Grinding My Teeth to the Gums – I Wanted to Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, but I was too Worried It Wasn’t Fair Trade

This post started off with a different agenda, but about halfway through, you’ll see my id appear as the election results came in. To hell with the punctuation, grammar and spelling…my mind is reeling, my gut is aching, my throat is twitching…

Best read in the voice of a furious lunatic who dreamt of more.

Oh social media, what have you done to me?

I have been forced to a position where it may appear I am defending Michael Gove, have you people no shame?

Social media is a frequent nail bomb of conjecture, rumour and newspaper stories further spun, all ready to blow up and leave us screaming and furious.

Today, I was repeatedly informed that American literature had been banned by autocratic Gove. Despite the same rumour also implying that this ban would also effect all other Non-British English language authors such as Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Janet Frame, it was the North Americans that were mourned.

It seems this all began with a piece in The Sunday Times. To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men were to be banned for being foreign. By 9am, Twitter smelt of petrol, wine bottles, rags, and insurrection, people were ready to imagine themselves on a street with a placard and fire.

The fury was twin-pronged.

I have never met a teacher who gets dewy eyed when thinking of Gove (though some do weep angry tears). To Kill a Mockingbird is many people’s most beloved book. (some people like it so much they even spelt the name correctly)

The problem was, it doesn’t seem to be as clear cut as that. This was not a banning of all books “that ain’t from around here”. It doesn’t even seem as enormous change as some people were imagining. The disgust that people feel for Gove meant that they leapt to presumptions and banged on about them because it seemed the sort of thing he would do. I am beginning to get angry about people not being factually accurate with their anger, and then it might be anger wasted. Anger that needs to go beyond the internet defused by officials pointing out a misunderstanding, and while that distraction is going on, more shit is being heaped and hurled in myriad ways. It’s all close up magic, so furious for Harper Lee, we are blind to definite monstrosities.

I do it all the time. I see something, my goat is got, and I am hammering at a keyboard.

Education secretaries are rarely popular, they are frequently meddlesome, conservative, and with little empathy. In the last few decades, the governments seem unable to imagine much of a reality beyond their own experience. It is this emptiness, this media savvy gesturing, this fear (on the left) to be bold, that seems to have allowed this grotesque illusion of an everyman, Nigel Farage, to predict earthquakes (so it is wrong for same sex marriage to cause flooding, by the hedge funded right are allowed to cause earthquakes?). Farage seems to have fallen from the mind of Ralph Steadman into a pint of real ale, and as he has crawled across the barroom floor, the humidity in the saloon has created a mirage of alternative thinking, when all that lies there is grit and gum blood. (I remain in confusion that a party against regulation and so keen on financiers gains seats after people of so similar a shape, breathing the same fetid, money eating halitosis, helped bring much of the world to the brink of collapse).

This is why we have to try and be accurate with our anger. It’s hard not to just open the window and be as mad as hell, to declare we’re not going to take it anymore, when we clearly are.

And back to education.

I am not sure how much these English literature reforms are really going to change the books learnt and art appreciated. Teachers, please feel free to comment under this (I am talking particularly about the selection of books on the curriculum, not Gove’s other changes, but you can out down your favourite or least favourite of these too). I want to know and I would like to know from a more accurate source than “spun for umbrage” newspaper inches. But with Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot echoing in my mind, I consider it sad and insular that, “on this mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam”, this world of rapid communication around the earth and beyond it, that we should become more parochial. “This is what someone who lived near here wrote”. As, for the time being at least, the only species in the universe that writes poetry, creates narratives from ink and imagination, dreams of other worlds and populates them with the product of thoughts, we should be learning to appreciate that we are not so different. That Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart can be studied next to Zola’s The Earth and Jorge Luis Borge’s Labyrinths. Or do we only let the schools teach the books that were written in the county of the institution, for fear that the mental leaps for the people of Nottinghamshire to understand the words of Lanarkshire writer would be too great, and create a population who were worryingly cosmopolitan.  

I hear Carl Sagan declaring, “think of the all the bloodshed, so men could be the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot”, but I’ve been reading George Carlin’s Last words too.

“‘FUCK YOU, COCKSUCKERS’ is my approach. To the world. To the leadership.”
My mind is confused. Why have we fallen for this little islander bullshit? Has there ever been a time when the blame couldn’t be passed on to someone foreign who has “different ways”. Mediocre imaginations are surprisingly potent in this vote game.

And what the fuck is the mainstream left going to do. The people who fucked it up with greed, and persuaded everyone to dance along into debt, are the people gaining from their own crimes. Oh man, I am going to stop here.

“if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention”. We need to be angry. And we need to pay attention, so we’re not diffused or fobbed off on a technicality.

I will be trying to do my happy show in a town near you soon – Swindon, Hull, Glasgow, Newcastle, Swansea, Newport and many more. Details HERE

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7 Responses to Grinding My Teeth to the Gums – I Wanted to Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, but I was too Worried It Wasn’t Fair Trade

  1. Robert Smyth says:

    I picked up Labryinths from my Pure Maths tutor at University, fantastic book. I think the issue here is that we have enough American culture already. Both books are excellent and you can still read them I think, but you might not be tested on them. I would much rather George Orwell was read than Harper Lee or John Steinbeck. If they could get Borges, Camus or Sartre in then now you are talking.

  2. Louise says:

    ” Teachers, please feel free to comment under this. I want to know and I would like to know from a more accurate source than “spun for umbrage” newspaper inches.”

    Don’t be silly. The press is where I find out all the proposals and changes to education. They don’t tell teachers first.

  3. xenaclone says:

    I hope someone sits Gove down and makes him read ‘Farenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury

  4. Adam Pain says:

    Hi Robin,

    Another great post, written with furious energy.

    Firstly, as a son of two teachers and now an educator myself, the hyperbolic spin put on the story by the media hides the real issue most education professionals have with Gove’s plans. Let’s be clear – he has not ‘banned’ anything. But it is unprecedented that an Education Secretary a) speaks expressly to an exam board, to stress what literature they should focus on in very specific terms b) publicly express disapproval for what is an American classic, simply because it appears to be both popular and engaging for both teachers and students, and c) to bang on about how rigour, reading level, spelling and punctuation are key. It’s actually c) that pisses me off the most.

    Two things: This is GCSE English literature, not English Language. English Literature GCSE is a gateway to both A-Level English and some relevant BTEC’s, but it is not the ‘key’ qualification, from a strictly academic perspective – that’s English Language. And it is a GCSE. Let’s not forget that. 1 of between 10 and 12 subjects that 14 year old kids will be studying, over a two year period. English Literature is supposedly about engaging young minds with written thought, at a pretty accessible level. To allow them the opportunity to engage with a broad palette of texts, discuss it and write about how they feel in response to the stimuli. So, for Gove to publicly express his dismay at ‘Of Mice And Men’ being a text so commonly used as the basis for study, he appears to be making a value judgment based upon novel length, lack of “tricky” words and simplicity of concept. He is deeming it too stupid to bother with. Jesus, it is hard enough getting 14 – 16 year old kids reading – properly engaging with text, getting under the skin of the issues dealt with – without the Education Secretary’s pointless meddling behind the scenes.

    Of course, syllabus and resource changes are common, and it appears that Gove is being dealt an unfair blow by a braying media. To a certain extent, he is. But, it’s an accumulative anger of both teachers and parents, at changes they see as both pointless and divisive. And, it coincides with Gove’s insistence that portfolio based assessment is not as rigorous as a good, old fashioned end of year exam. This fuels the real anger. So, Mr. Gove, you want to make the set texts less accessible, harder from a purely academic perspective, more focused on British authors, stress spelling, punctuation and grammar at every turn AND then make the now 16 year old candidates sit in a hall for two hours, writing about a much narrower remit of literature? Instead of allowing them to explore, discuss, catalogue, evaluate and reflect upon lots of writing, in the hope that it will fuel a life long love for the possibilities offered by written English? That is just beyond depressing a proposition, for most English teachers at GCSE level.

    The changes are ideological, steeped in woefully outdated pedagogical principles, are likely to make teenagers (especially teenage boys) even less engaged in lessons as a result, potentially leading to a further drop in people engaged with English Language at A-Level, as it will be perceived as a ‘hard’ subject.

    I never want to see English Literature become perceived as a hard subject. I want to see more young people engaged with the possibilities offered by literature, drawing from as wide a palette as possible. I want book added to the recommended reading list, not texts proven to engage removed. I want teachers to be given more autonomy over which texts they feel (as the shop floor professionals) get the class buzzing, minds engaging and tongues moving. Not pens, tongues. And for God’s sake, enough with the focus on the strictly academic aspects of language – that’s for English Language, anyway. It’s about ideas, damn it. It should be seen as a creative subject. I really don’t give a tinker’s cuss how you spell colour/color – just as long as I can see it rendered in my imagination.

    So, whilst I am fully aware that the press have got hold of the wrong end of the stick with Gove on this issue, the anger, frustration and utter contempt teaching professionals feel for his approach as Education Secretary is entirely justified, as far as I am concerned.

    My father, who was a headmaster in secondary schools for 30 years of his life, describes Michael Gove’s approach as being the most divisive, arrogant, old fashioned and woefully narrow he has ever experienced. He is now retired (he’s 74 years old) but still trudges to the little shop on the corner every week to pick up a copy of the TES, and still gives up much of his free time to act as a Governor to a local primary school. Watching him read about Gove’s latest erosion of what Secondary Schools offer is quite heartbreaking, as his eyes fill with tears of frustration. It’s the students he feels will be failed by the ‘improved’ system he is weeping for.

    It’s interesting that you mention Carl Sagan. A frustrated teacher connected with me on Twitter last night, asking for recommendations of great American authors and thinkers. I threw a few names at here, but Sagan was new to her. I suggested she start with ‘Contact’ as a novel, but sent her a link to a video of Carl Sagan reading ‘Pale Blue Dot’. Sagan’s quiet plea for sanity is the better answer, but I can fully understand the Carlin approach. It’s so much more engaging in moments like these.

  5. colin evans says:

    people like dawkins,hound etc helped endorse the lib dems into a coalition that has been a disaster{for some} no good bleating now when they were told it was a bad idea.the horse has bolted i’m afraid.i really am afraid.

  6. Robin – you ask for facts and data. Try this sir, for the national direction and trends in English from secondary through to higher education:
    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/english-why-the-discipline-may-not-be-too-big-to-fail/2008473.fullarticle

  7. Robin I share your fury. Though English is my second language – it’s always been my favourite (mind with an Australian accent). Patrick Moore, Tim Winton, Neville Shute, Peter Carey are some of my favourites, though my love of American literature ( fostered in Sweden from an early age)was predominant and continues to be. My isolated Scandinavian imagination was illuminated and broadened by authors like John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Arthur Miller, James Baldwin thanks to an education system rooted in ,broadminded social democracy rather than hidebound nationalistic pride and arrogance. The English language is a global phenomenon, a gift of amelioration for all that colonial rape and pillage, it now belongs to the world. To my mind therefore any literature written in English is by osmosis English literature and thus essential for the developing minds of English schoolkids. After all Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen are taught in literature classes everywhere on the planet. Time to give Gove the shove!

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