Sunday 25 May 2014

Dear Michael Gove - Educating The Mind Is Not Colonising It

Michael Gove has removed Of Mice and Men and To Kill A Mocking Bird from the National Curriculum. The two texts that explore race politics in the classroom. On a day when Right Wing political parties are winning seats in the European Election it's hard to pass off Gove's agenda as sheer naivety, this move is suspiciously political. Classrooms are one of the most influential avenues for transforming the attitudes of society.

I work four days a week as a poet in residence at an East London school. Most of the students are second generation African and Caribbean British. While reading 'Of Mice & Men' to a year 11 class, one student responded powerfully to the treatment of Crooks, (the novels only black character who is repeatedly referred to as a "nigger)", by throwing the book across the room and stamping on it. The following day we had an in class debate about the use of the word, to gauge how teachers (who are mostly white) can engage with their black students sensitively. This persona piece is inspired by the views expressed by the students.

The next question is what texts will replace Steinbeck and Harper Lee? How subversive will they be in their ethnic and gender representation? Dickens, Shakespeare, Shelly and Keats have numerous subversive representations of women in their work, other minority groups, not so much. Granted that Shakespeare's imagination was informed by his knowledge of Africa, ("she hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear") and the Middle East ("I know a lady in Venice would've walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip"). 

Educating the mind is not colonising it.


"Some of you will be aware that Michael Gove has denied narrowing the curriculum. Let's address this and keep fighting.
No matter how he is choosing to spin it in the wake of popular opinion the GCSE curriculum has been narrowed and made more anglocentric. If students are ALL to be examined on Romantic Poets, a 19th century novel, a Shakespeare play and a British (why British?) text since 1914 then the curriculum is being limited not expanded. His claim that "If they wish to include Steinbeck – whether it's Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath – no one would be more delighted than me" is a nonsense similar to his assertion* about averages. Teachers will be unable to do anything extra, they'll be busting a gut to make these difficult texts appealing. Keep the pressure on, please!
*Q98 Chair: One is: if "good" requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible? Gove: By getting better all the time."


  1. Part 1
    I'm not one to defend any member of our current cabinet/government but even if these (unfounded) allegations* turned out to be true, in this regards I don't believe Gove's move would have been a racially-motivated one as this blog asserts. Nationalism/jingoism isn't always first and foremost a racial issue. It's a real stretch especially with 'Of Mice and Men'. Crook's plight was addressed yes but it was a peripheral theme and can hardly be said to define the book enough to be a motivating factor for removing it from the syllabus. I'm chary of intoning racial discrimination into everything as it can easily descend into a 'boy that cries wolf' situation, making it hard for genuine grievances to be taken seriously. I personally like to avoid refracting everything through the prism of race or wearing my ethnicity like it's a constant chip on my shoulder. I know many might beg to differ or accuse me of naivety but I can only go by my experience and not filter it purely through early Spike Lee films...

    The post also assumes that the two American literary classics mentioned speak for every 'black' experience when they are particular to the US. That's not to say there aren't overlaps with discrimination in other parts of the world but it does irritate me when histories are conflated. It's reductive. It's why I have issues with the labels 'black' and 'white' as apart from their (often) biological inaccuracy, there are all the historical tripwires that comewith and the fact they don't allow for enough socio-cultural nuance. My experience as a British born West African and the repercussions of colonialism are not identical just because I share a high melanin content with millions of people across the Atlantic. If you really want to encourage more cultural understanding in British classrooms of the African/ Caribbean experience why not champion the works of Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Sefi Atta, Chimamanda Adichie or Petina Gappah who all write about the experience of migrants from a certain background living in the UK or with direct contact with British mores? As good as 'Mockingbird' (one of my all time faves- and '...Of Mice and Men' are, even if they were removed from the syllabus let them be replaced by something else that is culturally more pertinent perhaps. Why do we always have to look to hegemonic America as if it's the only experience? It's cultural imperialism by another name and often those guilty of it will decry such a thing in another context…

    * Always best to verify sources before making an assertion like the one that opened this blog. It undermines the general credibility of the piece apart from it being slightly too defensive in tone from my POV.

  2. Part 2…
    I think certain individuals like to embrace a universal 'black' identity as a form of solidarity, or because it's politically fashionable or in absence of a more tangible or relatable cultural identity depending on your background. America's cultural dominance through film, music, TV etc makes it that much more accessible. However I think in these sorts of cases it plays into the hands of an 'all black people are the same' stereotyping and in the end does us a disservice. Surely there needs to be more discernment applied in what is embraced or not. 'Blackness', whatever that is, is too often a shorthand for stereotypes/tropes of Hip-Hop culture that are commodified; used to sell a certain lifestyle. 'Buy our product and you can be 'cool' like those rappers. You know, black folk are all trendy and cool and angry and wise and over-sexed [fill in generalisation of choice here]'. It just unwittingly plays into racism's hands in my opinion.

    I don't agree either with the rationalisation of the word 'nigga' however it's spelled (to my knowledge Jay-Z didn't coin this. In any case just because he's rich and successful it doesn't make him some paladin to be quoted, emulated and admired. Even if you want to look stateside, I can think of far better examples; Frederick Douglass or Richard Wright who went from being illiterate to incredibly eloquent autodidacts. Or Maya Angelou. She has some very interesting ideas on why the word 'nigger/nigga' isn't something to be embraced And please don't say people of our or younger generations can't 'relate' to them because they belong to a different time. There's something transcendent about all their stories and it's our job as literary enthusiasts to make them accessible much in the way you did when quoting the Bard)

    Again it's also an example of adopting an Americanised identity when from my understanding the author isn't even an American. By all means be angry about racial injustice on the other side of the pond but our history is not their history. There's no need to automatically identify with it any more than we identify with the suffering of humanity anywhere. Yes police stop young men of certain ethnicities on either side of the Atlantic disproportionately more than others and prisons tend to be filled with men of a certain background (although this has a socio-economic complexity which isn't just linked to race). As I said there are definite overlaps but that's not to say we take on the historical grudge wholesale as if slavery took place on UK soil, as if there was de juro institutionalised racism a la Jim Crow or that men were lynched routinely or brutalised for allegedly whistling at Caucasian women, or that women of African descent were raped by their slave-masters as a matter of course on the Yorkshire moors like they were in Alabama fields etc

    That's not to deny racism on British soil hasn't or doesn't occur but it's largely a very different animal.

    PS I think we might be Uni Faculty neighbours. I'm doing a Sociocultural Linguistics MA, part of Goldsmiths English & Comparative Studies Dept.

    Shalom, T x

  3. I had a lot to say so it had to be split it into two parts as that is the only way I could publish…sorry to make you work so hard!