Of Mice and What?

So, our Education Minister (Michael Gove at the moment) has decreed that Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”, someone else’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and similar “classics of American Literature” are to be removed from the GCSE English syllabus.  It must be true, it says so in the papers.


Look! Not even a link from the Daily Mail, so it’s safe to click and won’t give your computer cancer.

I posted this on my Facebook feed over the weekend when I read this wonderful news:

I suspect I might be on my own here, but “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men” are examples of books I would never have read by choice and have never gone near since English GCSE. Thanks to being exposed to those authors at GCSE I’ve known to avoid them and others compared to them (unless it’s “Not like…”) like the plague. The only worries about removing these books from the GCSE syllabus are that future generations of kids won’t know what over-rated tosh they are and won’t be able to share these experiences with their parents..

Judging by the discussion that followed, people fall into 2 camps with these books.  They’re very Marmite.  And unlike Marmite, I did not like them one little bit.

If you want to read the full post and discussion, this link should take you there.

There are people who read them voluntarily, there are people who had them inflicted on them (along with the endless analysis, dissection and interpretation).  What did the author mean when…?  As this post eloquently sums up, if the author said the curtains were blue, the curtains. were. blue.

Now, I’m not just singling out those poor old Depression-era American authors whose tales have so much to tell us about our modern life.  I’ve probably read the same story thinly disguised as a Dresden Files plot, or seen it recycled on Star Trek.  We had other books inflicted on us, books who have served as a warning to avoid the author at all cost.

The Mayer of Casterbridge, for one.  My only recollection of this story is that it’s a pretty bleak and depressing story set in a completely fictional county.  If I want bleak and depressing set in fictional locations, I’ll find it elsewhere, thank you very much, dressed up in some Urban Fantasy or Science Fiction garb that makes it easier for me to digest.

1984 and Brave New World.  Both science fiction, both books I’d already read.

Romeo and Juliet.  The obligatory Shakespear.  Meh.  Baz Lurhman did more to bring that play to life than any stage production I’ve had the pleasure to see.

There’s a definite trend to the books we studied.  They were bloody old!  My parents probably studied them for their O levels.  My grandparents might’ve done as well, although for them it’s straying dangerously close to contemporary fiction.

The job of a parent is to introduce their kids to the books they enjoyed as kids.  And I’m having varying degrees of success.  I’ve not managed to convince either of my eldest to read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings before they turn 13, Terry Pratchett isn’t floating their boat, Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is doing better.  But the job of the GCSE English should be to equip them with the tools to enjoy whatever fiction they read, to understand the nuances of grammatical construction, to understand the difference between a noun and a pronoun (simple, a pronoun is a noun that’s lost it’s amateur status – thank you Calvin & Hobbes).  To do this, I suggest, you should expose readers to as wide a variety of styles and genres as possible!

Look at those GCSE books again.  Where’s the comedy?  the fantasy? the science fiction? the horror? the crime?  Okay, so it’s GCSE and you’re not going to be giving them Chris Brookmyre or Clive Barker but I was reading Lovecraft at that age, so if a kid wants to they should be able to  – and be able to dissect it in the laboratory conditions of the English classroom if they want.  And this is where the wheels come off Gove’s proposal.

Students taking the OCR exam from 2015 will be required to study a pre-20th century novel, Romantic poetry and a Shakespeare play.

Although the article takes pains to stress that nothing is excluded and that this is the bare minimum everyone should do, as a list it’s bollocks!  Shakespear’s not something you read, it’s something you experience!  Romantic poetry?  Do me a lemon, that’s going to put anyone off poetry for life! If you’re going to include poetry (and you should, definitely) then look for some way to make it modern?  Slam poetry, Pink Floyd lyrics, Pam Ayres (at least her stuff rhymes).  And a pre-20th century novel?  How about a novel set pre-20th century?  It’s close enough.

You could do “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” and get distracted reading Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”, go off on a tangent to the lost Dr Who episodes penned by Adams…  That’s covered modern literature, poetry and writing for different forms of media in one swoop.

If it’s all about cross-disciplinary learning, grab some Cadfael in English while studying the time period in History, the landscapes around abbeys in Geography.  Bit of joined-up thinking and the world could be the mollusc of your choice.

If cost is an issue, then there’s the whole of Project Gutenberg to sink your teeth into.  Kids have all got Kindles these days, haven’t they?  Nothing contemporary on there but there’s a hell of a lot of stuff you could study.

So I’m not going to mourn those lost American “classics”.  For me, they served a purpose – I’ve never touched those authors or anyone compared favourably to them again.  But maybe I’m being too harsh on them.  Maybe I’ll give them a re-read.  Once I’ve finished all the new stuff that’s being published.

2 responses to “Of Mice and What?”

  1. Agree on giving the book list a modern flavour, updating it with some new and exciting styles to compliment the classics. My issued with Gove is that part of his message was that they should be removed because they weren’t by English authors. What a bunch of bollocks.

    • Having heard the R4 interview, it’s interesting to know that it’s being blamed on Gove but it’s not his idea. The book list definitely needs updating – but you’re right, not being English is not the right reason to take books off.

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