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Thursday, 12 June 2014

Storm in a Bookcase

We were drinking tea in a small flat in Paddington when, without thinking I asked my daughter what she thought of Michael Gove’s (Education Secretary) modification of the English curriculum. The demise of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Mice and Men’ in the C20th module has caused most excitement. The way it’s been reported and commented on in the media elevates this tweak to the burning of the Alexandrine Library.
My daughter is articulate and open-minded, a skilled debater. She is also of that generation who both studied To Kill a Mockingbird and enjoyed it, and so, in this respect, is positively biased. You could argue that I am negatively biased in not having studied and enjoyed Harper Lee’s book – though I still remember my set book, H.G Wells’ Mr Kipps, with a degree of affection. 

She argued that Michael Gove’s decision that the C20th module in the English Curriculum be restricted to British authors was limiting and that English was richer and greater than that.

I argued that having the same two books on the curriculum for decades was in itself limiting and deprived children from exploring the great British canon from 1900 to 1980. 

She argued that restricting children to studying their own culture only was chauvinistic and parochial. She had been stimulated and learnt a huge amount of a time and culture previously unknown to her.

I argued that American culture is more than accessible in music and film. Studying To Kill a Mocking Bird merely added another layer to an already familiar terrain. I pursued my advantage – or so I thought. It was British culture that was being submerged and hence unfamiliar. What about the great interwar novels and themes? What about Arnold Bennet, his depiction of life in the Potteries? George Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in London and Paris? Laurie Lee?

She looked at me suspiciously. “Are they interesting?

Sticky wicket territory. “Orwell is,” I said. “And Lee. Anyway what about Monica Ali’s Brick Lane – modern multicultural London?”

“We don’t want to read about our own culture, and besides it gives those who live in these places-”

“What places?”

“-Brick Lane, the East End…the Potteries - the advantage over those who live somewhere else.” She warmed to her theme. “Studying 1950’s Mississippi is not only interesting, it’s fairer. It’s unfamiliar territory for everyone. And it unites generations.”

“Come again?”

“Well if everyone studies Mocking Bird you have a common reference point for people of all ages.”

Neither of us wished to draw blood and so the argument ended, and we went for a walk along Regents Canal.

It may well be that C20th American literature is more powerful and diverse than its British counterpart, but I suspect that something less worthy is at play – other than political point scoring. Gove has been accused of wanting to restrict our students to just British literature, but it seems to me that schools and exam boards have been equally restrictive. They have, in effect, shot themselves in the foot. If American and Commonwealth literature is so good, which it is, why haven’t they explored its diversity and richness instead of limiting themselves to just two books over the years? 

Inertia and playing the system comes to mind. And these are understandable motives.

I’ve taught the equivalent students C16th and C17th British and European history, C19th Economic and Social History, and C20th World History. And each time the syllabus changed I groaned, knowing I’d be spending my summer holidays reading up, studying specimen exam papers and making fresh notes. I groaned loudest of all over Economic and Social History. Economic and Social History is not sexy. C20th history is sexy. Hitler could have been made for the classroom. 

But even here hard choices are made when it comes to choosing from the various modules. There are two factors involved in that choice: ‘interest’ and ‘simplicity’. American history is a popular choice because it is more ‘accessible’ (read ‘easier’) than the Russian module. Similarly ‘Mice and Men’ is a shorter book than ‘Mocking Bird.’ 

History teachers are under immense pressure to cherry pick and ‘pimp’ history in order to maximise exam results. In this respect History has been criticised for turning out generations of school children knowing only about Hitler, World War II and Henry VIII. It’s an exaggeration but to the extent it is true you can at least argue that these topics shaped cultures and worlds. The question is whether this is true of Mocking Bird and Mice and Men or are we hearing the squeals of those who don’t like change and who understandably fear the added pressure it will bring on league tables and exam results?  And yes I've been there. I've got the T Shirt. Several of them.
These thoughts are voiced in my daughter’s absence because I know she’d have a riposte which would cause me to think again. 


Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

Hi Mike

I'm here to answer your question from the comment over on my blog...but first want to mention you ought to consider making yourself easier to reach. 1) you are a no-reply commentor; 2) you have no email listed on your profile; 3) then you make a commentor type in that silly spam thing. I hate that, and go out of my way not to leave comments when the host doesn't make it easy.

So now...will paste my answer here:

Hi Mike...I don't terribly disagree with any of his statements, as long as you keep in mind they are generalizations. He neglects two of the most harmful elements in Indie publishing, the two most important factors Indies should be paying attention to.

I read exclusively Indie books, and only 1 in 20 are worth reading through the first 3 chapters. Independence frees writers to get really horrible crap out there.

Secondly. so many, many, many authors are giving away their work for free, and there are so many Indies, so many free novels out there, the market is flooded, and flooded with really bad writing, which instills the prejudice in readers that self-published writing is crap.

We have so many obstacles to becoming successful. Shame we're shooting ourselves in the foot over and over again.

Sorry for the rant.

Maria Zannini said...

As a kid, I was always more interested in British authors than American--with the exception of Mark Twain whose language skills fascinate me even now.

While I can appreciate educators wanting to focus on native authors, I have to agree with your daughter. Open the floodgates and let the student drink from the global well.

Misha Gerrick said...

Very interesting question.

Honestly, it probably won't matter much, what you give kids to read. If they enjoy reading, they'll probably track Mockingbird down anyway. If they don't, they won't bother to remember what they were taught.

(I know, I know. Very bad of me to say.)

I can just say I'm happy I did my Eng Lit A Levels with Ngugi, Emily Bronte, Shakespeare, Keats, Albee, Jean Rhys and Tennessee Williams.

But then, I always was a READER and reading only South African English books would have bored me.

Mike Keyton said...

Maria, I think, with History, the emphasis should be on your own country. Rootless people blow in the wind or as others direct. With literature, I agree with you and my daughter. I still think there should be an emphasis on your own cultural heritage but not exclusively so. American and Commonwealth literature offers so much and the best should be taught irrespective of origin. I just don't believe that two books taught for 30 years is the best the world can offer. That is more restrictive than anything Michael Gove has proposed.

Misha, I suspect all three of us are on much the same wavelength. Which Keats poem did you study, one or a selection? I did On the Eve of St Agnes. Wonderful stuff.

Jay Paoloni said...

I agree with you, one's country history and literature should come first. Yet, I can see your daughter's point, and I cannot disagree: opening up to different works of literature allows for more comparative points of view: British and American literature differ culturally and technically, still being written in the same (or almost) language. When it comes to the arts, I tend to see subtraction as loss. I think integrating is the best solution: after all, students can't really read two more books per year?

Mike Keyton said...

Hi Jay, I have no argument with that. I think students should be offered the best from the English speaking world (Not too sure about translations.) My bone of contention is that to just offer the same two books over a thirty year period is not doing that, and it's about time that particular logjam is broken.