Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Gove is gone, but I believe it is acceptable at the very least to toe-poke such a man when he is down…..

Amongst the many deceits from Gove regarding his shaping of the new GCSE English syllabi to be taught from 2015 was the assertion that he had consulted over 151 professionals to inform this [see the document INDIVIDUALS CONSULTED IN THE PROCESS OF DRAWING UP THE DRAFT PROGRAMMES OF STUDY FOR THE NEW NATIONAL CURRICULUM, if you want to check].

I have it on good authority from someone who makes it a living to investigate this kind of politician’s assertion, that the claim is a significant porky pie. On the list referenced above there are indeed about 151 names, but to be precise from the start, these were for all subjects out for this consultation, and of these, 45+ are attributed to having been consulted on the English Language/Literature proposals at that time. Impressive statistics overall – if they were honestly calculated from the start, or any of them true.

I had been informed that the bulk of the names on that list actually applied to individuals who had merely attended nationally organised conferences on the proposals in general. So their names appeared on an attendance list. They went along. Had some coffee. Listened. Perhaps had lunch [I don’t know the timetables for the day]. Went home.

I decided to check this out to the best of my ability and made contact with one of those named people on the English list, a highly regarded teacher of and writer on English, and he confirmed that he had indeed attended one such conference. Consulted? Not a chance. He went along. Had coffee. Perhaps had lunch. And so on. I believe that the singular biggest ‘consultant’ and influence on the supporting of Gove’s ideas was Janet Brennan, former HMI with key experience in Primary education [and then an independent consultant for these Secondary education proposals].

Admitted, that’s just one actual verified statistic against the 151, give or take a few, unverified by Gove. Whilst bound to trust my own, I leave it to your judgement where you think the most likely truth lies [oh, the cleverclogs of it all].

As to Lies, damned lies, and statistics: no doubt Gove would like to attribute this famous quote – if he had to – to his British Tory chum Disraeli [though that has apparently never been possible to find and thus prove] rather than that pesky American author Mark Twain who popularised it.

Literature Written in English

As part of a document a friend/colleague and I submitted to the consultation process on the ‘new’ GCSEs to be taught from 2015, we included the extract that will follow on this issue of effectively banning American authors. The submission was co-signed by nearly 40 other Senior Examiners, many of whom also had significant positions and responsibilities in teaching, and all bringing to bear their collective and irrefutable wisdom as teachers and examiners of GCSE English Literature. The main thrust of the argument then was, however, a concern about the idea – again from Gove – that there should be a compulsory and discrete study of the Romantic poets. I’d like to think our arguments had some impact on this idea not making it through to the final Order, though it is both sad and still unbelievably censorial that the exclusion of American authors went ahead.

The astute observations on Matthew Arnold and other felicitous insights are from my colleague, whereas I contributed a more pragmatic, if similarly passionate stance. I share again to keep this debate alive, and informed. I will quickly mention that I know there is at least one HM government epetition [but not from the government!] doing the rounds on this issue, and whilst the gist is absolutely correct, I am concerned that in any attempts to continue working on arguing for changes, we need to be exact in outlining the context as it is [not just how we feel]. To the extract:

[b] The proposal states that the study of English Literature ‘should develop knowledge and skills in reading, writing and critical thinking. This allows candidates to develop culturally and acquire knowledge of the best that has been thought and written’, (writers’ emboldening).

This is a troubling statement in many ways. Obviously, ‘knowledge’ in itself is useless; understanding is essential. But the statement reveals some illusions. The sentence has been borrowed and butchered from Matthew Arnold’s seminal essay The Function of Criticism. The statement actually reads ‘the best that is known and thought in the world’; this extension is logical, for quite obviously the ‘best’ in the fullest term cannot be found entirely within the works of British writers.

Therefore, in the interest of academic integrity when designing this new curriculum, could the second part of this study be extended from ‘British’ writers to include ‘Literature written in English’? Otherwise it would be impossible for students to develop culturally since British writers have necessarily narrowed concerns. A specific rationale will be made in the following paragraph for the inclusion of Steinbeck’s influential novel Of Mice and Men with its overt reference to British writing in the Robert Burns epigram – an example of the cross-fertilisation of cultures, and similar is evident also in Lloyd Jones’s novel Mr Pip. Such shared cultural relevance is also found in Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus where there is a clear consideration of the damage and violence caused by sectarian enmity, a highly contemporary issue; similarly, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the sort of study of racism that could not be home-grown on British shores, and yet this makes it all the more apt as example. In short, the inclusion of ‘Literature written in English’ would allow considerations of contemporary issues with which – and there is clear evidence of this established through the current GCSE examinations – candidates from all cultural, racial and religious backgrounds can engage freely and convincingly.

Without challenge, key amongst these texts is John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The popularity of this for study in schools at GCSE is undoubtedly its length as a novella [in an English but also whole-school curriculum burgeoning with content and commitment], but it is much more than this. In a nutshell, this text manages to prove itself remarkably accessible as a read, and thus appeals to the widest range of students possible, but it also provides content that is challenging in terms of ideas from the broadest academic to simply but fully engaged levels. To remove the potential to study this extremely popular prose text because its writer is American would seem to be ideologically restrictive as well as pragmatically nonsensical. English Literature should concern itself with, as already acknowledged, aspects of a distinctly English/British heritage, but it should also more widely concern itself with literariness, and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men provides a uniquely accessible route into studying a writer’s use of language [description and dialogue], use of symbolism, character portrayal and development, and cultural, social and historical significance. As a text for assessment at GCSE, it has a proven track record of eliciting a full range of responses. This is also a text with a proven track record to meet this document’s stated aim to ensure students read widely for pleasure and as a preparation for studying literature at a higher level in its Subject aims and learning outcomes.

The ideal literary study promotes ‘a current of true and fresh ideas’, as Arnold continued to say. The idea of ‘freshness’ must rest on an understanding based on relevance of what a writer says and how such ideas are expressed. It would be dishonest and unproductive to arbitrarily impose limitations of national identity on a study of cultural contexts.

Matthew Arnold also warns about the limitations of such an imposition, a rejection of study of ‘foreign’ thought, fearing that ‘if we invent the whole thing for ourselves as we go along’, then there will be ‘plenty of bustle but little thought’. This statement is too close to home for comfort; in the interests of academic honesty do not allow ideas of the supremacy of British Literature deprive our candidates of the opportunity to develop socially, historically, culturally and academically. Avoid the damaging focus on an apparently arbitrarily-chosen poetic movement, replacing it with a wide Anthology. Then go on to extend the field of study to include ‘Literature written in English’. In other words, let us do the best for our candidates in drawing up a contemporary as well as a traditional curriculum.