Gove and the Grammar of the Past

The furore over Michael Gove's plans for the English curriculum shows our collective amnesia over our rich sources of literature and history, writes Paul Lay.

Paul Lay | Published 06 June 2014

What the Dickens! The great Victorian novelist depicted at home among his creations by Robert William Buss, 1875.History Today, like any serious publication, tries to follow the principles of clarity and comprehension laid down in George Orwell’s 1946 essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’. Its rules – favouring the active over the passive, short words over long ones, the avoidance of cliche and jargon and a preference for the Anglo-Saxon over the Romance – have become standard. Yet a recent, somewhat contrived, spat between the Education Secretary Michael Gove and his many critics in the media and academe highlighted the shortcomings of what we might call ‘vulgar Orwellism’ and its malign effect on students’ engagement with the ‘heightened’ language of our past.

The controversy began with rumours, later denied, that the OCR exam board was to remove two 20th-century American novels from its curriculum. The books, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, are studied by up to 90 per cent of all OCR students, giving them an import surely beyond their merit. Both are serious works of literature (though Of Mice and Men is not Steinbeck’s finest novel), but some critics feel that they are privileged because of their ‘relevance’. As the centre-left historian David Marquand writes in his new study, Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now: ‘Everywhere the hunt is on for a mysterious entity known as “relevance” – a meaningless concept, better rendered as “fashionable”.’

Charles Dickens, who one would have thought needs no champion, is not fashionable, though Gove and his fellow traditionalists would like him to be. In the flurry of accusations that constituted the debate, Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer in English Education at King’s College London, was quoted as saying: ‘Many teenagers will think that being made to read Dickens, aged 16, is just tedious.’ My first instinct is to tell Marshall that it is an English teacher’s job to bring Dickens to life and persuade students of their error, but I fear she has a point. While the prose of Steinbeck and Lee is plain – Orwellian, even – Dickens is anything but. And if Dickens is a problem, what of Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Langland et al?

This is a symptom of collective amnesia. Until relatively recently, most children in English schools would have been familiar with the Authorised Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. It is a short leap from there to Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens, but with the loss to so many of these rich sources, founding texts of English literature, the DNA of a language is lost and what was once familiar becomes alien. Gove insisted on giving every school in the country a copy of the Authorised Version in 2011, its 400th anniversary; a noble gesture, but a sticking plaster. And it is not just a problem for teachers of English literature; the study of British history pre-19th century is similarly endangered by our denuded canon. We should not be afraid to return its riches to it.

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today

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