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.