Friday, June 6, 2014

A ban on American texts?

Initial reports in the British press declared that the government banned US authors from national end-of-compulsory-education (Grade 10) examinations for students in England. Subsequent reports show that the changes were less sweeping and more nuanced. But why would such a thing have been considered?

Firstly, we need to understand a few things about British education. England and Wales have one system, controlled by the central government. (Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate and distinct systems, controlled by their respective education departments.) The English system is headed by a Minister of Education who is a political representative, like a congressman, appointed by the government in power, like the RNC or DNC. Accordingly, frequently, and especially recently, English education is affected by what is happening in the political wind.

Secondly, education in England is compulsory from age six through 16 or Grade 10. At the end of this period, students may choose to sit national examinations in the subjects they have studied. Almost all do. Public school students typically sit 5 - 8 single-subject examinations. Non-public students may sit as many as fifteen! The results allow them to enter G11-12 college track, technical track, vocational track programs, to join the military and so on. These examinations are called GCSEs, or the General Certificate in Secondary Education.

Thirdly, English is actually two subjects: English language and English literature. English language is what you would expect, reading and writing, listening and speaking. Specific points are awarded for spelling and grammar! Writing involves extended pieces, and "transactional" writing or writing with a purpose like argumentative or descriptive rather then purely creative.

English literature is where the action is. Literature is linked to culture, to how a society sees itself, to the past, to the world around us. Just like in the US, text-choice can be controversial for a teacher. school district and so on. The difference is that because the GCSE is an examination, a list of assessed texts is produced every few years. The teacher or school must choose the texts they wish to study from this approved list. If the list says "Macbeth", you cannot do "Julius Caesar" instead. Students will be expected to know Macbeth and  examination questions will be specific and will test this knowledge.

So the Minister of Education discovered that last year, something like 95% of all GCSE students in England studied "Of Mice and Men". He complained that not only was too narrow, it also meant they were not studying "Englishness". Inevitably, a furore erupted over the second point which quickly became characterized as they should not be studying American authors. What was lost in the noise was both the narrowness of the selection and what that might mean for a country in the future, and what should be the underlying philosophy of a literature education. Clarifications have been issued.

This is an interesting point. If education involves preparing students to take their places in their society, then surely a case can be made for studying English authors in England and putting Steinbeck et al in the category of foreign authors. They are still worthy of study, but in addition to and not in place of the locals.

I actually like that because it allows for specific cross-cultural and cross-genre comparison and analysis. How does a Steinbeck world view compare to that of "Lord of the Flies" and what does each text suggest about their respective cultures? Now that is red meat!

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