Thursday, 29 May 2014

Why American Literature must stay in our Schools

Michael Gove, our Secretary of State for Education has been upsetting people.  Again.  This time it’s because of his influence over the new GCSE syllabus for English Literature which elbows out long-time classroom favourites like Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird and, in their place, insists that British teens should study British novels – or let’s be more precise – English ones.  And from the nineteenth century.

Now on the face of it, this doesn’t seem too terrible.  I love the Brontës.  Well, Charlotte and Emily - sorry Anne.  And I love Dickens.  Not flipping Dombey and Son though – you’ve got to be joking.  And I love Mrs Gaskell – except for Cranford.  And George Eliot – so long as we rule out Adam bloody Bede.  And Thomas Hardy - if and when I’m in the mood for pure misery...

And therein lies the problem.  I love reading.  I always have done.  And whilst I agree with Gove (did I just say that?) that these English giants of English Literature should NOT be forgotten, marginalised and pushed out of classrooms forever, I also acknowledge that the work of Dickens and Company is difficult, demanding, sometimes very dull – (because however much I love Charlotte Brontë , I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that Villette nearly killed me) and always very very long.

Reading is in decline.  So are sales of books.  If we lose the ability to concentrate long enough to comprehend a novel, we’re in trouble.  And if we lose bookshops and booksellers from our high streets and lose literary agents and editors from behind the scenes, the world WILL be a crappier place.  Quality will fall.

So the last thing we should do is put kids off.  Forcing all British fifteen and sixteen year olds to wade through the never ending sentences of Bleak House or the shifting narratives of Wuthering Heights is pointless and very likely to put many of them off reading for life.  Reading habits have changed since Michael Gove was at school.  I appreciate his sentiment but he’s got it wrong.  These huge and difficult novels must be saved for A Level.  Give GCSE students something they can access.  And that's what teachers – without Gove’s help – have been doing for years.  Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird and The Crucible crop up time and time again because they are astonishing works of art, harbour themes which are still very clearly relevant and are loved by the kids who read them.

I know this twofold.

First, as an O Level kid myself – yes, I’m that flipping old.  I did To Kill a Mockingbird.  Aged 15, it blew me away.  And it was important too.  Growing up in Felixstowe, I’d never spoken to a black person in my life.  I’d never spoken to anyone of a different culture to myself – excluding that disastrous week with the German penpal I didn't click with.  But in my little corner of Suffolk, Harper Lee reached out, took me by the hand and showed me the American south in the 1930s.  And I understood enough to know that racism stinks.  Anytime.  Anywhere.

And second, as a teacher, I’ve taught that book and helped classes comprised entirely of white kids understand why we never have the right to say the N-word.  Even if some black people do.  Our history is different.  And if, at any point our ancestors used language as an offensive weapon, it means that we no longer have the right to bandy that word around in order to sound cool.

And then there was that bottom set of Cardiff boys – who sat in stunned silence after I read them the closing line of Of Mice and Men.  

‘What a sh*t mate he was,’ exclaimed one of them in outrage - just after George shot Lennie in the head. (Sorry if that’s just ruined the ending  for you.)     

And then I sat back amazed and listened as another boy – with an electronic tag on his ankle – explained the kindness in that desperately sad act.  And how it was, in fact, just a way of saving Lennie from ‘a f*cking uncaring and sh*tty world.’

I pulled them up on their blunt language obviously. 

But I doubt I'd have needed to if we'd been reading Middlemarch.  I doubt such a discussion would’ve ever taken place.
And then there’s Holden Caulfield – the original troubled teen - who wants to run away and live as a deaf mute so he doesn’t have to talk to people.  I’ve seen kids roll their eyes and tell me The Catcher in the Rye is dead boring.  And then I’ve listened to them tell me Holden is a tw*t.  And then I’ve listened to them say that, actually, he really needs help and counselling to come to terms with the death of his eleven year old brother, Allie.  Yes, there’s death in English nineteenth century fiction too.  Lots of it.  Perhaps so much that we start to expect it.  It’s certainly not the same as Chapter 5 of Catcher when Holden casually starts telling us about Allie.  In the past tense.  I’ve been reading that passage to classes for years.  Still can barely breathe by the end of it.

And then there’s that other thing.  English Literature means literature written originally in English, doesn’t it?  It’s about how our language has been used as art.  Or that’s what I’ve always thought.  But Michael Gove seems to be implying ethnicity.  I don’t like this.  I’m uncomfortable with it.  Does he want school kids to get the impression that Maya Angelou and Mark Twain and Alice Walker and Harper Lee – and perhaps also Dylan Thomas and Robert Louis Stevenson - have got nothing of significant importance to say to them? 

Michael Gove is not an English teacher.  Or a librarian.  Or a bookseller.  As far as I’m aware he has no professional background in any part of the literary world.  I think he needs to stop choosing the books that our kids read.  In his defence he says he’s NOT banning American books.  Or any books.  But this again just demonstrates his total lack of understanding.  The GCSE curriculum is packed - so much so, that some teachers opt to teach extracts rather than whole novels.  This approach has always depressed me and doesn’t prepare kids for A Level English at all.   Or for anything needing more than a tweet of concentration.  Neither does it encourage a love of books.  But I reluctantly acknowledge that, perhaps, it’s effective in getting kids 'through the course.’ 
However, in a future where we're all forced to teach lengthy nineteenth century novels, there’ll be little time left for those fantastic well-tested favourites that Gove says we're free to teach as an extra.  We’ll probably just have to divvy everything up into a load more extracts.

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