Most bank holidays don’t provide this much fuel for liberal outrage. Alongside the success of UKIP, and other far-right parties throughout the continent, in the European elections, Britain’s abysmal, wilfully and self-consciously retrogressive Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove has deemed the presence of a number of foreign texts on the GCSE English Literature syllabus undesirable. In a proposed shake-up, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, all longstanding Key Stage 4 stalwarts, have been shown towards pedagogic Siberia by Gove, who favours reestablishing the nineteenth century novel and Romantic poetry at the core of teenagers’ literary education.
For me, Gove’s decision feels oddly like a callback to Arsenal and England midfielder Jack Wilshere’s attempted militations against the naturalisation of players such as Adnan Januzaj for his country. Wilshere’s argument seemed to imply that foreign-born players, particularly those with no determinable blood connection to England, would be incapable of grasping the significance of wearing The Shirt. Beyond the Imaginary bad faith of his remarks – it seems to me that being part of the team constructs loyalty to The Shirt, rather than The Shirt possessing any intrinsic meaning – Wilshere appeared to be indulging in a bit of bloke-at-the-bar Best of British Common Sense, gesturing towards some moment in the past where the Westphalian nation state (obviously a thorny issue in non-sovereign England’s case) meant more than it did today. Latent in his comments was the sense that the national football side is an aspect of the way in which the patria expresses and sustains itself, that patriotism is a good thing which can be reproduced by the success of a football team spurred on by an organically grown pride in the homeland. Gove’s conviction is similar: that literature is a fundamental part of maintaining a coherent sense of national purpose.
In each case – albeit far less in Wilshere’s than in Gove’s – the argument or belief has a chauvinistic motor. However, both of these apparent examples of petty nationalism contain, inadvertently, important points which get overlooked in what looks like a scrabble to avoid agreeing with the Daily Mail. Let’s begin by thinking about what might actually be useful in Wilshere’s resistance to naturalisation.
‘Naturalisation’ is the process of making something seem natural. In international sport, it refers to the process by which competitive rules are stretched in order to allow a ‘natural’ place of birth to be forgotten. The collective imagination, with its curious sense of propriety, accepts some aspects of this forgetting. We’re therefore prepared – admirably, in my book – to make allowances for an athlete who represents a country they have been forced to live in as a consequence of political expediencies. In Britain, Mo Farah is a good example of a sportsperson whose naturalisation is, unless you’re the Daily Mail, not a matter for debate. It becomes more difficult, however, when athletes come to the country solely to pursue their career and are then brought into the fold of representative sport: to many, this looks like an attempt to get around internationally-agreed rules of selection.
When we’re thinking about ideology, ‘naturalisation’ is once again associated with forgetting: the forgetting of the social, economic, political and historical underpinnings of an idea. When something is ‘naturalised’, it becomes common sense, and we forget that it was ever any different. There’s a case that, in the field of football’s politics and economy, the naturalisation of players – the hypothetical cases of Januzaj and Tottenham’s Nabil Bentaleb stand out here – also function to naturalise in the other sense. Even if you object, and I do object, to the chauvinistic concept of ‘national identity’ which may well underpin resistance to using naturalised players, Januzaj or Bentaleb coming into the England set-up would serve to obscure the rapacious strategies of footballing recruitment used by the bigger Premier League clubs.
The recent debate around a possible League Three has thrown the issue of player stockpiling into the spotlight, making us aware of how the biggest clubs hoover up young talent not only from geographically remote areas of Britain but from all over the globe. There is clearly something unhealthy about this: it involves processes of aggressive accumulation which are deeply damaging to football in less wealthy areas of the world, as well as to smaller British sides. Januzaj is a beautiful player in the making – he has something of Johan Cruyff about him, even – but it troubles me to think of how few Manchester United fans stop to think about why the club’s developing stars come, very frequently, from abroad. Had Januzaj decided to become English for the purposes of international football, and had the FA allowed him to, it is possible that player naturalisation would have played a role in the further obscuration of the material realities which determine footballing success. Remembering where a player comes from, on the other hand, can serve to interfere with football’s attempts to appear mystically aloof from political and economic contingencies.
Gove, too, might be saying something which is of value, even if that value is something he is not aware of whatsoever. For all the outcry about dropping ‘great’ texts from the curriculum, the GCSE mainstays are a matter of ongoing despair for the significant proportion of literature lecturers in HE – I can talk about this with plenty of first-hand experience – who are exhausted by the idea that To Kill a Mockingbird is a ‘brilliant book’ because ‘it has a message’. The reduction of literature to a buffet of thematic soundbites is the real ‘achievement’ of the extant GCSE syllabus, a syllabus which seems to me to teach its students that being able to say ‘racism is bad’ is to possess a detailed understanding of the whole subject. Complexity is routinely dismissed on the patronising and, I think, elitist grounds that Dickens or Wordsworth are unmanageable for modern teenagers, who are apparently only able to ‘relate’ to moral obviousness.
What has long bothered me is that the texts used to serve up this moral obviousness are, on the whole, American. The effect of this is a kind of outsourcing of ethical and political strife: the United States becomes the place where racism happens, where intellectual deviancy is punished, where poverty disempowers and disenchants. Students become adept at deploring racial injustice in the Deep South or the excesses of McCarthyism, but they are also implicitly instructed by the selection of course texts that these things are not, or are not as much of, a problem here as they are there. Inequality is ideologically configured as a problem of another time and another place: it’s the same cultural logic that’s involved in Britain’s completely unearned self-congratulation over its part in ending the slave trade (a trade on which much of the nation’s subsequent wealth was based). The well-meaning, yet somewhat facile, humanism which rails at Gove for ridding the syllabus of ‘tolerance’ might, in fact, be overlooking the maintenance of structural inequality achieved by the presence of the texts in question. As with Wilshere, Gove’s patriotic bêtise might be unpicked to discover an unconscious specification of ideology’s workings.
Posted by Joe Kennedy