LONDON — When government shapes a nation’s literary education, politics inevitably plays a role. That has come clear in the case of the influential and controversial British minister of education, Michael Gove, who was accused of jingoism last week for new syllabus requirements that have led to the removal of classic American works such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Crucible.”
At issue are the minimum requirements for students taking the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) English exam, usually given when they are 15 or 16 years old. Gove had complained that many taking the test had read only one novel, and, for 90 percent of those students, that was John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Paul Dodd, of Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations, one of the boards that set and grade the test, said Gove had called that “a really disappointing statistic.”
Given those numbers, Gove said he wanted British schools to broaden the choice and variety of literature, not limit it. New regulations require that students study at least one play by William Shakespeare, at least one 19th-century novel, a selection of poetry since 1789 and “fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onward.” The government does not prescribe — or proscribe — any particular work.
Some examination boards have chosen to replace some recommended U.S. novels with British ones, such as Meera Syal’s “Anita and Me,” a 1997 multicultural coming-of-age tale, and “Never Let Me Go,” by the British-based Kazuo Ishiguro.
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But dropping the U.S. works has caused a ruckus online and in newspapers and weeklies such as The Spectator and New Statesman. The books left out include Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” removed the week the author died; Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”; and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”
At least one exam board, Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, has no U.S. novels or plays on its list of proposed texts.
Toni Morrison, asked about the changes while at a literature festival, said the British “will regret it.”
Gove, a Conservative and former journalist, responded to the criticism by saying that students were reading too narrowly, and that beyond the core requirements, exam boards had no restrictions on their choice of authors.
Suggestions that U.S. works were being banned, he said, were “rooted in fiction.”
A spokesman for the education department said the requirements represented “the minimum” students must learn and exam boards could include literature from anywhere.
Gove has been in trouble about the politics of cultural issues before. In this centenary year of the start of World War I, he has criticized British satirical shows, plays and films such as “Blackadder” and “Oh! What a Lovely War” for promoting “left-wing myths that belittle Britain” by portraying the British command as fools who thoughtlessly sent men to needless death.
He insisted Britain’s role in the world was “marked by nobility and courage.”
Gove said he would like students to read more from the 19th century, too. “I want young people to encounter as many books as possible from different cultures,” he said.
“I want pupils to grow up able to empathize with Jane Eyre as well as Lennie, to admire Elizabeth Bennet as much as Scout Finch.”