This morning my brother sent me an alarming text. He was scared, angry and upset about Michael Gove’s proposed changes to the English GCSE, shifting the focus from literature to language, from interpretation to analysis. The article he sent me was an uncomfortable read, and snapped me out of the holiday haze in which the world had just about started feeling ok. We were both extremely angry. And this is why.
What we teach in school is a choice that our society should make. The curriculum should reflect and celebrate the values that we have – the knowledge and skills that we think are important. We help to shape the generations that come after us – and Gove’s vision for the next generation can not sit well with anyone who values the arts’ ability to humanise us.
My brother and I love science. We love maths. We wonder regularly at nature, at space, at algorithms and linguistics and the links between everything around us. Our love of these subjects intensified greatly the further we got into our humanities degrees. So for the current government to imply that arts is a luxury, not a necessity, attacks the way that we understand the world. I cannot fathom an education without true, limitless creativity. Without the question ‘what do you think?’. And yet already I see students turn silent at this question, as if their thoughts aren’t valid, as if there is a prescribed answer to every single question.
My siblings and I were raised to question everything. It got us all in trouble. I asked why I had to do homework, why we studied in classrooms, whether they thought detention was useful for them or me. And I got more detentions as a consequence! It made no sense.
I feel like the world is becoming this on a bigger scale. We can’t question police, or war, or gagging bills. And if you can’t challenge something, then you can’t change it. Gove’s curriculum of rote learning and one-chance exams stifles any ability to question the knowledge you are presented with, let alone imagine an alternative. Knowledge bases are important but they are not infallible – my scientist friends frequently point out that the first year of a science degree spends a considerable amount of time untangling the wedge of A-level learning. An eloquent astrophysicist friend of mine commented that ‘Facts are important; they are the building blocks of human knowledge and we stand on them when we try to stretch out understanding further (though we should always keep an open mind as some of our most cherished facts could be incomplete or even wrong).’
What an incredible analogy, and an example of the way the humanities and the sciences, fiction and fact, are not two separate entities. Literature re-presents the world around us, taking facts and subverting them or shaping them into something new. Analysing language is important, yes. Linguistics deserves more focus in the curriculum. But to remove this from freely interpreting meaning, shaping arguments, and immersive, inspirational imagination damages all disciplines.
I could go on. But this is Belle Jar, and we’ve promised to smash the patriarchy, so I’ll take a different turn. To reshape our society, first we must be able to imagine an alternative. To do that, we must allow and help ourselves and our children to imagine and develop their own reactions to the world around us. Killing imagination is a great way of preserving power – see Margaret Thatcher’s compelling argument that ‘there is no alternative‘.
And so. Feminism. Do I need to point out the link? If we teach this world and this society as fact, then we teach our daughters that they earn less than our sons. That their bodies are for consumption alongside the news. We teach them that rape culture is our culture, that women scientists are invisible, that their bodies should be thin and white and hairless.
Gove’s reforms are inherently conservative, in every meaning of the word. They resist social change. They retain power in the hands of those who fit the current system. And they leave no room for our children to imagine an alternative. We must stand up and challenge them, whilst we still have a chance.