U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Cultural Literacy Across the Pond

You may have heard the rumors that To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned from British secondary school syllabi.

Here’s the story – or, a version of the story: Last December, the UK’s Department for Education published new requirements for secondary-level subject exams in English.  From The Guardian

The direction on the syllabus content published by the department last year, and which exam boards must follow, specified: “Students should study a range of high-quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial whole texts in detail. These must include: at least one play by Shakespeare; at least one 19th-century novel; a selection of poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry; and fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards. All works should have been originally written in English.”

The exam boards – and indeed individual schools – are free to add any extra books they see fit, but the new rules have left them very little room for any 20th-century writing from outside Britain.*

So, to make room for more post-1914 British fiction, one of the UK’s biggest testing boards has decided to drop three twentieth-century American works from the subject exam reading list:  To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and The Crucible, and another exam board will likely make the same adjustments.

Well, this is just one of those curricular compromises that happens, right?  There’s only so much time in a year, only so much room on a syllabus — choices must be made.


Not in entire abstraction, and not in utter disinterest, but trailing clouds of politics have such choices come.

Here is Prof. John Sutherland’s take on the politics of this particular choice, as well as his apologia for the place of American literature in British schools.  His apologia takes the form of a syllabus – an annotated list of ten must-read works of American literature.

It’s not a bad list.

On the question of lists versus guidelines, see this op ed by Prof. Jonathan Bate, who had a hand in shaping the Department’s guidelines.  Bate places the blame for the controversy on the “craven examination boards.”  But he does not say why they are afraid to abandon the idea of a canon.  It’s an interesting question.


*You can also read more about the controversy here and here.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Bate’s piece makes a certain amt of sense to me: guidelines with suggestions, give teachers some discretion, etc.

    OTOH, I read the Guardian article down to where someone is quoted as saying that 16-year-olds might find it “tedious” to read Dickens and that it would “grind them down” — I think was the phrase used. To say of this of Dickens — surely one of the most accessible, least “difficult” of the great 19th-c novelists — strikes me as weird (even making all due allowances for what teenagers are presumably like in the digital age, etc.).

  2. LFC, thanks for the comment(s).

    I was also intrigued by the trajectory of Bate’s piece. It seems to me another example along the lines of the Harvard dons (do they call them dons? profs?) resisting the recommendations of the Redbook because prescribed classes / course content would limit the freedom of professors and students. You might expect the “establishment apologist” (pretending for a moment that this caricature is sufficient to describe Bate’s position) to speak up for prescribed lists or syllabi, etc, but he argues for just the opposite — as a way, though, of preserving a sort of noble privilege that will eventually disappear when the standardized test finally conquers all.

    On the compulsory reading of Dickens as “grinding students down,” I can’t help but think of Gradgrind — but, again, it’s ironic that of all the things about the education system that could be oppressive (and these might be very different things in the UK for college-bound students), having to read a Dickens novel is surely not so awful. But I haven’t been a teenager in a while.

    However, I do distinctly remember having to read Great Expectations in high school and hating it. I’m not sure if David Copperfield or A Tale of Two Cities would have been any better. But I read GE a couple of years later in college, and it was a completely different experience. Same with Austen, BTW — hated reading Pride and Prejudice in high school, loved it in college. Just needed a few more years of reading, and a few more years of living, to appreciate their company.

    Never have cared for the Bronte sisters, though. Too little sunlight, too much brooding.

  3. On Bate: “Noble privilege” is a nice way of putting it. I do think his position is more defensible: adjust what students read, but leave some discretion. Not all teachers and students are alike. This is why I wd not be a fan of set book lists in general, at least in high school.

    Interesting analogy re the reception of the Redbook (which you know a lot more about than I do, though I recall yr earlier post). [no, Harvard profs have never been called dons, afaik, unless some esp. Anglophile or pretentious one or ones decades ago tried to adopt the label for himself (or themselves), which I guess is possible, though I wd think unlikely.]

    Dickens: I also read ‘Great Expectations’ in high school, as I recall — didn’t hate it, just viewed it as another thing I had to plow through. Don’t remember it well. However, my other experiences w Dickens have been better: ‘David Copperfield’ (when I was ~12 — just read it for the story really [reading for the plot!]); ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ some time later (don’t remember exactly when); and ‘Little Dorrit’ much later (though still a long time ago). There’s a fairly recent, good bk by a British academic about the young Dickens, Becoming Dickens, that I stumbled across and happened to read some of about a year or so ago. Brontes: I’m not opposed to brooding but I’m not a particular fan. (Great cast in the 1939 ‘Wuthering Heights’ though.)

    Lastly, as long as the subject is 19th-cent novels: read ‘Middlemarch’ as a freshman in college and loved it. But that might be something that most high-schoolers (American and maybe British too) wd not be ‘ready’ for.

  4. Yes, I am actually partial to Bate’s approach as a way of shaping a curriculum, but that’s because I’m idealistic to a fault.

    Bate’s position on how texts should be selected/assigned and Sutherland’s take on what sources this selection should draw from needn’t be mutually exclusive, at least in theory. But in practice, as John Guillory has so ably argued, the “cultural capital” in the syllabus ain’t just cultural. I am guessing the exam boards know the sure money is on listmaking, and if they’re afraid of anything, it might be that they fear flexibility because it’s difficult to systematize/monetize.

    In any case, I think Sutherland is the realist here in the sense of knowing that lists will be made — either at the national exam level or in individual classrooms, or somewhere in between — because they are the instruments of assigning value. So he is going to bat for a (slightly more) diversified portfolio of cultural assets on the inevitable list — some offshore investment, if you will.

    I’ve only read Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens, but I liked it very much. Will look for the book you’ve mentioned.

    And yes to George Eliot — such good company. Her moral sense (like her prose style) is both capacious and keen. She can get preachy, and she can go long — both faults and virtues in Eliot. Her heart and her mind were so well matched — for and against each other.

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