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Education is overrated.

HERE IN BLIGHTY we’ve not only had the excitement of a couple of elections, we’ve also been treated to a little furore over books, bans and education. That ineluctably involves Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, a man gifted with the ability to throw the most prim of liberals into an apoplexy of inexhaustible hatred.

A story emerged that Gove had “banned” those two classics of American literature — Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird — from the new GCSE syllabus. According to the same people who started this little rumour, and those who happily followed, Gove wanted to grind the faces of our poor children into the dust of old-fashioned British writers like Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen and the Romantics.

Within picoseconds of the news getting out the internet flipped into hyperventilation mode. The ant-Goveists went into a frenzy of petition-signing and cultural righteousness. Philistine, barbarian, ideologue, destroyer of young people’s worlds, Gove became the anti-Christ (again). If he stopped kids reading these books, kids would stop reading altogether and the skies would fall.

I have to admit my ignorance here — I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men. I don’t feel I have to, since I’ve heard so much twaddle about them over the years, about how they’ll cleanse my soul because they show how bad racism and capitalism are. I don’t need to read any books to get that message. I can get it just by flicking through the Guardian or watching the BBC.

But it’s the message all the whiners are whining about because they love it so much. What’s important is that they feel they can Stick It To The Man and stoke the revolutionary fires by getting kids to read these books. It’s literature as a programme for social engineering.

The problem is the story is a lie. Gove has not banned anything, or said exam boards should not include these books on their reading lists. Nor has he restricted the syllabus to British only texts. The requirement for one Shakespeare play, one nineteenth century novel, a selection of poetry since 1879, and fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards, is a minimum. There’s plenty of scope for other texts in addition to these, as a glance at the Department of Education’s documents and the current exam board syllabuses already shows.

TAKING A GLANCE at the relevant documents is clearly not within the abilities of the mass of people who went into hysterics over this. Nor was it in the grasp of the media, who happily churned the original nonsense for over week. Everyone was happy to jump into the cyber-ruck to give Gove a good kicking.

Despite rebuttals by Gove himself and numerous commentators pointing out the lie people are still repeating it. Even Toni Morrison muttered ominously during her appearance at the Hay Literature Festival that Gove will “regret” banning these books.

It’s a pity she wasn’t told it was a load of cobblers before she took to the stage, but as it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear at Hay — and helps generate publicity — I don’t suppose that would have been thought helpful.

It’s one of those spats that shows so many people at their worst.

It’s one of those spats that shows so many people at their worst. Not just the media, which you’d expect to be deceitful and incompetent, but also the legions of supposedly intelligent people who happily joined in a form of gang warfare because their prejudices allow it.

One exam board in particular, OCR, have been involved in stirring things up. The rumour started with a quote from their head of GCSE and A-level reform, who said “Of Mice and Men, which Michael Gove really dislikes, will not be included. It was studied by 90 per cent. of teenagers taking English literature GCSE in the past. Michael Gove said that was a really disappointing statistic. In the new syllabus 70-80 per cent. of the books are from the English canon.”

That’s a fairly clear example of finger-pointing. Now, having released their draft syllabus — which doesn’t include either of the two books — they declare it “will inspire teachers and students alike.” It’s a win-win situation for the hystericals, because even though the decision not to include the books was OCR’s alone, Gove will still take the blame.

It’s a dismal, grubby little tale. The people who set this story up, kept it running, joined in with the petition-signing, dismissal-demanding and mud-slinging are well-educated. Many of them will have one or two degrees. Many of them are teachers. Yet they act like a gang of thugs in the playground. Education? It’s overrated.

Michael Blackburn.


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