An Education In Canonisation

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We’ll leave Old Rosie to teach her own lessons, and lend our ears to young Scout for this one…

Once upon a time, for the children of the late 20th century (that’s you and I) your literary education began with exactly that phrase, and read:

“Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.” ‘Winnie the Pooh’, by A A Milne (1926)

Or alternatively (depending which animal life your mini-me took fancy):

“Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were- Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.” ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, by Beatrix Potter (1902)

[Brace yourself: I will now cruelly pull you back into reality, from that Eden, that Arcadia, the pastures of pastoral innocence of Hundred Acre Wood or Mr McGregor’s garden; although, like you, I would love to dwell there longer.]

You were loaded into the literary canon before you could even talk or walk, and your life’s education had begun. You were blasted toward an endless horizon of discovery.

Recent plans set out by the education secretary, Michael Gove, though, takes this analogy too far. His canon does not boost you, unfettered, to fly through the boundless skies of literary enlightenment, but through a theatre of war, in the midst of a time warp. The literary canon runs the risk of becoming destructively restrictive under the latest government proposals for changes to the GCSE syllabus, notably OCR’s. Following is an extract from the exam board’s reform summary, under the ironic subtitle ‘GCSEs going forward‘ (yeah, right):

“English Literature, which is no longer compulsory, focuses on four areas of ‘classic literature’…”

Of course, you have already been left in no doubt as to what subject I study. But you don’t have to be a student of English Literature in further education to have been immersed in the canonical troves from which Gove endeavours to thieve. The literary canon isn’t straightforwardly defined, and I refuse to become embroiled in the traumatic repetitiveness of the age-old debate ‘What is Literature?’ which had me and my fellow Englishites (Literarian? Why is there no name!) in knots. I mean, who will ever pinpoint (or care) what exactly the ‘chairness’ of a chair is‽  One useful, perhaps unsophisticated, but valid way to define the literary canon might be ‘the content prescribed for study in school and university courses called English Literature.’ There, on the first rung of this contentious ladder, as terrifyingly tall as the Beanstalk of our beloved Jack, I’ll tactically skirt the matter and leave you wanting more (ahem).

What I will do though, is demonstrate why, in my opinion, Gove is not only ‘shooting a mockingbird’ (the very tempting, fitting but predictable headline for an article on this topic – resisting was difficult) but committing a greater sin in foreshortening the life of a pedagogical and stimulating text. Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-prizewinning novel, written in 1960 (cue Gove and his gun), is not a ‘Boo’ of a book, but an ‘Atticus’: it’s a difference-maker. Reading ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, at 15, was as much a coming-of-age story for myself as it was for Scout.

Gove’s choice to forefront pre-20th century texts (‘classic literature’) is far from reflective of my teenage taste at least, my own book shelf including a skim-read ‘Bleak House’, a once-read ‘Coming Up For Air’ and an over-read-to-ruin ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, soon replaced post-exam with “a celebratory edition to mark the fiftieth anniversary of this unforgettable classic.”

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Gove’s misconceived great expectations for his ‘new’ canon sends shrapnel flying. The proposed syllabus, to be first examined in June 2017, is set to be ‘increasingly challenging’ and ‘no longer compulsory’. Added difficulty could act as a 741 page long deterrent to all except the high-flying enthusiasts, with any anomalies rapidly rooted out by the comparable obscurity of Dickens and Eliot, and in a very long time from now (about next Friday) many less will know what it means for me to describe Gove as a caricature of his much cherished Mr Thomas Gradgrind. Far-fetched, I admit, but if his suggestions are to survive his successor, Nicky Morgan’s, term, ‘Gove’ could become a name brightly emblazoned with the responsibility for a significant decline in the nation’s passion for English Literature. Just as the Bible has fallen deep into a chasm of cultural loss, Dickens, Austen, Orwell and all that Gove endorses teeters on the cutting edge of hard times.

This canon is destructive. And equally restrictive, the phrase ‘pre-20th century’ implicates a parochial erection of a Union Jack which casts its bleak shadow over institutions of education. School gates should permit, rather than prohibit, the permeation of the cosmopolitan world. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ engages with racial violence, rape and the social marginality of the depression-era deep south of the United States. Furthermore the novel, told in the uncertain voice of Scout, is a window flung open to just the kind of debate that makes teaching literature about ethics and politics as much as it is about language and form. Something that a syllabus of ‘Brit Lit’, of Dickens and Orwell, which harks back to the myth of a ‘pure’ origin of English Literature, uncontaminated by the unintended consequences of empire, and ignoring the multinational place that Britain is today, does not. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is the perfect comprehensible GCSE novel, in terms of its poignant characterization, momentous narrative structure and clear-cut themes. For it is about pertinent issues confronting, rather than evading, calls for greater social equality.  Violence towards women and racism are as real as ever and the value of Lee’s story lies in its openness, its accessibility and its relevance. It teaches lessons that have accompanied me until now and always.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus (And I’m not going to attribute this to Lee because this is no fictional voice, this is human morality talking.)

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And it’s not just me. The unkempt diatribe you have just been subjected to grew from a tiny seed planted by a Mr Nigel Richardson, a man I doubt you know whom which I certainly don’t. But his article in the Telegraph a month ago quoted the exact same words in reference to the continuing civil rights protest in Alabama.

And so I realized that the Finch family were simply right in so many ways. And that they are still right, and as long as we can hold onto our multi-cultural United Kingdom, and refrain from regression into a pre-20th century, literary ‘island’ race, they will remain so.

So it’s not Rosie, but Michael (pity he wasn’t named Jim, would have been another subtle reference to the ol’ canon), who’s the toxic substance here. Attempting to poison the minds of the next generation with an outdated and exclusive ‘British’ fantasy far from our modern sense of the English identity, and worlds (rather than a North Atlantic Ocean) away from Scout, Jem, Atticus and Boo. A country unencumbered by racial and cultural difference; an unreal ideology intoxicating its students with insularity and intolerance.

That’s one small step for man in reversal of Scout’s giant empathetic leap for mankind.

P.S.  Ostensibly, I’m just asking for the whole ‘hypocrite’ critique- surprisingly it was marginally more difficult to borrow a pair of Michael Gove’s walking boots and take them for a hike than you might anticipate…

P.P.S. I’m sure he was doing his best and all.