An Ermine notes with displeasure that a certain Mr Gove appears to have charged out of the stable with his blinkers on. To wit he has decreed English Literature will be dictated thusly
Students taking the OCR exam from 2015 will be required to study a pre-20th century novel, Romantic poetry and a Shakespeare play.
i.e. none of that damned American stuff like To Kill a Mockingbird. Or perhaps appositely, The Grapes of Wrath, maybe…
Now unlike the NUT I’m not implacably against Mr Gove. I do agree that our children should leave primary school being able to read, write and do ‘rithmetic including tables. And that whatever today’s equivalent of maths O level should at least have acquainted the little dears with differential calculus. But hasn’t anybody told Mr Gove that the past is a different country?
I had the bad luck to have to do Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations at O level. The prose is turgid, dense and repetitive. It’s like trying to read a newspaper with a 1″ loupe – you can’t stand back enough to get an overview. Let’s face it, here was a dude who was paid by the flippin’ word. Plus the gruesome detail is of an age that was a different country. I cite Exhibit A
Now I was to become an engineer, and had already done maths and physics early to get the suckers out of the way. You will already see the signs of weakness in the humanities in the History grade[ref]note that these exams were norm-referenced and not the everyone’s a winner sort now. A B was still respectable and nowhere near as dreadful as it would be considered now. This is because norm referencing is autocalibrating. However an E was definitely an incontrovertible fail, the pass mark was C I believe[/ref] . But I wasn’t so terrible at reading – but I just could not get enough overview of the tedious turgid tripe that is Great Expectations.
Over thirty-five years have rolled by since I sat that exam and flunked Eng Lit because I hadn’t read enough of the the book, and what I had read had been routed to the trash dump of my brain, which had tried to parse it for meaning and had come up with a null pointer.
The world has become more global since then. And around Europe the lamps are going out in the intellectual sphere as fearful citizens from Scotland to Greece seek to make their world a smaller place and hold the tides of globalisation at bay because ‘dem furreners a comin’ fer ours jobs’. These citizens were happy when dem furreners were making their DVD players and their iPhones cheaper, and they are not being served well by the spineless political class that hasn’t got the balls to tell the electorate that the good times are gone for good – living standards will stagnate or decline because power is shifting East. GDP will no doubt increase, it’s the slice of it available to the 99% that will fall.
This is no time for parochialism, Mr Gove. We need to light the lamps of Reason and of culture so that some pathfinders will be strong enough to navigate their way across the long Western Intercession of the next 30, 50, 100 years. I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at the same time as Great Expectations – for interest, because the story captured my attention. It is not time now, Mr Gove, to pull up the shutters and look inwards at a little Britain of its Victorian heyday. If anything we need to read a wider pool of literature, so let’s not lop out our American novelists, eh? Maybe das Glasperlenspiel in translation or Flaubert’s Mme Bovary. It is probably too big an ask to include non-western literature and teenagers are hardly well-read enough to put it into context, but the British canon is too old and too narrow now. The journey is longer to Dickensian London than to the American South of the early 20th century.
Mr Gove, keep the windows to the world open. We aren’t little England now. The flame of the Enlightenment is flickering in the wind, now is not the time to drain the fuel supply. Spengler had it nailed in Der Untergang des Abendlandes
[of a culture that has passed the high-water mark]
And we find, too, that everywhere, at moments, the coming fulfilment suggested itself in such moments were created the head of Amenemhet III (the so-called ” Hyksos Sphinx ” of Tanis), the domes of Hagia Sophia, the paintings of Titian Still later, tender to the point of fragility, fragrant with the sweetness of late October days, come the Cnidian Aphrodite and the Hall of the Maidens in the Erechtheum, the arabesques on Saracen horseshoe-arches, the Zwinger of Dresden, Watteau, Mozart.
At last, in the grey dawn of Civilization the fire in the Soul dies down. The dwindling powers rise to one more, half-successful, effort of creation, and produce the Classicism that is common to all dying Cultures. The soul thinks once again, and in Romanticism looks back piteously to its childhood; then finally, weary, reluctant, cold, it loses its desire to be, and, as in Imperial Rome, wishes itself out of the overlong daylight and back in the darkness of protomysticism in the womb of the mother in the grave. The spell of a “second religiousness” comes upon it, and Late-Classical man turns to the practice of the cults of Mithras, of Isis, of the Sun – those very cults into which a soul just born in the East has been pouring a new wine of dreams and fears and loneliness.
That Intercession must come to pass, the West is tired and weak, it’s once shared values lost, and its energy washed out in dissipation, bread and circuses. The seed must lie dormant, perhaps for centuries, until it is ready and willing to serve humanity again, perhaps in a totally different form. Your hearkening back to the old, Mr Gove, is just as hubristic though perhaps less disastrous as the Project for the New American Century, but it’s born of the same refusal to see that death is the necessary counterbalance to birth, in human cultures as well as in Nature.
Look outwards Mr Gove. You cannot forestall the Intercession, but maybe, if the seed is fed well in the dying of the Light, you can shorten the Interregnum. Somebody has to staff the Second Foundation[ref]A reference to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which held the same Spenglerian concept that the Intercession cannot be avoided, but had the thesis that if some way can be found to preserve the essential values then it can be shortened. Science Fiction was considered arrant trash and the lowest form of literature in my school-days, I still don’t know why it’s so reviled. Perhaps there was more reason why I got that E than failing to read Dickens, maybe the Ermine has really has no understanding of literature 🙂 I really liked the Foundation trilogy[/ref]of the West. That child may enter one of your schools, Mr Gove, and you are cutting him off from the narrative of the recent West in favour of the small-Britain distant past. We don’t need to be reframing our cultural references for a smaller world. One of those kids may be charged with carrying the Staff of Knowledge across the rocky pass that leads future Europeans out of the darkness as the new wine begins to flow.