Dear Mr Gove,
Like many 17 year olds, I have finished with my GCSEs. Since I progressed to A Level before the changes to the education system, I found myself lucky enough to study To Kill a Mockingbird in GCSE English. I feel sorry for the new cohort for whom novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird are effectively blacklisted.
When I first encountered Harper Lee and John Steinbeck I was aware that they were part of the American canon and, after reading the texts, it is difficult to divorce the writers from their respective contexts. However, we should not divorce these books from the English curriculum simply because Lee and Steinbeck are ‘foreigners’. The mentality behind removing American literature from our classrooms is frightening. 18th or 19th century English novels are certainly rich pieces of literature to study, yet the time in which they were written was a time when the English were beginning to travel around the globe and vastly enrich their perceptions of the world (unfortunately, this came at the expense of other nations). To consequently limit the serious study of literature to only mainland English literature is to define the parts of the globe that aren’t English as inferior.
‘Sub-English’, not good enough for British children to study, would be populated by Steinbeck and Lee, Vikram Seth and Arundati Roy (both recognised by the literary prizes, but not good enough for our new nationalist, I mean national, curriculum) – authors whose first language isn’t English, why that would be unthinkable! Discredit ‘Heart of Darkness’ by the Polish Joseph Conrad and ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being’ by Czech Milan Kundera. Perhaps the dedicated literature enthusiasts among the GCSE takers will surreptitiously read these novels in their own time but, under the conditioning from the new education system, would they consider these novels to be unworthy of serious analysis because their experience of education has taught them that, unless it’s English, it’s undesirable? What’s to stop their thoughts from making the link, whether consciously or not, from categorising the authors and their nationality as undesirable?
Judging books not by their content but by the country in which the writers were born ignores that English is a global language and that the study of literature has only been enriched by understanding and encouraging the global writing scene. The criterion for assessing whether a book can be studied in English classrooms should simply be whether the text is in English. Due to the virtue of translation, this means the choice of books is limitless, which is exactly as it should be. Instead of burning books and trying to push English students away from arts subjects, the education system should be encouraging children to pursue a range of literature, and actively discourage the judgement of others on the basis of their nationality.
Claire Sosienski Smith