Michael Gove is sat at home, drinking tea. He catches his servant reading a novel. The writer is from France. Mr Gove drop-kicks the book into the fireplace & begins to beat his servant with a copy of Education Secretary for Dummies. Sound familiar?
So, yes. I’m rather late to this game, intentionally so. I wanted to see if anybody would care past a time-length. Michael Gove has announced his proudly mono-cultural vision for GCSE English. Now, the policy is not as simple as “Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, & The Crucible are banned”. They aren’t banned. What Mr Gove has, rather virulently, stated in this article is his intention to limit the texts which appear upon the syllabus as mandatory. The core syllabus for GCSE English will now be ‘a whole Shakespeare play, poetry from 1789 including the romantics, a 19th-century novel and some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1914.’ This, he claims, will ‘broaden – not narrow – the books young people study for GCSE’, as exam boards will ‘have the freedom to design specifications so that they are stretching and interesting, and include any number of other texts from which teachers can then choose.’ He cites 2 schools as evidence to the wide variety of literature “often” read outside of the syllabus. Everything is fine.
Except that it isn’t. Gove’s argument is utterly bizarre. He entirely misses the point of the objections – the claims that the policy is both racist & anglocentric. We shall return to the central logical fallacy momentarily. However, 1st I want to outline the principle behind the objection. The objection to Gove’s policy is an objection to the definition of those texts considered mandatory or, to use a literary phrase, those texts that are canon.
The question that naturally arises from this is simple: what is the canon? Chances are that you’ve come across the concept before. If you’re a university student or a post-grad in literature, you probably already loathe the idea sufficiently. I would hope so anyway. A basic, functional, definition is to be found on the Wikipedia page, “Western canon” : ‘The term “Western canon” denotes a body of books and, more broadly, music and art that have been traditionally accepted by Western scholars as the most important and influential in shaping Western culture. As such, it includes the “greatest works of artistic merit”.’ The word “Western” can, ostensibly, be removed & the definition would stand, in a technical sense. “Western”, however, retains its importance when considering the development of Imperialism, Colonialism & cultural Imperialism – i.e. when 1 considers history concretely. A thorough explanation of this is beyond the scope of a single article.
What is important to recognise is the utter impossibility & futility of the canon as an accurate, historical portrayal of the development of human culture. How does 1 define the ‘greatest works of artistic merit’? Equally, how can this definition bare any relation whatsoever to reality? Those works which now resemble ‘the greatest works of artistic merit’ must now, in the present, be decided by contemporary scholars. In this sense, the decision over what is & what isn’t canon is decided in accordance with the artistic & political taste of a given context. In other words, the canon is an artificial construct: an imposition upon the description of artistic history & cultural development. To the extent that culture describes human development, the canon is a politically charged distortion of human development. 1 can see that this has its uses, in education for example. It is nevertheless artificial, inaccurate & political.
To return to Gove. In his article, he tells us ‘In one year recently, 280,000 candidates studied just one novel for the AQA GCSE. The overwhelming majority (over 190,000) studied Of Mice and Men.‘ This, he tells us, is bad. It will be fixed, he claims, by adopting his new proposal. How is this to be achieved? Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it? By changing this already narrow syllabus, Gove argues, to a different, anglocentric, syllabus, pupils will simply learn to read outside of the canon. Give cites the example of 2 schools – where pupils already read ‘George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, William Golding, Erich Maria Remarque and Primo Levi.’ This, he argues, is what will happen when his new syllabus is implemented.
Oh dear. Do we even need to deconstruct this?
Gove uses statistics at the start of his argument, both as a rhetorical tool & as point of apparent concern. That 280,000 only read a single novel is an actual point for concern. However, what Gove then proceeds to do is purely political worming. He gives no further concrete evidence, but instead argues that pupils will still have the freedom to pursue other literary interests. He misses out that pupils have always had that freedom. He then goes to use the schools as anecdote to create a concrete, emotional resonance with his audience, supposedly showing his argument is correct. A clever rhetorical, formal trick, certainly. Evidence? No. Gove’s twist here entirely ignores reality, & the initial basis of his argument. 1stly, these schools exist now, not as a result of Gove’s future policy. 2ndly, anecdotes do not contradict statistics. As a result, Gove succeeds in creating a logical paradox for his own argument. Either there is no problem – as the anecdote would suggest – or Gove’s policy will do nothing to change the narrowness of the canon, merely make it anglocentric – as statistics & reality would suggest. In other words, whatever you might choose as a side here, you can’t ignore that Gove is wrong.
The key question, here, would therefore seem to be in understanding why Gove is making the canon anglocentric. This is a theme I may return to in the future. For now, content yourselves with the fact that he is making it anglocentric & that he cannot argue for shit.