Of Mice and Men and “English literature”

I get that I’m really bad at updating this blog, and I have now successfully missed two months in a row in a violation of my New Year’s Resolutions so heinous I’m still struggling with the guilt. But it’s a question of finding time, energy and things to write about – and while the latter has been plentiful in the past few months, the other two tend not to exist at the same time as each other.

So on a rare afternoon when I am meant to be doing something else but have a snippet of time to complain about something, I found out about Michael Gove’s decision to remove books like Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird from the English syllabus.

The story running in today’s The Sunday Times says that classic American texts such as Steinbeck and Harper Lee’s masterpieces and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible have been dropped from new GCSEs in English Literature – decisions that have had the public up in arms all day. Instead, around 70-80% of the books on the new syllabus (being published later this week) are English or British in origin, while most date from the 19th century or earlier.

According to OCR, the exam board that spoke to The Sunday Times, Gove “really dislikes” Of Mice and Men and said he was disappointed that the vast majority of pupils have studied it. He prefers people to focus on the likes of Austen and Dickens, apparently – it wouldn’t surprise me, but we’ll have to wait and see what the contents of his wish list throw up this week.

I studied Of Mice and Men in year 9 – the same year I was first introduced to Macbeth and Orwell’s Animal Farm. I can see why it’s stuck around for so long. It’s deceptively simple in terms of language, but it’s a powerful study of friendship, prejudice, attitudes towards disability, class divisions and the isolation of a pair of drifters, displaced by economic collapse, clinging onto each other as their only family. The ending, of course, is heartbreaking.

Of course everyone teaches it – it’s great and it’s short. The current curriculum asks teachers to cover a lot of ground very quickly and if there’s one thing they know, it’s that you can’t rely on pupils to go home and read 100 pages a night to keep up with The Faerie Queene. Under the new subject content for GCSEs, classes will have to study two authors in depth every year.

Given that it has also been reported Gove wants kids aged 11 and over to read up to 50 books every year – a figure I can’t reach now – you have to suggest that he should be looking first of all at why these short but interesting texts have become necessities rather than choices.

There are lots of barbed references I could make about the books being removed – after all, we can’t have kids understanding concepts like scapegoating, mass hysteria, injustice and the social consequences of economic decline, can we Tories? But that feels like a cheap shot that does no more than stating the obvious. In my view, the real problem is Michael Gove’s understanding of “English literature”.

I’ve written before about my general mistrust of the education secretary’s approach to the arts, which are clearly being used to reinforce the dominant ideology of a very specific social group – especially history. As Gove works hard to rebalance arts education to promote a single idea of “Britishness”, it is hard to see the removal of some classic American texts as anything other than the re-Anglicising of the English syllabus being reported by the media.

To Gove, the “English” in “English literature” refers to the nationality and not the language. That can have its advantages in some academic respects – the distinct “Englishness” of some texts can be a fruitful object of study. However, it means very little without anything to compare it to, and I’d much prefer to see a more culturally inclusive study of “literature in English” in secondary schools as a minimum.

Yes, these texts have probably been studied to death. Maybe teachers should be encouraged to look a bit further afield and find different texts to talk about. Still, when you’re trying to introduce people to a range of literature, you will at least occasionally ask them to pick up a book in which they may not be interested, or which they’re doomed to hate, and to form intelligent opinions on it. If Gove is asking pupils to invest time and energy in books they may not like, it’s only fair he does the same.

 

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