Status anxiety

Michael Gove did not kill Of Mice and Men or To Kill A Mockingbird

His critics need to get their facts straight before casting him as a bogeyman

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

I suppose I should be grateful that the liberal intelligentsia doesn’t bother to check any of the facts if an opportunity presents itself to attack Michael Gove. They have a fixed idea about him, which is that he’s a Tory philistine who wants to turn the clock back to the 1950s, and they leap on any story that confirms that view, regardless of how far-fetched it is. The reason I’m grateful is because it enables me to scratch out a living putting the record straight.

Last November, Polly Toynbee wrote a column in the Guardian claiming that Gove intended to strip English literature from the national curriculum, an act of cultural vandalism she compared to ethnic cleansing. Why had he perpetrated this terrible crime? Because he doesn’t want children to use their imaginations, of course. ‘Literature is to become an optional extra, and probably not a highly regarded one, for fear it might let the imagination roam dangerously free,’ she wrote.

Complete balls, obviously. In the national curriculum being introduced in September, all children are required to read two Shakespeare plays between the ages of 11 and 14, compared with just one at the moment. Far from being an ‘optional extra’, literature is something all children will be expected to study as part of the new English Baccalaureate. At present, almost a third of pupils don’t study any literature between the ages of 14 and 16. But more will next year, thanks to the changes Gove has made to league tables that give extra weight to GCSEs in English literature.

It wasn’t just Polly Toynbee who failed to understand this reform. Various liberal grandees signed a letter to the Sunday Times decrying the Education Secretary’s mindless attack on literature, including Michael Morpurgo, A.C. Grayling, Robert Harris, Michael Rosen and Miriam Margolyes.

Now those same defenders of our literary heritage are up in arms again, this time because Gove has ‘banned’ two seminal liberal texts from the GCSE English literature syllabus – To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. Apparently, he’s insisting that children should only be allowed to read novels written by trueborn Englishmen, preferably Tories.

‘These works are to be rejected in the name of a more nationally centred syllabus, and this from a confessed admirer of rap,’ harrumphed Christopher Bigsby, a professor of American studies at the University of East Anglia. ‘As the Home Secretary does her best to patrol our borders to keep out international students, who she regards as immigrants, so the GCSE syllabus is to be kept for the English for fear that Romanian novels might move in next door.’

In fact, To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men haven’t been ‘banned’. The new syllabus allows pupils to roam more widely, not stipulating books they must study as part of GCSE courses. The reason for the misunderstanding is because the texts have to include one Shakespeare play, some Romantic poetry, a 19th-century novel and some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1918. Beyond this, they can immerse themselves in any literary work — even Christopher Bigsby’s 739-page biography of Arthur Miller, which I had the misfortune to review.

One is tempted to say to these men and women of letters: make up your minds. Either Gove has made Eng lit an optional extra, or he is insisting that all pupils study William Wordsworth and Charles Dickens in preference to Harper Lee and John Steinbeck. But he can’t logically be doing both.

But logic doesn’t enter into it. They’ve cast Gove as a right-wing bogeyman — a cross between Thomas Gradgrind and Slobodan Milosevic — and nothing can disabuse them. He could fly to Nigeria tomorrow and single-handedly save the 300 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram, and the next day a letter would appear in the Guardian signed by Rosen, Morpurgo and Grayling, accusing him of ‘Islamophobia’: ‘Doesn’t the Education Secretary realise that such acts contribute to a sexist, imperialist narrative in which only a white male authority is capable of “saving” innocent children from so-called “terrorists”?’

The irony is that these left-wing firebrands, so determined to uphold liberal values, are guilty of dehumanising Gove — of turning him into a cardboard cut-out villain — in order to buttress their sense of identity. Perhaps it’s time they re-read To Kill a Mockingbird themselves.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Puss in Plimsolls

    who she regards as immigrants: Hey Bigsby, they either leave or they don’t. Records show that the large numbers of ’em don’t.

    Otherwise, still reason-is-becausing, eh Toby? Couldn’t you find a more directly elegant way to put it? Give it a try.

  • lucas

    OK, they haven’t been banned, but in practice by redefining the minimum that the course must cover the majority of schools are going to teach to that minimum. As you say, effectively these texts have been put on a level with the Arthur Miller bio, i.e. completely irrelevant to the course, and no teacher is going to introduce more work for the class when their professional success is in part defined by how that class does in final exams.

  • disqus_JXTaH3N9kU

    Yes, maybe the “left” demonise Gove and have a “fixed idea” about him, but what those on the right never seem to realise is their own unyielding positions are just as tedious and predictable. I await a column from Young praising Polly Toynbee or the BBC. Everything they do or say will always be anathema to those like Young. Nothing is ever as black or white as those on extreme left or extreme right seem to think. I dislike the lot of them.

    • Kitty MLB

      Well at least those on the Right have children’s best interest at heart.
      And they are nowhere near tedious and predictable as the rattling from the Left. Whose caterwauling flapping we hear above any other voice.
      Tristram Hunt.. what the devil is he about for heavens sake. Apart from
      looking handsome.

      • disqus_JXTaH3N9kU

        My next door neighbour is a (slightly) left leaning headmaster. The most revered one, by pupils and parents, i have ever known. Does he not have his children’s best interests at heart ? Also, lets take the likes of Young, Taki and Delingpole at random. Every word I have ever read from them is 100% predictable. As for Tristram Hunt ? I have no idea what he is about, either.

        • rtj1211

          He is about getting Labour elected in 2015, so he can be a Minister. Not much beyond that……..

        • rtj1211

          My experience is that if you have boys with strong mothers and either weak or absent fathers, then they respond best to ‘right wing discipline’, because they would be a bit wild and rowdy otherwise.

          If you have weak or absent mothers and strong fathers, boys respond best to empathy and encouragement, because that is what they are missing at home.

          Things are different for the girls, of course.

          Educational dogma is nonsense because it fails to add the most fundamental question to the mix: ‘what does the school need to add that children don’t get at home?’

          If you answer that quesiton, you clearly require different kinds of schools for different home environments.

          Amazing that all the genii of the journalism, politics and TV haven’t realised that decades ago, isn’t it??!!

      • rtj1211

        I don’t think they do. They think they know what’s best for children, which is partially true: they know what is best for children who respond best to their strictures.

        My experience is that unless you add context to right wing views on education, you can destroy a lot of children.

        The reality is that most can’t, so the right destroys plenty of children through their dogma, just as the left does.

        Thing is, the right are arrogant enough to blame the child for that, not their own educational incompetence.

        So are the left, to be honest……

        Life for you.

  • Kitty MLB

    Yes the Left do have a fixed idea about the excellent Michael Gove. They constantly
    demonize his with the Darwinism remarks.
    Oh I wonder what they would say about his opposite number the statuesque
    Tristram Hunt. Quite honestly if he were not making an impact I am sure they would be silent.
    And why or why were Mice and Men not removed. Not awfully good. Maybe a spot of the Bard of Stratford. He is being diminished and should not be.
    And for goods sake how can anyone praise that god awful polly Toynbee.

    • Treebrain

      Well said Kitty!

    • manonthebus

      Polly Toynbee serves a very useful purpose. I know that whatever she says, the opposite is most likely to be true. She is an excellent weather vane on political facts. I treat the mumblings of luvvies and celebs in the same way. Whenever they speak out about something that they’re ‘deeply passionate’ about, I can say with certainty that the opposite is true.

    • rtj1211

      The answer to your last question is simple: ‘they don’t see the world the same way you do’.

      And being able to think for yourself, you will undoubtedly agree that you do not hold unique insights into everything and therefore cannot expect everyone to agree with everything you say, think or do.


  • Treebrain

    Excellent article that perfectly skewers the critics of Michael Gove!

    What is wrong with British pupils studying English texts rather than US literature?

  • Laura

    As someone who went through the GCSEs within the last ten years, I do wonder where you’ve got the idea that ‘almost a third of pupils don’t study any literature between the ages of 14 and 16′.

    While they may not study Literature as a subject, English Language courses (which are one of the two English GCSEs, just to remind you) do actually involve READING LITERATURE, although the literature is then analysed in a different context compared to how it would be analysed on the Literature courses.

    I have never in my academic or working life come across someone educated in a British school who did not study at least ONE piece of literature between the ages of fourteen and sixteen – which covers years nine, ten and eleven. I think what you’re missing here is that LITERATURE means LITERARY TEXTS – books, plays, poems etc.

    If you want to state that almost a third of pupils don’t take the English Literature GCSE,which is TRUE, then SAY THAT.

    I have worked in two schools (one primary and one secondary) and have family members at many schools across the country, and in all of these schools the children are introduced to a wide range of literature. My younger brother and I both went to different secondary schools to each other and to our many cousins, and yet all of my grandparents’ grandchildren have studied not only roughly a Shakespeare play a year since year seven, but numerous other texts (British and otherwise) on top of that – even those of us who did not take the Literature GCSE!

    Literature (here meaning literary texts, in case you need reminding) is not, as you put it, an ‘optional extra’ in any school worth its salt – regardless of whether the pupils take the Literature GCSE or not. To imply that all English classes apart from those that contain Literature in the assessment titles are black, literature-less holes is simply ludicrous. Do you think that all English classes are used for at the moment is teaching children how to spell or letting them write stories about dinosaurs? Honestly!

    • grammarschoolman

      ‘English Language courses (which are one of the two English GCSEs, just to remind you) do actually involve READING LITERATURE’

      No they don’t. They involve reading bits of magazines and newspapers. Nothing more demanding than the stuff you could pick up on the street. If you think that’s literature, then you really ought to get out of English teaching.

    • grammarschoolman

      ‘English Language courses (which are one of the two English GCSEs, just to remind you) do actually involve READING LITERATURE’

      No they don’t. They involve reading bits of magazines and newspapers. Nothing more demanding than the stuff you could pick up on the street. If you think that’s literature, then you really ought to get out of English teaching.

      • Kitty MLB

        Oh don’t forget the internet.Somewhat useful I know.
        But believe that reading a few words on a computer
        is actually the same as reading the book.
        And when required to to comment on the said book,
        they can find the answers on the computer also.
        Saying all that I obviously have no issues with
        technology. Only when students believe a gadget
        replaces the art of thinking for themselves.

      • exSecondaryModernTeacher

        Perhaps you should take Toby’s advice: check the evidence. The OCR draft syllabus for GCSE English Language requires “critical responses to high quality unseen texts from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.” 50% of the total marks will focus on reading “literary prose texts” from the the 20th and 21st centuries. Drama and poetry aren’t included in GCSE English Language but OCR says it’s designed to be used in conjunction with GCSE English Literature.

  • Radford_NG

    The case of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is highly relevant because exactly the same thing happened in Britain after the US Army arrived in 1942;but the British people would not stand for it.

    The Americans were allowed to live here under their own laws and traditions.One of those traditions was:`If the white woman yells rape,you hang the ni€€ar`.There were numerous cases of women yelling `rape` after being caught-out when the husband came home unexpectedly.The police would be called,the negro arrested and handed over to the US Army,then court marshaled and sentenced to death.But her neibours wouldn’t have it. They knew what she was and that she was going with these GIs and they wouldn’t let an innocent black man die and they forced the Army to give a reprieve.

    That is exactly why this book from an alien culture should not be taught in our schools.Such propaganda,I believe,warps the mind of black youths like Mark Duggan and alienates them from their own countries society;and is meant to do this.

    It was Enoch Powell who said:you can’t compare the situation of black people who have had civil rights from the moment they came to this country to the situation of the American negro who has been denied any rights for hundreds of years.

    Race relations in Britain have been soured for 50+years by the dominant ruling class behaving as if racial attitudes here were/are the same as in the USA.This,I believe is what lead to the death of Steven Lawrence,which our masters then respond to as if it came from the attitudes prevalent in AMERICA when Jack Straw was a student.

  • Anthony Bluman

    Does Michael Gove have naked pictures of Toby Young? It has become comical, the way he appears in a puff of smoke a la Betelgeuse, blasting infantile remonstrations from his face-hole; his nonsense babble splurging over the carpet. Gove could impale a labrador and drain its blood (and given the Education minister’s prolonged psychotic break from reality, such a development would be unsurprising) and, sure enough, Mr Young would be wheeled out like Hector Salamanca, dinging his bell and claiming the ghost of Emma Goldman is restraining us from mentally appreciating puppy slaughter. Enough now. Enough.

    • grammarschoolman

      If Michael Gove cured cancer, Twitter would be full of people claiming that he was denying cells their human right to be cancerous. Enough now.

      • Anthony Bluman

        Right. Silly me. I’m convinced. It’s a Twitter non-incident, and we are all naught but enemies of promise. Because Gove is known for his moderation. And it all flows in one direction. And he’s always so reasonable in the face of criticism. He typed, slack-jawed in amazement.

        Let’s be honest – Gove preaches temperance but glugs from the cooking sherry like Calamity Jane. He brings kaiser blades to playground scuffles, in naked efforts to impress Telegraph readers. And then drafts Young to starch his dirty linen. He’s a dimestore Joe McCarthy. I cannot be the only one completely exhausted by this ‘Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines’ routine. Catch the pigeon.

        • grammarschoolman

          Convinced or not, it’s a) either a lot of silly people who can’t read; or b) a lot of unscrupulous people who would stop at nothing to keep the lower classes ignorant.

          The fact that much of the _support_ for Gove’s work with state school kids comes from the Left tells you all you need to know about his opponents.

  • Emma Bird

    Has Toby Young ever spoken to an English teacher? Or a pupil studying GCSE English? Just one? Apparently not. As any sixteen year-old knows, the study of literature is compulsory for all young people up to 16 in mainstream education, i.e. some children in special schools or young offenders institutions, for instance, may have that aspect of the curriculum disapplied. As for being free to teach/learn about any literature as long as Gove’s ‘basic’ demands are met, well I laughed and laughed until I realised Toby Young was actually being serious. When do you think the average teacher is going to have time to do anything other than the minimum requirement? Don’t worry, there’s a class of thirty, one’s a school refuser, another’s mum just died after a really horrible battle with cancer, another is the main career for his dad, another comes into school smelling of weed, another has moved school three times in the last two years and is starting yet another GCSE syllabus. But never fear, they’re all busy reading Bunyan at home whilst the teacher cracks on with teaching the syllabus: couple of hours on Hamlet – done; Great Expectations – get that done inside a week, easy; Romantic poets – all finished before the term is out and then the class can use that lovely free time left over to ‘delve’ into other literature.

    Please don’t write about education any more, Mr. Young, it’s excruciatingly embarrassing.

    • grammarschoolman

      Please don’t claim to be a responsible teacher or to care about education. It’s extremely embarrassing (or would be if it wasn’t so appalling.)

      • Emma Bird

        I don’t believe I said I was a teacher. Mr Gove would be very unhappy about your ‘retrieval’ skills. You may be in a position to disagree that what I want for young people is the best thing for them and I would always defend your right to disagree, but the notion of my caring is entirely subjective – it is not a claim which you can refute with an opposing opinion.

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    I’ve taken Toby’s advice and looked at the evidence – the OCR draft syllabuses for GCSE English Language and English Literature.

    I think Toby’s got confused with the national curriculum (which doesn’t apply to academies or free schools) and GCSE syllabuses. The Eng Lit syllabus requires the study of ONE Shakespeare play not two.

    The Eng Lang syllabus requires a critical response to high quality unseen texts from the 19th century (non fiction) and literary prose texts from the 20th and 21st centuries.

    Eng Lit requires study of one modern prose OR drama, one studied 19th century prose text, poetry from the OCR Poetry Anthology and one studies Shakespeare play.

    The problem with any exam with set texts is which texts to choose. CSE and early GCSE English Literature solved the problem by expecting pupils to study a wide range of texts chosen by the teacher.

    The drafts are here:

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    I wonder what grade would be awarded to a candidate who wrote “complete balls” as a response to non-fiction in a GCSE English Language exam?

  • Dahlian Kirby

    I can’t believe that this writer made light of the lives of the young Nigerian girls to decorate his article. Bad taste to say the very least.

  • florian42003

    Mr. Young is so perceptively correct and justified in what he says in this article that it pains me. Thank you!!!!