Michael Gove should not kill the Mockingbird

This post was written by Dr Anna Hartnell, Lecturer in Contemporary Literature in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. It was originally published in the Guardian.

‘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.

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Teaching American History in Michael Gove’s Britain

This post was contributed by Dr Adam Shapiro, Lecturer in Intellectual and Cultural History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. Dr Shapiro also has his own blog: Trying Biology.

The controversy started by Education Secretary Michael Gove about how to teach history is likely to be a reference point among British historians (or historians based in Britain) for quite some time.

As a lecturer of American history in the UK, I asked my class for their reaction to Gove’s column, which focused mainly on the historical causes of the First World War and the large number of events commemorating its centenary this year. Several points came up:

Moralized Histories

With my current cohort we haven’t yet reached the First World War from an American perspective, but it is clear that the US perspective on the War would look very different to the British one. While William Jennings Bryan, the US Secretary of State from 1913-15, would have had no problem agreeing that at the outbreak of World War One Germany had “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order,” (as Gove describes them) he nonetheless disagreed sharply that these elements “all made resistance more than justified.” Indeed, Bryan placed the blame for war not solely on the German governing elite, but in governments that were too supportive of promoting the industries that found war to be profitable. Decades before we saw Eisenhower’s warning of a military-industrial complex, its precursors can be seen in the conjunction of Bryan’s pacifism and economic populism. But perhaps for Gove, Bryan is another leftist who simply refused to acknowledge the existence of evil.

In class, this led to a discussion of what I might call a Manichean approach to diplomatic and military history.  People don’t tend to call their enemies by names such as “the Evil Empire” with the caveat that their own force is only slightly less evil. That kind of rhetoric is designed to make a clear moral distinction. In our discussion of the US civil war, we discussed whether the victory of the North could be expressed in moral terms: that the North won because its cause (against slavery) was morally superior to that of the South. We considered whether this explanation served better than a claim that the North had military or economic superiority, or whether the South was beset by subversion within its ranks.

We turned to the account of the war written by Confederate General Jubal Early. Early ridiculed the claims that the cause of the war was slavery, pointing out that the North had profited by it almost as much as the South. Slavery was “used as a catch-word to arouse the passions of a fanatical mob,” Early wrote in his memoir.

Early’s narrative shows the Southern fight for independence as just and moral, and that the Northern leaders invoked slavery to distract from their own desire for economic exploitation of the South through conquest. The North won not through moral right, nor through military skill, but through sheer force of numbers. The story Early gives is one in which the South suffers a defeat, a punishment, almost in religious terms as a test of faith.

As an experiment, I asked several friends and colleagues about a passage from Early, while withholding its context

“the people of the United States will find that, under the pretense of ‘saving the life of the nation, and upholding the old flag,’ they have surrendered their own liberties into the hands of that worst of all tyrants, a body of senseless fanatics.”

Out of context, people thought that it was a liberal critique of the Patriot Act or the NSA. This led to the question as to whether or not ‘fanatic’ was simply a term that anyone could invoke at any time, to demonize their opponents. At which point, referring to opponents as fanatics says more about the person using that rhetoric than it does about the opponents themselves.

Morality and Individual Agency

So did it matter whether Jubal Early, or a soldier killed in Pickett’s Charge thought that their actions were morally just and in opposition to unjust tyrants? Did it matter for the British Soldier going over the top in the Somme? It matters in a personal sense—it matters to them, and to the people who knew them. We can recognize the moral behaviours of individuals, where the evidence permits, but does doing so explain anything about the outcomes of the war? The importance of the moral character of soldiers in the outcome of war is a question as old as Thucydides, but it does tend to suggest that history is a composition of individuals acting as personal moral agents and that there are no social facts that constrain, influence, or reward individual behaviours. It might be that the soldier in the Somme was conscious of the moral virtue of his action, or he may have felt trapped in a situation he could not control. A lack of emphasis by historians of the heroism of these individuals does not diminish their sacrifice or their heroism; it recognizes that there were other causes at work than simply individual moral actions. That despite the moral virtue of some individuals, they lost battles, or despite the moral depravity of their opponents, they won. At such a point, we need something else to explain historical cause and effect.

And this is where the issue becomes practically important, because if it’s the case that individual moral virtue is insufficient to be universally rewarded, then that has an impact on political ideologies that emphasize purely individualistic approaches to the solving of problems in society. If crime must be addressed solely by punishing criminals and never looking at the social systems that perpetuate criminality. If poverty and unemployment are seen solely as referenda on the moral heroism of the poor and unemployed (or the wealthy and employed) then they cannot be treated by social interventions.

History and Ideology

If history explains how causes and effects work in human behaviour, then it offers us guidelines by which we can assess personal and political action. Students generally agreed that it was an error to see the point of history as validating ideology – the point of history is not to compel all facts to fit into a grand narrative of class struggle, or a battle between forces of good and evil waged by heroes and villains, it ought to be a discussion of the balance of causes pulling at different levels. While Gove may have a point that some historians are committed to an ideology, replacing it with a different ideology seemed a poor fix.

Ideology and School History

What struck me as odd was the fact that so many people regarded the politicization of the history curriculum as something new. And yet my students were aware that it had been a longstanding issue in American education. Perhaps this was because there’s no single unitary curriculum under national control in the United States, but my class had looked at examples of US and Canadian politicians citing interpretations of history to support differing interpretations of the same event. For some, it was easy to recognize differences in political ideology lurking behind Columbus Day proclamations issued by Presidents Bush and Obama.

We also raised a question for later: how can we remain historically detached when discussing the history of the history wars?

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