On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

Mockingbirds, Blackadder, and Nationalism: Literary Xenophobia in the UK (May 31, 2014)

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Much excitement about reactionary nationalism and literary censorship has been generated by reports that Michael Gove, the British Secretary of State for Education and Member of Parliament from Surrey, has, in revising the requirements for the standardized test known as the General Certificate of Secondary Education, actively sought to replace American literary texts with works by British authors. Fixating on a trio of formerly required texts that have now been removed from the list of required texts—Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men—a number of analyses have presented Gove as a determined and reactionary nationalist bent on removing non-British-authored texts from requirements, while others have cited Gove’s claim that some minor switching of requirements has been wrongly interpreted as censorship.  It makes sense that Gove’s office has responded vigorously, since reactions to his office’s work have been quite harsh.       

            As someone who has spent a great deal of time thinking about the ways in which literary works serve nationalist interests, I find the controversy surrounding Gove’s actions quite interesting—and not just as an indicator of the rising nationalism and xenophobia that can be seen in such phenomena as the recent electoral support for anti-European members of the European Parliament in both Britain and France.  It is hard to give Gove the benefit of the doubt and believe his explanation that he is simply updating a few required items to link them more clearly with current students’ interests and needs, given his predilection for jingoistic, censorious comments, such as his nostalgic defense of British actions in World War I and his claim that the Rowan Atkinson-starring BBC show Blackadder sustains left-wing fantasies about bumbling and amoral leadership during these glorious times (read Baldrick’s response here). Gove’s claim that his committee’s actions have done nothing to ban any books, while literally correct, clearly cover over what is at stake in his actions—the sense that what literary texts are taught in schools really matters, and that one can launch major salvos in culture wars by altering curricula and tests. As scholars such as Pierre Bourdieu and John Guillory have shown so powerfully, literary texts serve as cultural capital, consolidating national identity and helping spread concepts and frameworks that are amenable to the national status quo. What is intriguing about this Gove controversy is that it is so clearly indicative of a British nationalism that is uncomfortable with its particular reliance on American texts. Given that British texts play such a powerful role in American literary education, it is fascinating to see the same xenophobic reactions currently inspiring many in Britain to reject trans-European influences (or, indeed, those within Scotland seeking to remove themselves from Britain altogether). As a literary scholar, I am especially intrigued to see this debate spark out, for they remind us how vitally networked literary texts, education, and national education can be.


Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English currently at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Scottish poetry, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

One thought on “Mockingbirds, Blackadder, and Nationalism: Literary Xenophobia in the UK (May 31, 2014)

  1. I would suggest looking at the way scientific greatness and literary greatness were depicted in the 19th century. If one subject promotes notions of British identity (Burns and Walter Scot the prime examples) it would appear other subject can have a more exclusive focus on particular ethnic identities.

    It would also appear to explain why modern science media commentates in the U.K like Brian Cox for example give the impression of sounding like a Ukip party political broadcast when they get on to the celebrating great figures of ‘British’ science.

    Older strategies do not appear to be working in the current sensitive climate.

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