Thursday, 9 May 2013

Oh, Mr Gove, please back off Ms Meyer!

So the Education minister, Mr Gove, has slammed the recommending of 'The Twilight Series' to students in schools. Apparently they should be spending their time reading classics from the Canon of English Literature and not filling their head with the nonsense written by the likes of  Stephanie Meyer. (BTW, thanks Stephanie for taking the whipping for all of us 'rubbish' and 'unworthy' YA authors) Children, according to him, should be striving for intellectual supremacy, aiming to become the ultimate thinking machine - (oh as long as their thinking complies with the stringent boundaries outlined by Mr Gove's utopian ideal.)
‘There are all too many children and young people only too happy to lose themselves in Stephanie Meyer [...]
There is a great tradition of English Literature - a canon of transcendent works - and Breaking Dawn is not part of it. [...]  
The series author Stephenie Meyer ‘cannot hold a flaming pitch torch’ to George Eliot." Mr Gove
I am impressed that the man has read 'The Twilight Saga' because obviously he wouldn't talk about something he didn't have any knowledge of, would he? He wouldn't denigrate an artist's work without bothering to read it in its entirety, would he? After all, that would be as ignorant as saying Shakespeare is boring without bothering to read him. 

I am an experienced English teacher, judged as "Outstanding" by government inspectors. I graduated with a top class English Literature degree and I followed it with a Masters, which I passed with credit. I say this only because narrow minded individuals like Mr Gove need these 'validations' in order to judge an opinion worthy. In Gove's world such things seemingly matter - a lot! (In mine I've learned that these things mean very little and certainly don't make a person more superior.)

I love George Eliot. Both 'Middlemarch' and 'Mill on The Floss' are wonderful books that had a big impact on me. I have also loved reading hundreds of 'Canon' works but I also LOVE 'The Twilight Saga!' and the whole genre that it represents.

What Mr. Gove is forgetting, is that to be a truly Renaissance individual a broad experience and education is necessary. It involves having an open and curious mind. If we are stuck in a romanticised past construct of what is valid knowledge then it undermines the creative evolution of the present and future generation.

I will never forget sitting in an English Lit seminar with a lovely, incredibly intelligent, silver-haired English professor and noting (as he read Chaucer in fluent Middle English) that he wore a plastic 'The Simpsons' watch. The noting of this juxtaposition taught me one of the most important lessons of my entire academic career - truly intelligent people consume all aspects of culture; they see beyond the definitions of high and low, they transcend the self-conscious, pitiful attempts to appear more clever, and superior than their fellow man; they are humble, tolerant, open minded and most of all they are deliciously subversive.

There are hundreds of works from the sacred Canon of literature that were considered by misguided men of the era as nothing but 'pulp' or immoral fiction; Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights', Shelley's 'Frankenstein', Stoker's 'Dracula', Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterly's Lover' and so on and so on ... in fact you can probably sling all of the gothic horror classics into the 'trash' pile at once, and the mildly erotic romances written by women, and the works of The Romantic poets, and ... - I think the point is made.

The problem with judging and placing a value on contemporary works of literature is that it's a pitfall for snobbery. It is ignorant and arrogant to have the audacity to judge what popular works will stand the test of time and which will not. It is to have an unbelievable sense of inflated ego to petition the masses to 'educate themselves'. Education is not about a fixed curriculum, it's about engaging and understanding the world around us, about striving to understand the human condition.

When Mr Gove makes comments such as 'in the best primary schools children read the works of Shakespeare, Orwell, T.S Elliot' it exposes him as a fool. Yes, students may decode the text word by word but to 'read'? What does 'reading' truly mean? It means to feel, to understand, to empathise, to suspend disbelief, to comprehend, to experience, to associate ...

Do we really want our ten year old children (and younger if you believe his nonsense) to cogently decode and sanitise the incredibly erotic, psychological, violent and sometimes desolate works of Shakespeare, Orwell and Elliot? I certainly don't want those future delights spoiling for my daughter. I want her to discover Orwell, like I did, at the cusp of adult understanding, when he lifted the veil from my eyes about the very notions of authority. I want her to read Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' at the time she begins to experience her first flushes of romantic love. I want her to read Elliot when she is able to understand the true genius of his works; when she is able to piece together the cultural web that he weaves.

I also want her to read a whole load of 'pulp' (exactly the kind of stuff that I write) because there is an honesty and clarity of voice (often of the female voice - so blatantly ignored in the sacred English Canon that Gove so elevates). I want her to read for pleasure, for fun, for satisfaction, for thrills and entertainment, not just so she can validate her own intelligence through a misguided and antiquated (and patriarchal) notion of what is good and intelligent.

Mr Gove is attempting to construct a simulacrum of a golden age of education. Maybe it's about time he added the novel Don Quixote to his reading list - he might then become a truly educated man.


  1. Surely having young people read any books at all is a GREAT thing indeed?

    By letting them read something that piques their interest, they will be more likely to broaden their horizons and experiment with more 'traditional' works.

    Great post and point well made, Ms John

    1. Absolutely. In the case of 'Twilight' they republished 'Wuthering Heights' (mentioned in the Twilight books) into a more YA friendly 'brand' and many of my students went on to read it as well as some of the more traditional vampire works. In this way, it acted as a portal towards some good 'introductory' classics.

  2. Hear, hear! Twilight isn't my personal cuppa but each to their own.

    1. Agreed. Reading should be a personal pleasure and not something that is dictated to you by the state. Perhaps there is some irony in him recommending that primary school children read Orwell - he'd have abhorred this kind of state meddling and thought policing.

  3. Good old Gove. Has he ever thought that perhaps the children might not benefit from reading 'high' literature at such a young age? I read 'Tender is the Night' at 14 and thought it was incredibly dull. Fast forward ten years and a reread and I could clearly see I was too young for it when I first read it. Ditto Dickens. Reading proper novels needs to be encouraged regardless of what genre the novel is. It is a joy like no other to get lost in a book. I am currently ensconced in Game of Thrones to the detriment of all else and I couldn't love it more!

    1. Absolutely. There is a genuine risk of destroying a child's love of literature if it's force fed them at too young an age. The image of the fois gras ducks comes to mind. It's a very misguided ideal. It's also interesting that in the France (where this is an embedded and wide spread literary respect) they don't even formally teach their children to read until they are seven. My poor five year old daughter is being pressured to be reading on a graded scale already and competition is fierce.

  4. Oh Gove really doesn't get it does he :(
    I am also aware at the moment the a lot of the changes to primary literacy like knowing how to spot propositions, onomatopoea etc are his doing.
    This is primary school FFS, surely (and I hope as a teacher and English lit grad you ill confirm this), it is more important to foster creativity? And that children are quite capable of correctly using all kinds of interesting ways of writing without ever having to know that a particular word can be put in a group and given a name (possessive pronouns for example!). I hated this kind of learning at school, never took any of it in but have got a first class honours BA and a masters degree and am now doing a PhD.
    It worries me so much that Gove exists to spout such rubbish.

    1. Absolutely agree, Louise. I think it is really sad when works are stripped down to their mechanics at such an early age. There is a great joy in taking apart a great work of literature and figuring HOW it works, how it communicates, how the writer has crafted human emotions and ideas into words. But first, a child has to learn to appreciate the beauty of their own responses to a work, to allow their creative, intelligence to interpret and synthesise a piece - only then can they analyse it with any true understanding; otherwise it's just like a factory worker on a disassembly line.

  5. Mr Gove should stop meddling with the kids in his factory. There are children out there that would be really happy not reading at all. These are the hidden proportion with learning disabilities. They usually have dyslexia or Asperger syndrome or both. These are mainstream children and are meant to be supported, given a fair and equal access of learning according to the 1996 Education Act. For the mums who struggle to get them to read anything is a miracle, trying to fit their square peg children into the round holes of the educational system. The teachers don't have the time to teach as they slavishly follow the National Curriculum to reach the KPI's that the department of education has laid down as the measure of success for their factory output. Of course these mums are not allowed to kick up a fuss as they see their children agonise over text which they cannot decipher. This is because the teachers don't like to be criticised when all they are trying to do is meet the OFSTED targets. These children have poor working memories, for them learning to read is really hard work, they need extra time with the basics of decoding. phonos and blending. They need to over learn the techniques of reading text. Reading classics is completely superfluous as most of these children will never pick one up and indeed have no interest in reading because they are made to feel stupid within a system that over relies on children having no literacy learning disabilities. Why do mums or teachers not complain I hear you ask? It is because there is no accountability for the teaching of these children. Certainly no one wants to talk about the 14% - 25% of children in a year 11 group that do not earn their 5 A-C GCSE's, because 86% - 75% of children got through the production line with no faults. So now let us ponder on the literary deficient. These bright children, usually with high IQ's are left to rot in the lowest levels all over the country because they missed the literacy basics, however they are usually brilliant at mathematics and computing. This naturally does not fit well within the National Curriculum which relies heavily on the written word as the measure of it's success. It also does not allow for adjustment of a timetable to focus more on mathematical talents. It's all very well learning classics if you fit in.
    The Department of Education's measure of success is the GCSE which Mr Gove also wants to meddle. But the old style GCE will take us back a few years in the understanding of the learning styles of individuals and rely on a child's good memory as their measure of success. Lets face it if you are a round peg, hoping to be a politician, academic, teacher, civil servant, or writer then all this extra classical literature grounding is essential. I am sure that there are many politicians like Mr Gove who have Literature or History degrees. But then does not the government also bemoan the fact that there are not enough British scientists, mathematicians and engineers. I wish Mr Gove would just go away or do something down to earth. He could reduce the amount of useless stuff that teachers are forced to deliver from primary level. Allow educators to get on with the job instead of meddling in an area he has obvious little understanding of. Develop school education as a platform for employability, making every child feel that they have value and skills, introduce more practical courses earlier on, and stop this ridiculous plan of getting the majority of school children into costly university education. He needs to read a few Haynes Manuals, recipe books, and How to Guides.

  6. Anything that gets children and young people reading has to be a plus, whether it's Louisa M Alcott, Arthur Ransome or Enid Blyton [as with me], or Harry Potter and Twilight today. You have to let them capture the excitement of reading, the rapture of losing yourself in a new world. Then, let them decide what they want to read.