Michael Gove has successfully done it again, upset a multitude of teachers by uttering a single sentence (a subject in which he’s well qualified). What I’m not doing is arguing against him as a person right now (I’ll save that for the staffroom). What I want to do is talk about the beauty of the literature he is attempting to wipe from the face of the curriculum.
1) ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
Not the easiest book to wrap your head around – the child narrator makes meaning obscure, testing your textual analysis and inference skills. But more than this, it’s a haunting novel that reminds us where cultural prejudices have come from, and how lucky we are to have travelled away from that place, if not entirely escaped it. I’m not denying British novels deal with such issues, and that they do it well, but sometimes it’s better to have an experience removed from your own in order to make you evaluate yourself more critically, rather than feeling you are being directly preached at and resentful of being indirectly accused of participating in such prejudices. Tell me the story of Scout Finch and her admirable father does not resonate with us; whether you enjoy the plot or not, it delves into issues at the core of being human, and cannot be underestimated in its value.
2) ‘All My Sons’
Arthur Miller is another victim of the Govian canon. Some of the most spirited discussion in my A Level literature group were over the culpability of Joe, whether he was representative of true evil or just an ignorant man (or whether the two were mutually exclusive). Shakespeare has his merits, Marlowe is indisputably brilliant, Russell a contemporary heartbreaker, but Miller has this way of dealing with historical issues that test our own values, and make us question the arbitrary roles of good and evil. Yes, many texts have the potential to do this, but in terms of delving into performance art and how we interpret what is placed before us Miller is invaluable.
3) ‘Of Mice and Men’
A novella that perhaps is divided in reception in classrooms; there will always be those children who find the issues ridiculous, and will giggle at Lennie when you show them the film adaptation, but that has never meant they are incapable of grappling with the fine textual detail presented in this text. In particular, Steinbeck’s language choices allow us to delve into how a text can be so intricate and detailed in such a short space of time, how we can grow to fight a character’s battles in a compact arena, and yes that is directly comparable to the lengthy three-volume Victorian novels that take pleasure in ornate language and still arrive nowhere and abandon their reader on the way. That’s not to say there’s no place for lengthy novels in a school – of course we should stretch and challenge, and I have thoroughly enjoyed a variety of texts published between the 14th to 21st century. But I’m a graduate, I chose to engage with such issues – there needs to be a hook to encourage more people to engage with this material, and why shouldn’t something as simplistic yet complex in matter as ‘Of Mice and Men’ be the way of achieving this?
And where does this leave us in the future? Gatsby will lose his great, a lot of pupils will struggle to overcome their prejudice to Mr Darcy, and lets not forget there are cultures out there that deserve our recognition – should we be swapping our Anne Frank’s for our Captain Scott, just because of where he’s born? Where does this place our ‘Kite Runners’ and our ‘Trials’? And what does this speak to our pupils? That we should take pride in our culture, I cannot disagree with, British literature is some of the finest in the world, and it is not that which I dispute; that we should discount other cultures because they don’t lie within our waters, I whole-heartedly disagree with. The more we can appreciate of literature around the globe, the more rounded our knowledge becomes, and the more appreciative we become of how the world has developed (or not, as the case may be) and see our place within this world more clearly.
It’s a crying shame that one man could reduce childhood experiences this dramatically, and it saddens me that we cannot experience a world of literary pleasure for one person believing in the superiority of one small corner of the world.