After countless years of GCSE students annotating their way through the pages of American literature such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, change is underway. Michael Gove’s new guidelines, which recommend the benefits of British literature over that of our stateside cousins, have ruffled the pages of many a student, teacher and parent.
Gove claims that this shift towards a more traditional curriculum stems not from a lack of value in the American canon – despite holding a personal distaste for the aforementioned novella which is arguably Steinbeck’s magnum opus – but a desire to broaden the range of material read by teenagers. I’m not entirely certain that this makes any sense. Surely the inclusion of books from across the pond only increases the arsenal from which schools take their pick?
Admittedly, there is perhaps a lack of variation in the literature opted for by many English departments. I, for one, count myself as one of the lucky few who managed to reach the end of Of Mice and Men without experiencing the unfortunate (SPOILER) George-shoots-Lennie spoiler scrawled across the title page by a particularly sadistic ex-Lit student. However, having read a commonly-studied book does not decrease its worth! Just think how many times Romeo and Juliet has found itself up for autopsy in a GCSE classroom. Of Mice and Men, unless I am very much mistaken, was written in English, without doubt a major qualifier for insertion into the suggested reading list. Many of the English language’s best works were written by authors of the American persuasion. Indeed, in the BBC’s 2003 Big Read, which compiled a list of Britain’s best-loved novels according to the public, there are four American contributions in the top twenty alone. We are already facing a generation to whom the names “Jo”, “Beth” “Meg” and “Amy” in sequence mean nothing, despite the immense global fame Little Women enjoys, so why rob them further of what is perhaps their only contact with American literature?
Don’t get me wrong. Gove is right to emphasise the significance of British novelists. I grew up on a literary diet of Harry Potter and Enid Blyton, and I’m fairly sure Pride and Prejudice is tattooed on the inside of my skull. Nevertheless, I believe there is only gain to be made by drawing on the collective libraries of two nations. Yes, maybe this undermines the pertinence of English Literature, but nobody ever said it had to be British English.