Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Read the Old, by Matthew Cooper

Lord knows, I am no fan of Michael Gove. But in the most recent dust-up over the national English curriculum, he has matters exactly right – though seemingly for all the wrong reasons.

It is believable that he did indeed object to the leftist bent of authors like John Steinbeck and made his decision accordingly, as many academic commentators have suspected.

But this being the case, why on earth would he have favoured authors such as Shakespeare and Swift and Austen and Dickens – each and every one of whom had a satirical streak and a profound sense of moral outrage against the establishments of their respective times lying simmering in their prose?

To tell truth, I feel that modern writers and left social activists alike in America as well as Britain stand to benefit more from King Lear, A Modest Proposal, Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of Two Cities than they do from anything by the minimalistic and economical Steinbeck.

Does Gove truly fancy that the man who fashioned Ebenezer Scrooge to mock everything that is un-Christian about Victorian Whiggism stands in his government’s ideological corner?

Or a man who took pains in his plays to highlight the tragic and self-destroying propensities of the machiavel, that character type now so ubiquitous in neoconservative political circles both British and American?

Or a man who castigated in the strongest terms the English nation for its abysmal and inhumane treatment of the Irish, in the name of ‘sound principles’ of political economy?

Or, for that matter, a woman who clearly sympathised most with the poor and penniless, and whose pen so deftly skewered the pretensions in manners and law of the propertarian bourgeois society in which she grew up?

That will make the Rt. Hon. Secretary of State for Education’s situation at present more pitiable, but it will have no effect on her.

Or, indeed, on any of them.

So why this backlash from the academic left, of all people, against making the works of twentieth-century America, of all things, optional for high-school study?

The secondary-school teacher I loved and respected most was a woman named Mrs. H—, who taught English and the sciences. Being a Dane County state-school teacher, she was as ‘progressive’ politically and economically as anyone else I knew, and that is saying a great deal.

But Mrs. H— was also an Anglophile, deeply enamoured of William Shakespeare, and this showed readily in her teaching. 

She took the entire class to performances of Macbeth and A Comedy of Errors at American Players’ Theatre in Spring Green, and even had us act out Macbeth for our school.

Of the many things she imparted to me, one that kept with me was best articulated by C. S. Lewis: ‘if [a reader] must read only the new or the old, I would advise him to read the old’.

So I do fully agree with Michael Gove that these English classics ought to enjoy cultural privilege and priority – particularly in Britain! – over the newer and less-challenging works of modern America at the height of its imperial prowess, even if I find his reasons for doing so on every level mystifying.

Has he simply not read the works he is advocating for, or is he truly cynical enough to believe their social and political significance will be lost on secondary-school students?

And Gove’s critics are quite right to frame the issue as an ideological one, as an issue of values.

The assigned reading lists of state schools are, whether intentionally or not, statements of what those schools find valuable – so much so, indeed, that they believe them indispensable for a child’s moral, emotional and intellectual formation.

But this consideration makes the reaction from English academia equally baffling if not more so, because these people with their literary training ought to know better than Gove.

Do they truly think learning Shakespeare – whose plays still have such enduring appeal across generations – ‘will just grind children down’, as Bethan Marshall of King’s College remarked?

Do they truly have so little faith in their own chosen profession that they can cast such aspersions on the ability of Shakespeare (and Swift, and Austen, and Dickens) to engage and even electrify the imaginations – including that theo-political imagination from which flows all manner of demand for radical social reform – of young people?

Has the warning that Lewis himself advanced ‘against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet’ already lost so much of its currency?

These questions need to be asked of the self-appointed academic defenders of the Americanist canon: What exactly is it that makes twentieth-century American literature so indispensable when compared with the English classics?

What precisely is it that they imagine Arthur Miller can do for the moral, emotional and intellectual upbuilding of young Britons that the Bard cannot?

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