Archive for May 28th, 2014

The Mysterious Case of the Missing Mice and Men

I am not a morning person. I never have been. On weekends, I enjoy a lie-in. Not that I necessarily sleep through it: the advantages of a tablet include the luxury of lying comfortably in my warm bed, while others are no doubt savouring the beauties of the morn or something similar, and browsing through the various online newspapers, journals, and blogs. And yes, a bit of social media as well. And last Sunday morning, even before I was fully awake, I knew something very terrible had happened to our education system. Everywhere I looked it was the same story: Michael Gove! How terrible! How could he! Disgraceful! Disgusting! This man does not deserve even to be mentioned in polite society! He should be tarred and feathered and run out of town!

What has he done? I wondered. Has he been caught stealing from the church funds? Has he, perhaps, run off with the vicar’s wife? It wasn’t easy getting to the answer, as all this no doubt entirely justified indignation referred to an article in the Sunday Times, which, being beyond a paywall, I couldn’t access without getting out of bed and walking to the newsagents’. But, after ploughing through much outrage and invective, often obscenely expressed, I got to what I think was at the heart of it all: this heartless bastard, Gove, has, purely out of spite, dropped from the school GCSE curriculum John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and has replaced them with other texts. Well, no wonder! The only three books in the world that are worth studying, and he has dropped them! What an act of sheer, wanton vandalism! I could not but agree with the various comments that this dangerous maniac had to be stopped: he was, single-handedly, wrecking the teaching of English in our schools.

Now, I do not take this at all lightly. Having closely followed what our children had studied for their GCSEs, if “studied” is indeed the word I am looking for here, I have rather regretfully come to the conclusion that the teaching of English in our schools is badly broken. And that someone could wreck what is already badly broken is, I must concede, a remarkable feat. Lest it be thought that I exaggerate, let me expand on that a bit. (And those who have already heard me expatiate on this matter may skip the next paragraph.)

As a parent rather concerned that our children should receive a good education, and, in particular, that they should acquire a good grasp of the English language, I could not help but notice, year after year, essays returned after marking with an encouraging remark, such as “well done”, or even “very well done”, or “keep up the good work”, written at the bottom, but without any of the often basic grammatical errors – errors of the kind any child is likely to make who hasn’t been taught – so much as pointed out, let alone corrected. As a parent who would love to communicate some of his love of English literature to his children, and who thought he would have an ally in the school’s English department, it was with some disappointment, to put it mildly, that I observed that up to a year before our daughter sat her English GCSE examinations, she had not been required to read a single book from cover to cover. This was, admittedly, rectified somewhat in that final year, but the only books she was required to read were Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (a pretty good book but a very straightforward one, and one she could easily have read several years earlier); An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley; and About a Boy by Nick Hornby. (I am not joking.) When it came to poetry, the view was even more dismal: I occasionally saw the odd sheet of paper containing what purported to be “poems” by writers of whom, despite my taking an active interest in poetry ancient and modern, I had never heard. The “poems” themselves – and I use the quotation marks here advisedly – were simple-minded, and looked as if they had been written by a sixth former. For all I knew, they probably were. All that we may consider to be the backbone of the English literary tradition – Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Woolf, Forster, Yeats, Eliot, and so on – weren’t even touched. I was, frankly, worried. How could anyone pass GCSEs in English language and in English literature when they’ve been taught bugger all about either? But pass them she did, and with flying colours too. The school she attends receives glowing reports in reviews by OFSTED. And it is particularly proud of the high grades its pupils get in English.

Of course, the syllabus may vary from school to school, and some schools really may teach worthwhile works from the vast treasure-house of English literature; but the fact remains that it is indeed possible to pass these subjects with flying colours without really knowing or understanding them.

It’s not that I necessarily blame the schools. Schools are judged by their position on national league tables, and this position depends not on how much the children learn, or on how well they understand the subjects, but on how many grades they obtain. And since, as is rather obvious from our experience, one may get good GCSE grades in English (let’s just stick to English for now) without having to understand or even to learn it, we shouldn’t be too surprised if ensuring learning and understanding is not too high on many schools’ list of priorities.

And everyone is happy. The children, naturally, are happy: not necessarily about having to study About a Boy, which, despite the alleged direct relevance it has to their own experience, they dislike studying as much as they would have disliked studying more traditional texts; but they are, naturally, happy with the grades. Parents, who are wise enough to care about what grades their children obtain rather than what their children actually learn, are also happy. Schools that get the good grades are happy: they come high in the league tables, and what more could one ask for? Examination boards, who are in competition with each other, are happy, as the higher the grades obtained for their examinations, the better they can sell themselves to schools. Admittedly, some teachers may not be quite so happy (I’m guessing here) – especially the good ones who actually care about the subjects they teach; but their performance is appraised, as I understand it, on the grades obtained by the pupils in their charge, so they seem to have little choice in the matter. And while employers may moan (and they do) about people with GCSE passes in English Language and in Mathematics who are functionally illiterate and innumerate, even the most fastidious of employers is unlikely to complain about people with high grades in English literature not having sufficient understanding of Keats. So who’s not happy? A few oddballs like myself, I suppose, but we don’t count, and never have done.

So, to return to that wee rascal Gove, I was intrigued. That anyone could “wreck” a system already so badly broken seemed to me, quite simply, extraordinary. How did he do it?

Finding out from browsing the internet wasn’t easy. Everywhere I looked, I found the same thing: Gove is a bastard; Gove is a wanker; Gove is just horrible; and so on, all in a similar vein. (For any transatlantic reader who may be wondering what a “wanker” is, please do not ask: I try to keep this blog clean, and exclude from it anything that may, in the words of Podsnap, bring a blush to the cheek of a young person. Let us just say that the ideas a wanker is likely to have may well be – how shall I put it? – seminal. And let’s leave it there.)

And it seems that not only has Wanker Gove dropped from the curriculum these three absolutely indispensable titles, he has decreed that American literature must not be taught at all. Scottish, Welsh, and Irish literatures are, as far as I could tell, still allowed; the status of the novels of Conrad, or of the later works of Henry James or T. S. Eliot (once they had settled in Britain, that is, but certainly not earlier), remains a bit doubtful; but anything written by those bloody foreigners – Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Derek Walcott, R. K. Narayan, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer – are all most definitely out. And especially out are John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, and Arthur Miller, authors of the Only Three Books Worth Studying.

Of course, I was, as every right-thinking person should be, outraged. I suppose I should link to at least some of those reports that tell us that these specific books have been dropped; that American literature has been dropped; that it has been dropped specifically because Gove personally does not like it; and so on. But really, there’s little point. There are so many such articles and opinion pieces (and Facebook posts and tweets, etc. etc.) of this nature, that any interested reader can find them without too much trouble. And moreover, as I soon found out, they aren’t even true. Even by Sunday evening, some cracks in the original story were beginning to appear. It seems that the new proposed syllabus included the poems of Emily Dickinson. How could that be? Surely American literature was banned, and Emily Dickinson, the last time I looked into her biography, was just a bit trans-Atlantic.

On Monday, a response appeared penned by Gove himself. He protested that these specific books have not been dropped; and neither is American literature excluded. He’s back-pedalling, said many. But if we go to the primary source of this story, the original government guidance that caused this furore (and this I will link to, here), it backs up what Gove has said: American literature has not been excluded, and there is no specific reference to those Only Three Books Worth Studying.

To summarise, the proposals are as follows: there is a core that is compulsory, and must be studied. Admittedly, this core does not cover the Only Three Books Worth Studying, but clearly, not to deem something compulsory is not quite the same as excluding it: beyond this core – which is nowhere near so onerous as to take up all the study time available for GCSE courses – schools are free to set whatever text they wish. And the core itself seems to me unexceptionable:

– a whole Shakespeare play (i.e. not merely selected scenes);
– poetry from 1789 onward;
– a 19th-century novel;
– some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1914.

I tried to think of various combinations that would meet these criteria. How about, say, Macbeth, “Ode to a Nightingale”, The Scarlet Letter, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? Or, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Persuasion, selected poems of Emily Dickinson, and The Plough and the Stars? I’d have been delighted if our daughter had been set texts such as these instead of what she had so disdainfully been fobbed off with. And if the school really feels that modern American novels are absolutely indispensable, there’s nothing to stop them teaching Of Mice and Men or To Kill a Mockingbird. But frankly, I’d rather they chose something else: there’s no shortage of good, and even great, modern American novels to choose from: why restrict ourselves endlessly only to these? For, amongst other things, the following passage in Gove’s article caught my eye:

In one year recently, 280,000 candidates studied just one novel for the AQA GCSE. The overwhelming majority of them (more than 190,000) studied Of Mice and Men. Most of the remaining AQA pupils studied other 20th-century texts including works such as Lord of the Flies. The numbers studying novels written before 1900 – Pride and Prejudice, Far from the Madding Crowd and Wuthering Heights – were tiny in comparison, around 1 per cent of the total. The situation is no different in drama, or when one looks at other exam boards.

Now, I’m not a statistician, but … well, actually, no: I am a statistician – but I haven’t had access to the raw data from which the above statistics have been derived. But I guess it doesn’t take a statistician to figure out that of pupils taking AQA GCSE who had studied a single novel, for over two-thirds of them, that single novel was Of Mice and Men. The other statistic that is frequently bandied about is that some 90% of all pupils, across all examination boards, study this same Of Mice and Men. I have no way of judging how accurate these figures are, but given that they are publicly stated by a government minister, and that, further, I have seen no-one, not even the most outspoken detractor, question these statistics, I have no reason to believe these figures false. And if they are true, that should be a matter of concern for anyone who feels strongly about literature. Even restricting ourselves to modern American novels, there is an extraordinary variety of books out there: is this unremitting focus on a single title an adequate response to such variety?

And, while I have nothing against Of Mice and Men (or To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Crucible); while I actually think highly of all three of these; let us not kid ourselves about the reason for their popularity as classroom texts: they are easy to read, easy to engage with, contain very clear and unambiguous moral messages, and, hence, are easy to teach. Yes, these are all compelling reasons for teaching them, but one can’t help feeling that it would be no bad thing to set, for the abler pupils at least, material that is both linguistically and morally more challenging.

But what I find particularly shocking about the paragraph by Gove quoted above is this bit:

The numbers studying novels written before 1900 – Pride and Prejudice, Far from the Madding Crowd and Wuthering Heights – were tiny in comparison, around 1 per cent of the total.

Now, I know there are those who are not shocked by this at all. There are those who think this is just as it should be. Bethan Marshall, for instance, senior lecturer in English at King’s College, London:

Kids will be put off doing A-level literature by this. Many teenagers will think that being made to read Dickens aged 16 is just tedious. This will just grind children down.

Whatever one may think of this, let us concede that this is a wonderfully innovative idea: let us, from now on, design all school curricula around what our children are unlikely to find “tedious”. Kids put off mathematics by having to learn all that tedious stuff about differentiation? Great – let’s drop calculus. Put off geography by having to learn all that tedious stuff about soil erosion? Put off biology by having to learn all that tedious stuff about cell structures? Drop ’em all, says I! Once we start building all the curricula around what kids won’t find tedious, we’ll soon get to a stage where they can all get their GCSEs without being taught anything at all. To judge from the English GCSEs, we’re virtually at this Utopia already.

Perhaps some of us are entitled, however, to find it just a tad depressing that a senior lecturer in English at a prestigious university should think that sixteen-year-olds are all a bunch of plebs utterly unable to appreciate one of our very greatest novelists. I think she is wrong. I speak as one who remembers being sixteen years old, and utterly in thrall to the works of novelists of the stature of Dickens. And since I am not arrogant enough to imagine that I exceeded all others in terms of intellect, or in terms of ability to appreciate; and since I personally know other people who are grateful to their schools for having introduced them to literature of such quality; I cannot but conclude that the good senior lecturer in English at King’s College, London, is mistaken. Many children will, no doubt, find Dickens “tedious”, but it is hard to think of any topic in any subject at all that most children don’t find tedious: the question “so bloody what?” rather comes to mind. If we are to pander in our syllabi merely to what children find “fun”, then, in the process, we will deny those whose lives may have been enriched by a proper teaching of literature. As mine certainly was. Being myself more of a Kirsanov than a Bazarov in this respect, I can’t help but find all of this profoundly depressing.

For let us be clear why we should be teaching works from what we tend rather airily to refer to as “our literary heritage”: our literary culture is a defining feature of our civilisation; and, if we value our civilisation and think it worth propagating to future generations, we should take care to propagate to future generations the values of our literary culture. That’s it. This, I think, is the sole reason for studying literature. If we do not believe this, there is no point in studying literature at all. But if we do believe this, we have no choice but to engage with what our literary heritage has to offer. To go through GCSE English without engaging with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Austen, Dickens and the like, is a bit like going through GCSE physics without engaging with Newtonian mechanics. And we are in a sad state indeed if something so obvious needs actually to be spelt out.

However, much though I applaud this latest initiative, I remain pessimistic that it will do much good. Will Gove finally do away with league tables, and this unremitting obsession with grades? I doubt it, given that his political party introduced the school league tables in the first place, and remains ideologically committed to competition in all aspects of life. But in an environment where there seems so little to cheer, it is at least something, I think, to have a Minister of Education who actually recognises that something is very seriously wrong when only 1% of children studying English Literature GCSE engages with literature from before the 20th century. At the very least, merely posting “Gove is a wanker” on Twitter is not really an appropriate or an adequate response.