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.