‘Neighbours bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbour. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbours give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.”
This poignant moment from the last few pages of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, records the instant where a girl, about nine years old, finally recognises the humanity of her childhood bogeyman. This is a coming-of-age story, unusual for the fact that it charts the development of a female protagonist, Scout, and explores issues around racial violence, rape, and social marginality in the depression-era deep south of the United States. It has stirred up controversy across US school districts since it first entered the classroom in 1963.
Michael Gove’s decision to remove this book – along with a number of other American classics such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which similarly explore political persecution, social exclusion and the oppression of the weak – from the English literature GCSE syllabus, is not just parochial and regressive, it also fails to recognise the dynamics that make up modern Britain. It fails to understand that a large part of the value of reading literature lies precisely in the kind of empathic leap Scout makes at the end of Lee’s novel, one that enables her to see herself through the eyes of an “other” and so more fully comprehend her own identity.
To Kill a Mockingbird is arguably itself limited by the vision of a white liberal, but it tends to strike a chord with young people because its voice is faltering and uncertain and wide open to just the kind of debate that makes teaching literature about ethics and politics as much as it is about language and form.
However, schoolchildren in the UK are now going to be given a “more traditional” syllabus made up of largely British texts penned prior to the 20th century. Such a syllabus harks back to the myth of a “pure” origin for English literature, uncontaminated by the unintended consequences of empire, and ignoring the multicultural, multilingual and multinational space that Britain is today. Gove and his colleagues at the Department for Education are fantasising about a nation unencumbered by racial or cultural difference, or calls for greater social and economic equality.
This fantasy recalls an earlier moment in British imperial history when the colonial government in India decided in 1835 that education, conducted up to that point in native languages, would henceforth happen in English only. This narrow linguistic agenda ironically contributed to the reality of “literatures in English” – those other English voices that bear witness to the fact that the nation’s literary tradition does not have an uncomplicated beginning in medieval England.
At a time when the right is on the rise across Europe, immigrants are under attack from right and left, and the UK’s criminal justice system increasingly resembles the disastrous US model – which has seen the mass incarceration of black people under what many characterize as a new system of racialized control – the DfE’s decision plays into a poisonous atmosphere. There are of course other literary texts that are equally relevant for GCSE students; they need not be Anglo-American or indeed all be post-1900. But pre-20th century English culture should not dominate the syllabus: Gove’s attempt to wind the clock back overlooks the myriad identities of the children now populating British schools.
As Scout opens her narrative she reveals that her family can trace its lineage back to Simon Finch, a man from Cornwall who was persecuted as a Methodist and duly left England for the New World. There he acquired slaves, thus substituting one form of oppression for another. This knotty and discomforting genealogy that binds Englishness to empire and slavery and their fractious legacies of racism and inequality seems to be too thought-provoking for Gove’s deeply conservative vision of English literature. Our children should not be prevented from discovering it.