They say that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has even got its boots on. That was before the internet came along. Now it can spin a whole web before anybody notices that something is not quite right. Which happened today, as a whole army of teachers lined up to denounce Gove for issuing an outright ban on anything written by Johnny Foreigner from being taught in our schools. Or insisting all children recite Dickens by heart. Or something like that. Anyway, whatever the details (and please, don’t bother me with such things), the general consensus is that Gove has been really bad and has re-written the English curriculum, by hand and to the tune of Rule Britannia, and we’re All Really Angry about it.
Of course what has actually been said, and what will eventually be proposed, is irrelevant. The very suggestion of change is enough for some to dust off their favourite sanctimony-pants and take to the Twitter dancefloor, strutting along issuing poignant comment about the day they communed with the noumenon whilst reading Of Mice and Men back in their Year 10 English class. No other book, it seems, can offer this. And even if it could it wouldn’t be as good ‘cos, y’know, yeah. Thus to propose any sort of change is not just callous, but a spiritual violence: the Child Catcher has nothing on old Gove.
And that’s just the tamer end of the Outraged spectrum. Gove the racist? Yep. Imperialist? Yep. Xenophobe? Yep. Mysogynist? Why, of course. The whole stinking, steaming, rotting dung-heap has been aimed at him. For many, this is not a debate about what literary treasures should be passed on to our children, but a simple battle between Good and Evil, between the Enlightened Elect and Gradgrind Gove, with his uneducated obsession with Dead, White Males. That’s all there is to it. Argument over. Go back to your homes.
There are some chinks in the armour, mind. The Crusaders for Literary Diversity seem remarkably comfortable with the fact that, according to OCR, around 90% of school kids have all read the same text for their exams. Nor the fact that, looking at the guidance issued to date, there is nothing whatsoever to say foreign literature is banned, nor to suggest that it needs to be. But hey, why let reality get in the way of spittle-flecked anger? I’m outraged, goddammit, and the world shall know of it. Reason has no home here. Instead, those who swing the Sword of EduJustice have worked one another into an orgy of righteous indignation , using the #GetGoveReading premium rate hashtag as a kind of speed-dating service for the self-evidently superior. Calvin’s Elect does Take Me Out, digitised.
The real root of the issue – that kids should be given the opportunity in school to read a broader range of texts, and most don’t get the opportunity to do so – has been crushed by the weight of a thousand slurs about the moral and intellectual deficiencies of He Who Rocked The Boat. If this really were about the kids, and not Gove, they might find some sympathy with his remarks. After all, if most children leave our schools never having read a classic novel from the 19th century, why is that to be celebrated? If few children have had the opportunity to engage with the literary fruits of the culture in which they are being formed, then why not question how that should be? I once wrote that it is a tragedy that too often we deny our children access to high culture because of the hang-ups of their teachers. One or two folk pulled me up on that. I feel increased resolve to insist on it today.
And so we find ourselves in the curious position of being angry about teaching things to children that the parents of those children might deem broadly worthwhile and desirable. And by and large they would not understand the resentment of teachers that this should be so. I’m sure I don’t take too much of a risk in confidently predicting that few parents will write into school demanding an explanation for why little Joan has taken to pulling Gaskell off the shelf.
In other words, we don’t seem to be on the side of their kids. And that’s fairly fundamental.
Take a bow, everybody. Good job.