Gove’s Guantanamo English Classroom

The Sixth Form Journal, 10th July 2014

Whilst the rest of us are getting on with our lives, and Gove is getting on with his education reforms, the American Government is getting on with one of the things it does best: torturing terrorists.

It’s no secret that Guantanamo prefers to interrogate its residents in ways that leave no visible marks – convenient for the Americans and inconvenient for human rights lawyers – but one of the more imaginative techniques leaves with me a lingering sense of familiarity. It goes by the name of ‘music torture’.

In order to be mentally broken before questioning, terrorist suspects are locked in a room and played the theme music of Barney the Purple Dinosaur at full volume, sometimes for days at a time. The premise of the strategy is that by bombarding them with continuous sound, suspects will start to go insane – and thus become more malleable in the interview room.

The parallels to a GCSE English classroom are stark.

Michael Gove, riding out against the modernists with good old-fashioned Britishness in his heart, is on a quest to force students of GCSE English Literature to appreciate our literary heritage. He hasn’t actually altered the exam syllabuses himself – he can’t – but he has publicly expressed his preference of British work. In the same week, the incumbent favourite Of Mice and Men (by American novelist John Steinbeck) has been axed from the examined texts. A fortunate coincidence for Mr Gove, one would think.

But if he wants us to appreciate literature, I’m inclined to think that he’s going about it the wrong way. It’s even questionable whether the English classroom is the place where a true love and understanding of literature happens. A flaccid rendition of a set text by an uninterested Year 11 student doesn’t inspire students to explore its contextual themes and author’s related works in our their time – British novel or otherwise.

In fact, it’s likely the opposite is true. Ask any GCSE English veteran about Of Mice and Men, and the response you’ll get will be flat, uninspiring and pejorative. I’ve learnt that being dragged through a text, whilst being force-fed with morsels of analysis to regurgitate in the exam, is far more likely to turn students off the novel, rather than provide them with the impetus to delve into its literary heritage. Being taught to pass the exam feels like I’m being treated to the information overload America reserves for compulsory residents of Cuba’s least popular holiday camp.

Mr Gove needs to make a choice. Either the English syllabus and exam need to be revised so that the course allows students to learn to love good writing, or it needs to be accepted for what it is: a platform of analysis from which we jump through the hoops of the exam. The novels selected for study at GCSE are simply there because they’re easy to analyse. The poetry I studied featured no classics – no Tennyson, Poe or W.B. Yeats – it was constructed to be taught to the specification.

At A Level, for example, students are given time to write coursework of their own choosing: the question, the genre, and the texts are all flexible. By definition, this task involves a great deal of exploration and reflection, which is what literature is all about. Our choices about what we read and our responses to it are all very intimate processes and the notion that such things could be standardised and bullet-pointed is laughable.

A true love of literature is passionate, not formulaic, and writing is to be enjoyed and devoured, not deconstructed into themes and copied onto revision cards. What happens in the classroom is nothing like the personal journey into literature, which is characterised by long afternoons with a book. If that is what Mr Gove is looking for, he won’t find it lurking around a room full of teenagers sprinting through essays.

The status quo is to be defended: British literature is probably not the most important area of study for a GCSE student. But even if it were, experience shows that the more teachers teach it, the less we students will like it. The classroom should encourage us to read in our own time – that’s when the real appreciation of literature happens. Gove can love British work all he likes, but he can’t force students to love it any more than America can force a terrorist to love Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

Article published on the Sixth Form Journal site here

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