Debate: Please Sir, How Nationalistic Should Education Be?

Michael Gove

JY: Should education focus on its own cultural system? No, and even the mere consideration of this question is gravely mistaken. This is not entirely unrelated to Michael Gove’s proposed education reform – a new curriculum that aims to promote British culture at the expense of multiculturalism. This means that in GCSE English, teachers are required to follow a strict curriculum that includes British writers like Charles Dickens and Shakespeare, but, no longer, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Voltaire, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, etc. whose books are not deemed British.

BJL: From a personal view, one would be missing out if one did not read books by non-British writers, and I am pretty certain nobody would be so myopic. Having said that we’re talking about education, and the existence of a National Curriculum, whether you like it or not, leads to the government control of education for it’s own end. To Kill A Mockingbird is unparalleled in terms of its study of Segregation-era America but there are many contemporary British writers that come from multicultural backgrounds such as Benjamin Zephaniah and Zadie Smith. If the national curriculum focuses more on these writers, with their important insight into changing the cultural landscape of Britain, the next generation will be less likely to develop the xenophobic feelings that have become depressingly more prevalent in recent years.

JY: People are taught literature, not just for pleasure, but for knowledge – that is, learning about how people from various backgrounds behave, eat, speak, live, socialize, and express themselves differently. One should not read Lolita just because it’s a fun, and interesting, book, but because there’s so much to learn about the life in the American 50s. Similarly, one should not approach Ulysses as an interesting literary challenge, but more as an inquisitive discovery of the Gaelic culture. However, Gove’s program repudiates the very essence of literature by ignoring its purpose, which is to educate and open up readers to new cultures.

BJL: Government control of cultural subjects eventually leads to the politicisation of education, the apolitical concept of reading for pleasure should take priority. For example, it would be better to incentivise secondary school students with a module on British humour, such as P.G. Wodehouse or Oscar Wilde, as a counterbalance to the more dense stuff like Dickens and Shakespeare. These are eleven to sixteen year olds we are talking about here. Despite the Victorian and Edwardian settings the comedy still is enjoyable and gives youngsters an idea that people in the ‘olden days’ were not all witless.

JY: Additionally, it makes no sense to argue that focusing just on British culture, and investing more time educating students on it, would naturally expand their understanding of the culture. Rudyard Kipling famously said: “What do they of England know that only England know”? The point of this conjecture is that in order to fully understand your own culture, you have to learn about other cultures too and find out how people outside your own do things differently. This makes sense because ‘culture’ is a relative term and it only exists in the relativist sense. The ‘British culture’ on its own means nothing, but what gives it meaning is that it is set apart from the cultures in France, Spain, Korea, South Africa, United States, etc.

BJL: But the English language itself is multinational, built from words from Ancient German and Scandinavian, French, Latin, Greek and even a little Arabic. The more books studied that were written in English originally, the more students study how our language has developed over time, from the medieval Chaucer, to the neologist Shakespeare, to the exhaustively vocabularied Martin Amis. It can be argued that the great classics of other languages remained best studied in their own language, that is why so many English students at York learn Italian to read Dante’s Divine Comedy. But you can’t learn every language, I certainly don’t have the will to learn Russian to read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

JY: There is simply no reason to restrict the English curriculum to only those books written by British authors. What does one gain from this? Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh were great writers but so were Nabokov, Hemingway, and Vonnegut. Why don’t these non-British, English Language writers deserve a spot in the curriculum as well?

BJL: Michael Gove has been criticised for shaping the national curriculum into a politically charged syllabus that aims to make Britain ‘Great’ again. Whether or not this is true depends on your political standpoint but he previously came under fire for his belief that Britain and its Army Generals conduct in the WWI was just. But there is one anecdote I can provide about the danger of the nationalism in the national curriculum. This was the recent row over the possible removal of Mary Seacole, the famous nurse that served in the Crimean War of Jamaican and Scottish ancestry, from the national curriculum. The point is that the cultural heritage of Britain is inextricably linked with Empire, the era when this country ruled almost a quarter of the world so it is impossible for Britain to have a typically national culture after that.

JY: To summarise, the whole point of literature is to educate people on things that they did not know about, especially cultures that are foreign to them. An education system that only focuses on its own cultural system impairs this point and defeats the whole purpose of teaching literature in the first place.

BJL: It is possible for the term ‘National Curriculum’ not to be synonymous with a ‘Nationalist Curriculum’, especially with a focus on British multiculturalism although many education commentators are increasingly sceptical. Both political parties have been guilty of it, for example Gordon Brown in 2005, “the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over”. If the Education Secretary is going to put Rudyard Kipling on the curriculum, then he has to put Chinua Achebe on there
as well.