Towards a Common Culture: On Literature and the School Syllabus

by Alex Niven

In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and, yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to

But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through rages of fog
where we stood, saying I

– Adrienne Rich, ‘In Those Years’

Like many children of teachers growing up in the 1990s, in my schooldays I became familiar with the name of an unlikely bogeyman. To the world he was known as Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools in England (1994-2000), though it was common in houses like ours to replace the first syllable of his surname with the shorter colloquial form of Richard.

Woodhead is now the chairman of Cogita (according to Wikipedia, a ‘company dedicated to fostering private education’) but in the nineties he was the figurehead of a sustained onslaught of neoliberal policy in the British state education system, which left many people – my mother and her fellow teachers included – psychologically, and in many cases physically damaged. Fighting a crusade against the supposed excesses of trendy left-wing teacher types, and bolstered by the realisation that neither Old Tories nor New Labour really cared about this supposedly effeminate, foregone-conclusion voting demographic, Woodhead embarked on a campaign that aimed to 'clean up' the state system by massively ramping up day-to-day pressures on educational professionals. As I witnessed at second hand, to be a teacher in the late nineties was often a struggle to keep one’s head above water, an escalating nightmare of relentless OFSTED inspections, the sudden introduction of Stakhanovite league tables, hectoring insurgencies to weed-out a posited ‘15,000 incompetent teachers’, redeem ‘bog standard comprehensive schools’ and so on. This shock doctrine resulted in immense trauma and, often, personal breakdown. I do not think it a hyperbole to say that the harrowing of the British teaching profession is one of the great untold tragedies of the neoliberal period.

It’s important not to dwell too much on individual experience, and indeed it is now increasingly apparent that our political culture has become personalised in a way that is crippling our ability to form a large-scale opposition to neoliberalism. However, I hope the information above serves as a fitting preamble to my saying that I have nothing but the utmost loathing for current Tory education secretary Michael Gove, who seems to me to be the natural heir to Chris Woodhead both in his ideological sadism and in the rare intensity of his obnoxiousness as a human being.

Indeed, it is partly because of political anger arising out of the experiences outlined above, and a desire to see Gove and his ilk recede into the dustbin of history, that I think his new curriculum guidelines, which seek to put a new emphasis on studying authors like Dickens and the Romantic poets, might actually, unintentionally, be a positive development. If, as Marx argued, the internal contradictions of capitalism are likely to lead to its destruction, then it seems at least plausible that Gove’s own brand of hawkish capitalist educationalism will backfire, and contribute eventually to a revival of the sort of dissenting tradition his policies are trying to suppress.

Thus far, media reaction to the news that set texts like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird are likely to be replaced by 19th-century novels by Dickens and George Eliot, and that Romantic poetry and Shakespeare are to feature more heavily on GCSE syllabuses, has provoked ire among members of the liberal establishment. The academic John Sutherland wrote an article for the Guardian attacking Gove and calling for American authors to be compulsory on the syllabus. Meanwhile, initial reporting of the changes in both the Guardian and the Times (which implied, it turns out erroneously, that Lee and Steinbeck had been ‘axed’) carried comments by English education lecturer Bethan Marshall, who argued that ‘teenagers will think that being made to read Dickens aged 16 is just tedious’, and claimed that this was a syllabus ‘out of the 1940s’.

Even aside from the fact that the 1940s were arguably the most radical decade in modern British history, and the somewhat patronising suggestion that state school kids (to whom these strictures largely apply) will be unable to appreciate Dickens, these knee-jerk responses seem to me to be pretty wrongheaded, and moreover to embody some of the key problems stalking the opposition to right-wing narratives in the UK at the present time. Too often in debates like this, in place of a precisely articulated response to conservative stereotypes, there is a tendency to merely reiterate those stereotypes in reductively defensive terms from the opposite side. Hence, in place of Gove’s undoubtedly jingoistic and reactionary campaign to emphasise ‘traditional British values’ (or whatever the current Tory jargon is), To Kill a Mockingbird is advocated primarily – indeed, in many cases wholly – for its anti-racist subject matter, while Of Mice and Men is avowed merely because its author wasn’t British (and as Joe Kennedy pointed out this week, it should be obvious that studying US literature and history has its own moral pitfalls). Additionally, there is an implied suggestion in most of these arguments that these texts are ‘modern’ and therefore more vital and relatable than fusty 19th-century realism.

Such moves can be well meaning, and are often grounded in a respect for the conspicuous brilliance of writers like Lee and Steinbeck. But while the importance of opposing racism and endorsing examples of alternative writing in English from throughout the world cannot and should not be up for debate, the argument that in a head-to-head battle of political ethics To Kill a Mockingbird necessarily beats Great Expectations because of its non-British narrative and more recent publication date seems to me to be, at best, ideologically unsubtle, and at worst, to iterate a modern correlative of the Gladstonian liberal imperialist belief that one can save the world through abstract cultural ideals while simultaneously profiting in unspoken material terms – as many moderately wealthy modern academics do – from rhetorical endorsements of oppressed causes and peoples whose actual lived experiences remain mostly beyond the pale. To say nothing of the personal biographies of critics like Sutherland and Marshall, about which I know almost nothing, this seems to me to be a sadly apt summary of the liberal (as distinct from leftist or socialist) worldview and lifestyle in the 21st century.

Looking beyond the enervated politics of literary academia at the present moment, it is important to stress how valuable it might be at this moment in time to counterpose a cogent, historically grounded syllabus incorporating certain key texts from the radical tradition in English literature. One does not have to read against the grain all that strenuously to see that Romantic poetry and Victorian realism, to take the two examples foregrounded in the current debate, are not even close to being reducible to the sort of bigoted clichés of Britishness avowed by Gove and his party (to say nothing of the presumably much more distasteful narratives Ukip would fabricate if, god forbid, it ever won a meaningful stake in the UK parliament proper).

I won’t bore you by reeling off a list of politically live 19th-century texts and pointing out ways in which they laid the ground for the development of a radical politics in this country, but Shelley’s ‘England in 1819’ and Eliot’s Middlemarch might be two good places to start. And for those who – either positively or negatively – accept Gove’s association of the canon with conservatism and reaction, the stories of Victorian manual workers sneaking readings of Paradise Lost into their lunchbreaks contained in Jonathan Rose’s brilliant Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (Yale University Press, 2001) might provide some food for thought.

For too long, the left has been operating under the facile post-1968 dispensation that radical politics must sympathise culturally with whatever is modern, eclectic and ethically obvious. Against this postmodern tendency, which is surely now long past the stage of all political usefulness and even surely a pillar of late-capitalist orthodoxy, it might be useful to look further back than the set texts of the neoliberal period as we try to recover what socialists have traditionally called historical sense and what Raymond Williams called a common culture, a culture that does justice to both collective memory and intellectual complexity, and does not merely confirm right-wing myths that radical politics is concerned exclusively with single-issue moralism, novelty and scholarly naïveté. If it is not to deconstruct itself out of existence, the British left must think seriously about how its cultural history might be rephrased and reconsolidated rather than merely abandoned to the neoliberal right and its now emboldening project of using the past to shore up a deep-rooted, yet far from unassailable, institutional hegemony.