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American Texts Disappearing From UK Reading Lists

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The United Kingdom may share a language and much else United States, but if the country’s education minister has his way, the two will not have a shared literary canon.

New literature standards, published Friday and reportedly designed with the personal involvement of Education Secretary Michael Gove, are causing British exam boards to strike “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Crucible,” and other classics of American literature from the canon used by students in England and Wales to prepare for the GSCE exams administered to 16-year-olds. The deletions are part of a broader effort by Gove to reemphasize writers hailing from the British Isles.

The recently deceased Maya Angelou’s autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is another book facing Gove’s axe.

The effect isn’t limited to the United States, as many African, Asian, and continental European authors are getting the boot as well.

The changes should have a major effect on what British schoolchildren study. John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” for instance, was read by about 90 percent of English schoolchildren in previous years. Gove, who himself studied English literature at Oxford, “really dislikes” the book according to the British exam board OCR, and unsurprisingly, it is disappearing from reading lists as well.

Gove and his defenders say that the new policy actually expands the texts schoolchildren are exposed to. Beyond requirements that students read at least one 19th-century novel, a collection of Romantic poems, a play by William Shakespeare, and one British work published since 1914, students are free to read anything, the education ministry said in a statement.

In the UK, however, GSCE exams are not uniform but rather prepared by one of five different independent exam boards. Each board publishes lists of texts that it suggests students may read to prepare for the literature exam.

With a previous requirement that students study works from foreign cultures eliminated, and UK exam boards seem to be responding by recommending almost exclusively British texts. The largest exam board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, has no American plays or novels at all on its list of proposed texts.

As a result, even if American works are not “banned,” as some have claimed, their disappearance from suggested reading lists will likely mean they are assigned by far fewer British teachers.

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