Across the pond, British students studying for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) will no longer experience a narrative on growing up in the Jim Crowe South or reenact the witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts, or be immersed in stories of The Great Depression’s impact on itinerant laborers. A recent decision by the United Kingdom’s Department for Education means that British students will no longer be reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, or John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The Education Secretary of the United Kingdom, Michael Gove, has recommended a syllabus that favors British texts exclusively for students to “swot up” for their exam boards. In order to make more room for the strictly British diet of Eliot, Dickens, at least one of the Bronte Sisters, these 20th Century American classics are being dropped in favor of British texts. According to The Guardian, when Gove took office he told his party’s conference:,
“The great tradition of our literature – Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy – should be at the heart of school life.”
A number of responders have noted Gove’s concern that the American texts come with “ideological baggage” that is not relevant to British students. The controversy was sparked when the new syllabus for OCR, one of the biggest UK exam boards, was released. A statement by UK’s Department for Education noted that in the revised syllabus, specific (American) books are not banned, but rather:
In the past, English literature GCSEs were not rigorous enough and their content was often far too narrow. We published the new subject content for English literature in December. It doesn’t ban any authors, books or genres. It does ensure pupils will learn about a wide range of literature, including at least one Shakespeare play, a 19th-century novel written anywhere and post-1914 fiction or drama written in the British Isles. (“To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men axed as Gove orders more Brit lit” Guardian)
The news is not all bad, however. Instead of considering the removal as a literary slight to the multitude of authors who write in English -but who do not serve the Crown- perhaps Americans should be grateful that those discomforting moments of U.S. History are being hidden or systematically expunged from the prying eyes of young British readers. Students do not need to be exposed to the effects of prejudice, intolerance, and poverty through the lens of an American culture when British culture already has a plethora of masterworks that focus on their own brand of bigotry, bias, and destitution. Why would British students need a global perspective as they enter the 21st Century workforce?
Consider how wonderful for Americans that Gove has eliminated the need to explain the real inditement of our judicial system through the fictional violation of Tom Robinson’s civil rights despite the dramatic evidence provided by his defense attorney, Atticus Finch. How brilliant that British students will never have the opportunity to connect the fictional fraud in the trial of John Proctor to the real terror of the McCarthy Hearings and Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. How fabulous that readers in the United Kingdom will not be forced to read how the myth of the American Dream is often unattainable, especially when a scientifically confirmed climate change associated with the Dust Bowl contributed to harsh economic realities.
So, thank you, Secretary Gove, for keeping America’s literary exposés on dirty secrets hidden. Now, a schoolchild’s positive image of an American 20th Century will not be tarnished by the likes of those upstarts Lee, Miller, and Steinbeck.
Yes, Mr. Secretary, for British students everywhere, ignorance will be bliss!