Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Michael Gove and the GCSE Literature Syllabus

Education Secretary Michael Gove read English at Oxford University from 1985 to 1988, exactly the moment when the student pressure group Oxford English Limited (OEL) was campaigning to open that outmoded literature syllabus to new developments in the subject. Did the young Gove, I wonder, attend our March 1986 conference on ‘The State of Criticism’, at which 400 students and academics – though hardly any members of the Oxford English Faculty – listened to talks on literary theory, women’s writing, cultural studies, and extending the canon? Did he buy copies of our journal News from Nowhere, which appeared twice yearly from April 1986 and extended the OEL reform campaign across all aspects of the subject?

If Michael Gove did attend any OEL events, he obviously didn’t learn much from them, but rather – on the evidence of booting American texts out of the GCSE literature syllabus in favour of English classics – remains wedded to definitions of English literature which were moribund even in his own undergraduate days. Most of the traditionalist dons of 1980s Oxford have retired by now, but since this backward-minded pupil of theirs occupies high office, their dead hand still malignly grips the throat of the subject nationally. If the Secretary of State can spare some quiet reading time from his busy campaign of educational retrogression, I’ll happily send him a complete set of News from Nowhere so that he can update himself on his subject. Better late than never.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Exit pursued by a Wolf

Browsing through various publishers’ catalogues and websites, I’ve come across new or recent books on The Dog in the Dickensian Imagination (Ashgate), Beckett and Animals (CUP), Stage, Stake and Scaffold: Humans and Animals in Shakespeare’s Theatre (OUP) and Jane Austen and Animals (Ashgate again). And at my local Oxfam bookshop I have just snapped up a literary theory volume entitled Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (Minnesota); it contains an important essay by Jacques Derrida, whose work has been formative in this field. I remember, some thirty years ago, when postgraduate friends and I were casting around for topics for our next cultural theory seminar, Sue Vice (now Professor in the Sheffield University English Department) eagerly suggested ‘animals’. The rest of us looked at her in complete bewilderment then, but clearly she was well ahead of her time and is thoroughly vindicated now.

So one’s mind naturally starts trying out the topic of ‘William Morris and Animals’. In a general way, the motif of animality is central to Morris’s utopianism: a hedonistic celebration of our own animal nature resituates us in the natural environment that capitalism has so despoiled and downgraded. But there are more transgressive versions of this theme elsewhere in his oeuvre, in the motif of actual human-animal metamorphosis. Glimpsing those ponies in the new Kensington forest in News from Nowhere seems genial enough, but when Birdalone is magically turned into a deer early in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, or when Sigmund and Sinfiotli are transformed into ravenous wolves in Sigurd the Volsung, the porous nature of the human-animal binary is altogether more unsettling. Certain it is, at any rate, that we would now benefit from a full-scale – and properly theorised - study of this topic in Morris’s work. Prospective PhD students, please note!