Gove Bans 'Of Mice And Men', Preferring A Curriculum Of Conservative, Nationalistic Propaganda

15:59Ciaran McCormick

A bubble of anger has boiled over as Michael Gove's plans for the English GCSE curriculum have become clear. Reports have surfaced in the press over his plans to ban such classic literature as John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird from the education of 15 to 16 year olds. I proudly harbour copies of both books in my collection and consider them important milestones in the formation of my worldview. There are certainly some problems with the way that literature is studied in schools, but the solution is not to revert to an old-fashioned viewpoint that the classic British canon of literature, with its limited perspectives. The rich diversity of world literature is one of the joys of studying the subject and is the main factor that will encourage young people to pursue it as a passion.

Of Mice And Men - a book with valuable perspectives
but to be banned because of its ubiquity in the GCSE curriculum

This week Gove will outline his new curriculum. The most obvious issue surfaces immediately in my mind. Should politicians really be the people deciding what books young people are studying? His background is outside of the world of education, having been an author and journalist. Indeed, there are many petitions floating about that call on him to actually teach for a term. But even if we accept that it is politicians that determine the content of syllabuses rather than teachers, experts or even students, his proposals are deeply disturbing. He is working on the basic principle that the curriculum at GCSE and A Level has been 'dumbed down'. He has censored particular works of fiction such as Of Mice and Men because they have been studied by the vast proportion of students. He has taken a particular dislike to this book and has based his education policy on this personal hatred. Instead, he will propose a curriculum of study that embraces works in the British canon.

In doing so, he falls foul to the conservative notion that the most rigorous way to study English Literature is to study the old texts that they themselves endured in school back in their day. It is clearly essential that students still study Shakespeare and other classic British authors. Their work is celebrated and has many interesting perspectives and complex, sophisticated dimensions. However, the entirety of the human experience and breadth of literature that young people could be exposed to is not captured by simply studying the writings of old, white, affluent heterosexual British men and women.

The single greatest determinant of success in education is whether in their younger years, children read for pleasure. It is more important than the environment in which they are brought, the educational background of their parents, or the amount of money pumped into their education. However, I cannot think of anything more likely to turn young people away from literature than these proposals. These classic works of literature pay off careful reading and detailed thought but they are also disengaging in the modern world because they have different values and language. The joy of English Literature is being able to combine these classic perspectives with every other perspective in literature.

Of Mice and Men has many things that it can uniquely tell us through the story of George and Lennie. Steinbeck was an American writer, which is a demerit for Gove in his nationalistic celebration of British values and history. Beyond its immediate context of the American West in the troubled Depression period of the 1930s, it teaches young people about friendship, work  and trust. There are problems with it being studied so intensively and overwhelmingly in schools. Stock answers have developed and there are enough resources  out there so that students need never even pick up the book. For example, every student will say that Curley's wife is not even given a name by the author because she is marginalised in their society. This is a trite answer rolled out because it earns credit and is something that would trouble Michael Gove.

However, there is truth behind it. The book offers perspectives on oppressed people in society such as the poor and women. These are valuable viewpoints that many of the books on Gove's preferred list may skip over. My school taught it rigorously, including bringing together the geographical study of the Dust Bowl, the historical period and the literary analysis of the book. It was not a soft option. Similarly, To Kill A Mockingbird offers a unique portrayal of serious issues such as racial injustice that you simply cannot find in the British canon that embodies conservative 'rigour'. Gove's reforms also fall prey to the view that anything modern is anti-intellectual. Just because modern authors are still alive does not make their work any less academically and personally challenging. If taught in the right way, an analysis of a Twitter feed or a speech by a world leader can be just as stimulating and rigorous as Hamlet.

Gove's conservative and nationalistic reforms are not just isolated to the study of English Literature. In History, teaching unions complained that Gove was anglicising the curriculum even further, trying to celebrate our glorious past through a pub quiz style makeover of the subject at the expense of alternative perspectives and histories. This is exactly what we need to encourage across the curriculum. The joy I have found in education came across a new viewpoint, the challenging of a different type of oppression or stumbling across a poem that makes you re-think your own deepest convictions.


This is why people celebrated recently when the OCR exam board announced new topics for its A Level in History. It will allow teachers to enthuse students with knowledge about diverse subjects such as the rise of Islam, pre-colonial African kingdoms and Genghis Khan. If there is one thing that students do not need to learn more about, it is British history, which is stuffed down their throats repeatedly at every educational juncture. To pretend otherwise ignores the patriotic ulterior motives of Gove's reforms. I hope young people do not get pushed away from education, because there are always other perspectives out there waiting to be discovered.

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