book, and what I had read had been routed to the trash dump of my brain, which had tried to parse it for meaning and had come up with a null pointer.

The world has become more global since then. And around Europe the lamps are going out in the intellectual sphere as fearful citizens from Scotland to Greece  seek to make their world a smaller place and hold the tides of globalisation at bay because ‘dem furreners a comin’ fer ours jobs’. These citizens were happy when dem furreners were making their DVD players and their iPhones cheaper, and they are not being served well by the spineless political class that hasn’t got the balls to tell the electorate that the good times are gone for good – living standards will stagnate or decline because power is shifting East. GDP will no doubt increase, it’s the slice of it available to the 99% that will fall.

This is no time for parochialism, Mr Gove. We need to light the lamps of Reason and of culture so that some pathfinders will be strong enough to navigate their way across the long Western Intercession of the next 30, 50, 100 years. I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at the same time as Great Expectations – for interest, because the story captured my attention. It is not time now, Mr Gove, to pull up the shutters and look inwards at a little Britain of its Victorian heyday. If anything we need to read a wider pool of literature, so let’s not lop out our American novelists, eh?  Maybe das Glasperlenspiel in translation or Flaubert’s Mme Bovary. It is probably too big an ask to include non-western literature and teenagers are hardly well-read enough to put it into context, but the British canon is too old and too narrow now. The journey is longer to Dickensian London than to the American South of the early 20th century.

Mr Gove, keep the windows to the world open. We aren’t little England now. The flame of the Enlightenment is flickering in the wind, now is not the time to drain the fuel supply. Spengler had it nailed in Der Untergang des Abendlandes

[of a culture that has passed the high-water mark]

And we find, too, that everywhere, at moments, the coming fulfilment suggested itself in such moments were created the head of Amenemhet III (the so-called ” Hyksos Sphinx ” of Tanis), the domes of Hagia Sophia, the paintings of Titian Still later, tender to the point of fragility, fragrant with the sweetness of late October days, come the Cnidian Aphrodite and the Hall of the Maidens in the Erechtheum, the arabesques on Saracen horseshoe-arches, the Zwinger of Dresden, Watteau, Mozart.

At last, in the grey dawn of Civilization the fire in the Soul dies down. The dwindling powers rise to one more, half-successful, effort of creation, and produce the Classicism that is common to all dying Cultures. The soul thinks once again, and in Romanticism looks back piteously to its childhood; then finally, weary, reluctant, cold, it loses its desire to be, and, as in Imperial Rome, wishes itself out of the overlong daylight and back in the darkness of protomysticism in the womb of the mother in the grave. The spell of a “second religiousness” comes upon it, and Late-Classical man turns to the practice of the cults of Mithras, of Isis, of the Sun – those very cults into which a soul just born in the East has been pouring a new wine of dreams and fears and loneliness.

That Intercession must come to pass, the West is tired and weak, it’s once shared values lost, and its energy washed out in dissipation, bread and circuses. The seed must lie dormant, perhaps for centuries, until it is ready and willing to serve humanity again, perhaps in a totally different form. Your hearkening back to the old, Mr Gove, is just as hubristic though perhaps less disastrous as the Project for the New American Century, but it’s born of the same refusal to see that death is the necessary counterbalance to birth, in human cultures as well as in Nature.

Look outwards Mr Gove. You cannot forestall the Intercession, but maybe, if the seed is fed well in the dying of the Light, you can shorten the Interregnum. Somebody has to staff the Second Foundation 2of the West. That child may enter one of your schools, Mr Gove, and you are cutting him off  from the narrative of the recent West in favour of the small-Britain distant past. We don’t need to be reframing our cultural references for a smaller world. One of those kids may be charged with carrying the Staff of Knowledge across the rocky pass that leads future Europeans out of the darkness as the new wine begins to flow.

 

Notes:

  1. note that these exams were norm-referenced and not the everyone’s a winner sort now. A B was still respectable and nowhere near as dreadful as it would be considered now. This is because norm referencing is autocalibrating. However an E was definitely  an incontrovertible fail, the pass mark was C I believe
  2. A reference to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which held the  same Spenglerian concept that the Intercession cannot be avoided, but had the thesis that if some way can be found to preserve the essential values then it can be shortened.  Science Fiction was considered arrant trash and the lowest form of literature in my school-days, I still don’t know why it’s so reviled. Perhaps there was more reason why I got that E than failing to read Dickens, maybe the Ermine has really has no understanding of literature :) I really liked the Foundation trilogy

I read “Of Mice and Men” a couple of years ago and found it remarkably moving. Similarly, while I haven’t read “To Kill a Mockingbird”, I have watched the (rather old) film which was very powerful. I think we mustn’t forget about reading just for it’s own sake. It’s an enriching experience!

(I also found “Great Expectations” tough going, but I think that “A Tale of Two Cities” is probably the best book I’ve read! While a bit of a drag, they probably are decent books for study – the concepts are important and that characters are broad, but not deep. They even have names that tell you what sort of person they are!) Perhaps everyone should study “A Brave New World” instead…

Heh, my recollection of the Second Foundation isn’t quite the same as yours. The whole enterprise of rebirth was the foundation, replacing the decaying empire. (Who unseen hand of the Second Foundation are in our world I don’t know, but it isn’t politicians!)

Amazing books! It’s odd, really, as I think they are about political intrigue and society, rather than the actual universe events occur in.

Personally, I think the snobbishness about sci-fi has migrated to fantasy. I’m sure Terry Pratchett would be far more celebrated had he written any other genre. (Again, his books are all about interactions between people, with the fantastic setting just part of the background.)

As for the future, I’m less fatalistic than you are; we can still keep on improving the lot of everyone. If others who are currently behind catch up, that’s good! There is not a fixed amount of happiness in the world! We do need to get rid of meddling fools from positions of power though!

Right, that’s enough from me. I can’t stand Gove and need to keep my blood pressure down…

Hah, Baader-Meinhof effect and all that. I came across this just now:

http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/04/problem-is-one-of-illiteracy-not.html

There have always been clueless meddlers at all levels.

(Letters of note is a great site I keep forgetting about and rediscovering.)

26 May 2014, 12:38pm
by dearieme


I think you’re making a bit much of the awfulness of Dickens: true, but hardly an example to build your case on. A T of 2 C proves that the bugger could write, but I’ve always found that everything else by him is turgid rubbish. Why people insisted on trying to thrash teenagers through such stuff beats me, especially since it was time diverted from Shakespeare, who is the Real McCoy.

If the youngsters are to study American literature it should obviously be Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; why settle for lesser stuff? But if you want them to read twentieth century literature, I’d give them doses of Kingsley Amis, P.G Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh. “Scoop” might be good: I rolled about on the floor at that one when I was teenager, or Lucky Jim, another hoot.

No, if you’re going to throw American literature into the fray, then let Samuel Clemens rest and substitute O. Henry instead. If you need something a little longer than his short stories, select “Of Cabbages and Kings”.

And for poetry, dig up a little-known gem titled “Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing” written during the Great Depression.

26 May 2014, 5:08pm
by Grumpy Old Paul


Is Gove really dictating what is on the school GCSE English Literature syllabus? If so, that is worthy of Stalin!

In any case, views of literature are inherently highly subjective. There are no quantitative evaluations, conventional wisdom changes over time and there are no Popperian tests of quality.

Given the above, I’d suggest literature which is likely to have some obvious relevance and appeal to today’s youngsters or has really stood the test of time and is at least 250 years old!

Inflict certain authors on teenage boys in particular and you run the risk of putting them off reading for life. Surely, it must be better to give them reading material which you may feel is of lower quality but may spark an interest in reading and literature which can give lifelong enrichment and enjoyment.

In my case, by far the least enjoyable or rewarding book I had to suffer at school was ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Austen hasn’t always been on the pedestal which she now enjoys but today it is ‘critically incorrect’ to level a word of criticism. Mark Twain’s views are quite entertaining but perhaps a little extreme even for my taste.

@deariem I’ve never been tempted to read any more Dickens since 1977, that was quite enough for one lifetime. I still recall the trashcan scanning the empty text for meaning. However, literature is subjective ;)

Part of the trouble is that in your teenms you have hardly wnough experience of the inner world to understand or contextualise yourself, never mind interpret literature, so it’s a hazardous undertaking in the first place.

@George I’ll take a look at some of this – I haven’t heard of any of them!

@GOP This BBC news article contains a reference ot the DofE PDF where you can read Gove’s proscription

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

fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards.

All works should have been originally written in English.

Gove seems to particularly dislike of Mice and Men –

” Mr Gove, who studied English at Oxford University, has in the past highlighted his concern that pupils were reading Of Mice and Men in particular.

Paul Dodd, OCR’s head of GCSE and A-Level reform, said Mr Gove “had a particular dislike for Of Mice and Men and was disappointed that more than 90% of candidates were studying it”.”

I liked the last BBC quote –

And Bethan Marshall, chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English and a senior lecturer in English at King’s College London, said: “Many teenagers will think that being made to read Dickens aged 16 is just tedious. This will just grind children down.”

The fact that I bothered to dig that GCE certificate out to support my snarl about Dickens 37 years after I closed his book for the last time support the last sentence ;)

We did Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer – like most classics, not always easy reading but very interesting in a historical way. We also read The Hobbit, which pretty much moulded my reading tastes as a adult!

A classic is a classic, is it not, regardless of country of origin?

26 May 2014, 8:04pm
by Neverland


Gove is Kenneth Baker reincarnated

(don’t tell me Kenneth Baker ain’t dead yet)

I seem to remember Gove was also dictating a history syllabus focusing on the greatness of the british empire – which is really going to equip kids for this “global race” the tories bang on about

27 May 2014, 1:02pm
by dearieme


Gove has a big piece in the Tel this morning explaining why “i.e. none of that damned American stuff” is plain untruthful. I found him persuasive. I think you can detwist your knickers, ermine.

@dearieme I take it you mean this one? in which case I’m still gonna hold up the bluff card. To wit, his Goveness spake thusly:

“and there are no rules requiring them to exclude or marginalise any writer. If they wish to include Steinbeck – whether it’s Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath – no one would be more delighted than me, because I want children to read more widely and range more freely intellectually in every subject.”

Bollocks, Mr Gove. You have narrowed what must be studied. The rule that excludes other material is the rule that decrees there are only 168 hours in every week, and that by mandating stuff that excludes those more recent and non-British texts you make the opportunity cost of doing those unfeasibly high.

Even in 1977 there wasn’t any room for non-syllabus reading in Eng Lit. Then the test came at the end of the ocurse, in a world of metrics and continuous testing there’s no space for any off-piste reading ;)

1 Jun 2014, 12:52pm
by dearieme


Your argument proves too much. You might as well argue that it’s all a plot to keep Milton out of the schools. Or Marlowe.

 

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