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.

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34 responses to this post.

  1. Hmmm. I’d better find out what my grandchildren have been reading in school. In my own middle-class American school (many years ago) we read Midsummer Night’s Dream in 7th or 8th grade with a teacher who was very enthusiastic about it and took several of us to an outdoor production as a final treat. We also read Julius Caesar at about 10th grade level. Our teacher also taught Latin so there was no messing around with her! We read some of the standard American and English poets, such as Wordsworth, Keats, Emily Dickenson, Robert Frost. No Milton or Donne until I got to college.

    Later, in my rather brief middle-school teaching career I taught Twelfth Night and David Copperfield. Some found it tedious and some enjoyed it, but I naively thought it would benefit them to know that there is such thing as a classic “text”.

    What is GCSE? We don’t have it here but we have Regents’ Exams and SAT.

    Reply

    • GCSEs are examinations British children sit at around the age of 16. Afterwards, they can either go on to study for the A-levels or AS-levels, or they may choose to leave school.

      One can’t of course study everything in school, but the list of writers you studied is certainly impressive.I too have benefited from what i think was a fine education. But, as I said in my post, it’s a sad state of affairs now – especially when it comes to English language and English literature.I latter, especially, I don’t think is taken seriously by anyone. I do hope things are a bit better in USA than they are here on this score: they certainly can’t be much worse.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Laura on May 28, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    Thank you, thank you for writing this! Everyone I’ve come across on Facebook or Twitter seems to be appalled by this ruling and I began to think I was the only one who actually thought it was a good idea. It didn’t help that I normally hate and despise everything our Government stands for and I began to think there was something wrong with me for actually approving of one policy.

    Incidentally, I would have loved to study even one of those three “Greatest Novels Ever” for my GCSE. I didn’t even get to study a whole novel: the closest I got was several extracts from Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’.

    Reply

    • Hello Laura, thank you for that, and welcome to the blog.

      I think there’s a lot of tribal thinking going on. That everyone perceived to be on “my side” thinks in a certain way seems to put to put pressure on one to think likewise. But, to state the obvious, if freethinking is to mean anything at all, we must allow ourselves to think freely – free, that is, from tribal pressures.

      Politically, I guess I am myself fairly towards the liberal, left-wing end of the spectrum. But Gove is the first Education Secretary who genuinely seems to care about our literary traditions, and who realises the importance of it being taught well; and while I’ll strongly disagree with him on many other matters, I am fully with him on this.

      Incidentally, it is genuinely shocking that you weren’t even given the opportunity to study an entire novel. I really wonder whether the kneejerk We-Hate-Gove brigade realises the true state of English literature teaching.

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  3. Posted by witwoud on May 28, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    I’m not sure about this, Himadri … You make an analogy between literature and maths, but there is this difference: no matter how tedious it is for kids to learn calculus at GCSE, at least they can understand it, if they are intelligent enough. But literature works in a different way. The vast majority of children, even intelligent ones, don’t understand Jane Austen because they don’t have the emotional maturity, the moral development, and the knowledge of the world to do so. Teaching her novels to kids is like teaching Mozart to tone-deaf people: however much you try explaining it, they’ll never really get it. (I suppose you could argue that studying advanced literature will help children develop these faculties, but I’m not sure it ever really works that way around.)

    So, while I’m in favour of skewing GCSE Eng Lit back towards the classics, I’d say there’s such a wealth of choice, that we can afford to pick those that have at least a 50-1 chance of making sense to kids.

    Such as Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream and, er … stuff like that. Oliver Twist, maybe? Okay, this is more difficult than I thought. Jonathan Swift. Mark Twain. R.L. Stevenson. People like that. I admit, you quickly drop away from the A-list in the search for things that kids will ‘get’. But I still say: anyone but Austen!

    Reply

    • Hello,

      Well, I suppose it can be argued that not every child will understand calculus either! Some will, though, and it’s a shame to hold them back, and to fob them off with mere long division instead. For that seems to me a fair analogy for the way things are in the literature classes.

      I do take your point, though, that there are many works that require an emotional maturity from the reader, and we need to select our texts carefully. But even there – I sometimes think back to the various works I loved as a teenager. At about the age of 13, I became hooked on the 19th century Russians. If you had asked me at the age if 16 what my favourite novel was, I’d have replied The Brothers Karamazov. (I switched sides shortly afterwards and became a Tolstoyan.) Now – did I really take in fully works such as Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov? of course not. Even now, some 40 or so years later, i haven’t taken them in fully. Maybe I never will. it’s a journey – and I, for one, am glad that I started that journey early. No doubt I took in very little of such monumental works at that age, but nonetheless, what little I did take in thrilled me. And even with works that didn’t quite thrill me back then – Madame Bovary, say – at least my teenage reading planted a seed in my mind that grew into something I could, later in life, come back to. I certainly don’t regret reading it at 15, even though I didn’t “get” it then.

      But yes, I do take your general point.

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  4. As one of the individuals responsible for the suggestion that Gove may partake of onanistic activity (knowing that the biblical reference is being twisted somewhat!) albeit caveated, on your Facebook page, I should probably explain.

    On this point, I agree with you. I honestly don’t care whether GCSE English Literature students read Of Mice and Men or The Crucible, or The Maltese Falcon, or The Grapes of Wrath, or Cat on a Hot In Roof, or Fatal Light, or Catch 22 or any of the great American plays or novels or collections of poetry that Gove’s decree now makes available. I suggest that Of Mice and Men is popular because it’s short and it’s morally unambiguous – it’s easy. If (as one would hope) a GCSE course in literature ignites a fire in a student to seek out great American literature, they’ll find their way to Of Mice and Men eventually, as well as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Heller, Eric Frank Russell and all in between.

    I similarly have no issue with setting minimum standards which include a Shakespeare play (Though I’m not holding out much hope for Titus Andronicus), 18th century poetry, a 19th century novel and a 20th century British novel or Drama. Not only does this leave plenty of scope for choice (Bronte, Hardy, Dickens, Austin) but with a two year course, it leaves plenty of scope for other, perhaps more leftfield choices.

    There’s not much, once the Pavlov’s dog reaction to the use of the G word has subsided, to object too in this. It might encourage teachers to take riskier choices, to teach books and plays and poetry they love. Enthusiasm is infectious. My English Lit O level included Twelfth Night (Not up there with Shakespeare’s finest, but it is funny), Tennyson’s poetry (local boy), Great Expectations and Kes. It also included The Long and the Short and the Tall, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Long Day’s Journey into Night (pretty bleak for 15 year olds) and one terrific crowd-pleaser – Eric Frank Russell’s witty and literary 40’s SF novel Wasp – hardly Literature in it’s purest sense, but an interesting, thoughtful, accessible introduction to one of the 20th Centuries most important genres. That syllabus fits entirely within the framework Gove proscribes.

    Ultimately, my view of Gove is akin to the old adage that even a broken clock is right twice a day. You make this point above –

    ‘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.’

    In short, it’s possible for Gove to be a wanker and yet to put forward this perfectly reasonable suggestion for a change in the way we teach English literature. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

    Reply

    • What all that means, I think, is that we are of the same mind!

      Reply

    • Hello Neil, good to see you round these parts.

      First of all, I most certainly didn’t mean to have a go at you, and I’m really sorry if that’s how it appears. It’s just that I can’t resist a smutty gag, and that “seminal” line was too good not to re-use! In any case, you didn’t, in the Facebook discussion, merely describe Gove as a 2wanker” and leave it there: you made quite a contribution to the discussion, if I remember correctly.

      I think we’re in agreement – so if I can make a few scattered random points:

      I really wouldn’t hod out much hope for Titus Andronicus either: I really do think it’s among Shakespeare’s worst plays (see here). On the other hand, Twelfth Night, I think, is among the old boy’s best (see here and here). And Long Day’s journey Into night is a work that particularly resonate with me (see here).

      In fact, just read through all the archive posts! (no, on second thoughts, don’t … there are quite a few in there that I’m rather embarrassed about these days…)

      Reply

      • Oh, fear not Himadri, I didn’t for a second consider it a slight. after all, I did write those very words. I’ve been reading through the blog. Terrific – though you may start finding random responses to historical posts.

  5. As an outsider, in another country, I have been baffled by the vitriolic response to what looks like a minor curriculum change.

    I really love the idea – I know you have mocked this before – that the teens of today are really going to dig About a Boy.

    Does Pride and Prejudice really require that much more moral development, knowledge of the world, etc. to “get” than The Crucible? How many students come in knowing the first thing about Puritans or Joe McCarthy? Do UK schools really teach high school students about the US red scare, and if so, why?

    Reply

    • Posted by witwoud on May 28, 2014 at 9:29 pm

      Sorry, ‘knowledge of the world’ was perhaps the wrong choice of words. I didn’t mean general or historical knowledge. I meant experience.

      But yes, I’d say it that it certainly takes more emotional maturity, experience, etc to appreciate Pride and Prejudice than it does The Crucible. Adolescents respond instinctively to these tales of injustice and intolerance, which is why they also like To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies and so on. Whereas the subtleties and ironies of Jane Austen are several steps ahead of them.

      I mean, look at it empirically. The Crucible has been a GCSE stalwart for decades, while nobody is touching Pride and Prejudice with a bargepole. This would suggest that adolescents appreciate The Crucible and don’t appreciate Pride and Prejudice. Yet Jane Austen is immensely popular among adult readers, which surely indicates that maturity, experience, call it what you will, are the crucial factors.

      Reply

    • I think much of this vitriolic response is mere tribalism. Gove has been identified as the “enemy”, and therefore everything he proposes must be opposed by all right-thinking people.

      As it happens, I do oppose much of what he says, but not on this – certainly not on this. This particular case is one of “I’m a liberal, all other liberals think X, therefore I must also think X”.

      Reply

      • Incidentally, the irony has just struck me that all those people going along with something simply because everyone else is are demanding that we restore The Crucible to the curriculum!

  6. Posted by Jonathan on May 28, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    I only read the headlines of this story and so it’s interesting that your post helps to clarify the situation – it looks like another case of the media whipping up a story out of nowhere.

    I think that children who want to read will search out material regardless of what they’re taught at school and I still see a reasonable amount of younger people reading books/kindles to come to the conclusion that it’s not totally dying out as a pastime. I loved reading as a child; but that didn’t mean that I was reading Milton and Shakespeare; instead, I was reading comics, Dr. Who books, Tolkein, sci-fi & fantasy etc. I thought that school failed to inspire me to read much that I hadn’t discovered myself and in many ways it put me off reading for a while – Shakespeare bored me to death and I still fall asleep when I try to read it now.

    So, I think they’re correct to try to mix up old and new, easy and difficult books. But the challenge is to make the children feel that the books are somehow relevant and meaningful to the students. One success I had from my school-reading was when we studied Animal Farm a term after we’d studied the Russian Revolution as it made me realise how the historical knowledge helped me understand the novel, which then helped me understand the history further in a sort of feedback loop.

    Personally, I think they should vary the nationality of the authors more and include some French, Russians, Germans etc. I’d like to suggest that de Sade should be put on the curriculum – I’d like to see Gove’s face then. 🙂

    Reply

    • Hello Jonathan,

      Yes, the media has whipped it up, but they can only do so if they know there’s a public that’ll respond And boy! – have they responded!

      I don’t blame the media: outrage sells, and Gove is so widely seen as an outrageous figure that the slightest hint of “Look what Gove is doing now!” is enough to get everyone going. At least, the liberal wing – those self=proclaimed freethinkers who will think the same way as other liberals do. (And I speak as a liberal myself, by the way – albeit one who often looks at his own side in despair.)

      I think we have a duty to – as I said earlier – communicate to pupils at least some of the values of our literary culture. (How about that for a split infinitive, by the way?) And to do this, we have to engage with the best – with Shakespeare, Milton, and the like. Otherwise, we may as well fob them off with About a Boy or something – and surely no-one would be daft enough to do that? 🙂

      Reply

  7. I love your rants, really. Like Tom, I’m an outsider and I suppose that adding a translated book in the syllabus is out of the question. (Or more precisely, it’s a question that isn’t even raised)

    I’ve had the opposite concern this year with my daughter, who’s 12. In the French 5th grade, the history syllabus is the Middle Ages. What great idea did they have in the ministry of education? Let’s read middle ages lit! I swear when I saw the reading list at the beginning of the year, I thought their hidden goal was to put pupils off literature for life. Perceval, Le roman de Renart… Truly, I felt sorry for her. Plus, things haven’t changed since I was in school, she had to read Le Lion by Joseph Kessel. Surprise! She loved Le roman de Renart, didn’t complain about Perceval and moaned about Le Lion, which is probably the easiest of the three. She also enjoyed Les Fourberies de Scapin but Moliere is in his own league. I think we shouldn’t sell our children short. They might surprise us. It is sad to assume they’re not able to read classics, sad to see them as unable to raise to the occasion. What does it mean of a society if adults don’t believe in their children?

    PS: see how these guys easily think they should adapt the reading list and never think of improving teaching methods…

    Reply

    • Rant? Rant? i thought I was being quite calm and collected there… 🙂

      That the French education system are actually introducing medieval texts into schools finally convinces me that the gap between UK and France is really too wide to be bridged. But remember: the Brits had the idea of chopping off their monarch’s head some 140 years before the French cottoned on to it! Makes one proud to be British, that does … 🙂

      Reply

      • Now I’m worried about literature classes in France in 2154. 🙂

        No more reading books from cover to cover in primary school, Renart’s fight with Isengrin will remain unknown and no more fables de Lafontaine to learn by heart. Marc Levy will be on the reading list… *shudder*

  8. Posted by alan on May 28, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    Himadri, good piece.
    They needed you at Thermopylae.
    Well, not really, but you know what I mean…
    Amateur Reader,
    I think that Pride and Prejudice requires less knowledge to understand in the early 21st century than when I was growing up.
    Austen’s world, where perceived human value is largely based on money, is very much in tune with our times, as opposed to a brief post war moment when other outcomes seemed possible, at least to naive youth. Also, for the increasingly diverse British population, the marriage calculations of Mrs Bennett and that society’s rules of propriety will be easily understood.
    Now I think of it, Romeo and Juliet should also be a breeze to teach… 😦

    Reply

    • I think you’re right about Pride and Prejudice.

      To go off on a bit of a tangent, I think too much is made of differences of times and customs: we as readers have an astonishing ability to overleap in our imaginations differences of times and of customs, and imagine what it would be like to live in different times, and with different customs, i doubt works such as Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre, say, will ever stop being popular, no matter what our social mores and customs.

      But that’s probably for a later post.

      Reply

  9. Posted by alan on May 28, 2014 at 9:15 pm

    As for “The Crucible”, all I’ve heard from school students is them competing saying lines like: “I thought I saw someone naked running through the trees”, in as affected a voice as possible.
    I think that it will be a sad loss to them.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Tony on May 28, 2014 at 10:59 pm

    I’d agree with most of what you say, except for noting that I do believe that GCSE-age students need easier texts. While I may be someone now who consumes everything I can get my hands on (the more compex and esoteric the better), when I did GCSE, I actually couldn’t be bothered to even get past the first few pages of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’. I got my come-uppance when the teacher set a surprise test, and I said that Bathsheba was a big, burly, bearded farmer…

    Of course, it’s now one of my favourite 19th-C novels, but when I was fifteen, I just wasn’t ready – it took years before I returned to the classics.

    Another point I’d like to make is that everyone is oh-so-concerned about the ‘exclusion’ of American lit. Hmm. And the other 95% of the world?

    Reply

    • Absolutely. I tried to stay away from translated literature in my post, as that’s really opening a new can of worms as they say, and this post is long enough as it is. But there is most certainly a case for studying translated literature, if only to raise some awareness of literary traditions in languages other than English.

      It is curious that so many people complaining so vociferously about Gove’s “narrowing down the curriculum” (a strange definition of “narrowing”, but there you go!) themselves seem more or less unaware of any literature beyond modern English-language novels – in particular, modern American novels. In particular, as you know, I have a particular hobbyhorse in my stables relating to Indian literatures in Indian languages: these literatures are not even so much as acknowledged in the West. I can understand the frustration you feel about the lack of awareness of Japanese literature, but at least the likes of Akutagawa, Soseki, Mishima, Tanizaki, etc. are available in bookshops. And Murakami is a very well-known name. But when it comes to Indian literature, the only writers who are known about are those who write in English. Effectively, it’s a case of “You can’t expect us to take you seriously if you keep writing in those funny little languages of yours.”

      So, instead of petitioning Gove to reinstate Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, how about asking him to include Soseki’s The Gate and Banerji’s Pather Panchali?

      (Looking back on my own schooldays, we studied one work in translation – although, admittedly, this was for my English Higher exams, the Scottish equivalent of A-levels. My English teacher was a rather eccentric and formidable lady who clearly loved her subject: indeed, she used to organize extra lessons during lunchtime for which she certainly did not get paid. And in that single year leading up to the English higher exams, we studied more texts of a greater complexity than I have heard any A-level student studying in a full two years. She selected two plays for us to study – Hamlet, possibly Shakespeare’s most complex play; and Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle in translation. Some forty years later, I look back on Miss McLeod with great esteem and affection.)

      Reply

      • Posted by Tony on May 29, 2014 at 10:49 am

        Ah, Brecht – did that one for A-Level German 🙂

        As for your suggestions, I suspect that if Mr. Gove shies away from the Americans, he probably wouldn’t be too keen on the idea of looking to Asia for literary inspiration…

      • I’m not sure Gove does shy away from the Americans, though: that, as far as I can work out, is just media spin. At least, there’s nothing in the official government guidelines to say that American literature should not be studied; and neither are quotas set.

  11. For my imaginary class, I intend to set: Titus Andronicus, The Ring and the Book, Marius the Epicurean (or alternatively some Meredith) and The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole.

    Reply

    • Isn’t The Ring and the Book a bit too populist for you? 🙂

      Reply

    • Posted by alan on May 31, 2014 at 10:28 am

      I don’t know anything about Meredith, but you’ve reminded me of Bruce Anderson’s put down in this week’s Spectator: “How could our forebears have esteemed Merdedith so highly? I suppose we have Derrida, Lacan and Martin Amis. But I suspect that they were laughing behind their hands, astonished that anyone would take them seriously. Poor old Meredith took himself seriously.”
      Maybe you’d like to respond to him.

      Reply

  12. Posted by Maggie on May 29, 2014 at 10:00 am

    I had an English GCSE class 2 years ago. The curriculum usually included “Of Mice and Men” which I’d taught years ago for CSE (remember them?).
    I couldn’t face it again so chose “Washington Square” for my largely Asian and African group of girls, on the grounds that it was short and there were 2 good film versions available. Nobody could accuse Henry James of not being subtle yet the class readily identified the characters’ dilemmas and became quite opinionated over whether Dr Sloper was a cruel father or only wanted the best for his daughter.

    Reply

    • Hello Maggie, Washington Square is a splendid choice. I wish I’d thought of that.

      I seem to remember a wonderful scene towards the latter part of the book where Dr Sloper, on the night before sailing back to America, says something along the lines of “We have fatted the calf for him”. It’s a wonderfully understated scene: Catherine does not reply to her father. But the realisation comes upon her of just how much her father actually hates her. It is a heart-wrenching moment.

      In my reply to Tony above, I spoke of my English teacher from nearly 40 years ago now: I still think of her with the highest regard and esteem. I can understand the various frustrations of the teaching profession, but it is nonetheless a profession where one can make a real impact.

      And incidentally, I love the William Wyler version of this novel – The Heiress (I haven’t seen the later version). All those elements that, in the novel, occur inside the characters’ heads are here brought out into the open: that’s fair enough – this is a film, not a novel. But the script is just so very good! And the performances also. There are two scenes particularly that stick in my mind – neither of them, I think, from James’ novel. In the first, Dr Sloper (Ralph Richardson) speaks to Morris’ sister, and she says confidently that her brother would never marry someone just for the money. So Dr Sloper asks for his daughter to be come down, effectively to exhibit to Morris’ sister just how inadequate his daughter is. After a few awkward minutes, he tells his daughter she may go, and then looks quizzically at Morris’ sister as if to say: “Well, you’ve seen her now – do you still think your brother isn’t mercenary?” It is a scene of the utmost cruelty, and I find myself squirming uncomfortably every time I see it. The other scene that sticks in my mind is that moment where Catherine (Olivia de Haviland) is sitting outside, and is told her father is dying, and wants to see her; and she refuses even to meet with her dying father.

      And there are still people who think old Hollywood films were merely sugary and sentimental!

      Reply

  13. Posted by cherubinox on June 8, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    Recently I’ve hopped on the Game of Thrones bandwagon, and I see all these kids on tumblr making essay length posts about character development, world building and use of literary devices. You see? they’re doing what their literature teachers try to teach them, they’re doing literary critique. It might be rather disappointing they don’t show the same interests and apply the same analytical rigor to prescribed readings at school, but it’s a fact that when the kids feel a connection with what they read and watch, they learn more. Having stuff the kids actually like in the curriculum makes a difference.

    Having said that, education isn’t TV programming, it shouldn’t be about catering to the audience. Children should be taught what’s great literature and what’s escapist fantasy. The same has happened to my city’s (Hong Kong) education system. When I was in high school, we already did a couple of pre 8th century chinese poems by 16. Now almost all classical texts in the curriculum are replaced by modern poems and essays. Thinking back, I didn’t get the poems at the time, but after reading some novels and TV dramas set in the times where the poets lived, I started to appreciate the poems. Fortunately, Chinese literature is still well and alive in China because there’s certain sense of national pride and reverence associated with our literary heritage over there.

    Reply

    • Hello, thank you for this. (And good to see you here again!)

      I am afraid I am possibly too old (and too grumpy) now for Game of Thrones! I don’t know why it is that I love, say, Gothic fiction, or ghost stories, but every time I get close to science fiction and/or fantasy, something inside me automatically switches off. I don’t mean to denigrate what I cannot personally respond to: I do know many people of taste and intelligence who love these genres dearly, so it is really no more than a personal idiosyncrasy, I guess, on my part.

      But you’re right: children do learn more when they feel a connection with what they are learning, and I certainly won’t pretend that classic literature is going to connect with all children, or even with the majority of them. But it will with some (as it did with me), and it’s a shame to deprive that some of the opportunity. There is a belief prevalent that if children are asked to study what is contemporary and popular, they will like it more because they will connect with it more: presumably, Nick Hornby’s About a Boy was included in the curriculum for this very reason. Yet, our daughter reports that everyone in her class hated having to read it. The truth is, I think, that anything that is taught school will be disliked by most: most children would prefer not to be in school in te first place! I bet if Game of Thrones were taught in schools, then even that would decline rapidly in popularity. But it is only when it comes to English literature that people think that children disliking the subject is a sufficiently good reason for not teaching it. If we were to extend this to other subjects, then we really would end up teaching nothing at all.

      As you say:

      Having said that, education isn’t TV programming, it shouldn’t be about catering to the audience. Children should be taught what’s great literature and what’s escapist fantasy.

      I was particularly struck by your last sentence:

      Fortunately, Chinese literature is still well and alive in China because there’s certain sense of national pride and reverence associated with our literary heritage over there.

      The “pride” and “reverence” for our literary heritage here in the UK is virtually non-existent. For instance, take a look at this feature in the Guardian, where several writers and celebrities were asked to nominate texts they think would be suitable for GCSE student (15-16 year-olds). Even in the writers’ comments, there seemed to me a bias towards modern works (apart from Hilary Mantel, who refused to answer because she appears to think there will be a greater awareness and appreciation of literature if we were to stop teaching it altogether!). And in the pages of comments that appear below the line, there doesn’t seem to be even so much as an awareness of the concept of “literary heritage”, or of “literary culture”. The overwhelming majority of the titles proposed are contemporary or near-contemporary; and works written before 1900 barely appear at all. Perhaps this is not surprising, as, according to statistics Gove cites (and which I have not seen disputed), only 1% of GCSE students tackle works written before 1900.

      Studying English literature without even an awareness of, say, Donne, Milton, Keats, Austen, Dickens etc. is like studying opera, say, without touching on Mozart, Wagner or Verdi: it just doesn’t make sense! Of course, I appreciate that GCSE cannot come close to covering all that should be covered for a comprehensive understanding of English literature; but I still don’t see how one can hope to have any understanding of English literature at all without touching on at least some of its high points. The latest proposals, which have caused such consternation amongst so many, insist that a complete play by Shakespeare, some Romantic poetry, and a 19th century novel must be studied. That people actually find such a proposal objectionable tells us much, I think, of the sheer disdain in which we, as a people, seem to hold our literary culture. “Pride” and “reverence”? If only!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

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