Thursday, 29 May 2014
I remember this image from my School days. It's certainly quite powerful. Given the likely scale of the 100th anniversary celebrations (books, magazine articles, newspaper columns, historical dramas, things starring Benedict Cumberbatch, programmes beginning 'The Real...' on Channel 5), it may well be the case that in twenty years time children will be asking their fathers what they did during the Great War festival of remembrance. It may go on for so long that you'll get trench foot sat in front of the TV or neuralgia from squinting at Max Hastings' latest tome.
I wonder if anyone in years to come will ask the question 'What did you do during the great Of Mice and Men debate?'. Twitter has been pretty red hot on this issue since the published changes to GCSE English Literature were made public last week. Hashtags so ridiculous they would have made Robin Thicke wince were developed such as #govekillsmockingbird and #getgovereading. Celebrities as well as us normal folk jumped on the bandwagon, without bothering to read up on the detail of what was actually happening; the bandwagon swiftly gained momentum and wild assertions followed that books from outside the UK had been banned. Familiar Gove-bashing themes such as his (supposed) obsession with C19 literature, the Little Englander mentality etc didn't take long to be trotted out. It is amazing how quickly things snowball when people know what they want to believe. Even when people had the good grace to apologise later, it still came with a but...
If you were unfamiliar with the texts under discussion, you might have believed that Of Mice and Men in such an essential text that it trumps all others. Once you've read this book, essentially you're done, because no book encapsulates racism/sexism/economic hardship and cultural change in the way that OMAM can, and all in around 100 pages too. Hey, there's a film too, and a stage play, and if you're really lucky, that chap from Stars In Their Eyes might be playing Lennie. OMAM is very good; it's relatively easy to read (and short); the characterisation is strong; it deals with fundamental human issues. I can see why people would want to teach it, but surely it has become something of a crutch if around 9 of every ten pupils studied OMAM for their GCSE English Literature examination last year. This can't be right can it?
I remember reading the book as a double-header with Cannery Row and I found the latter to be far more powerful, in particular with its depiction of maintaining dignity despite poverty and the strength that can be gained by being part of a community. OMAM is not the only book that allows pupils to explore the issues it touches upon. A widening of the texts to be studied, an appreciation of the great literature produced in this country, with no text from anywhere being banned. Not that controversial, surely?
The problem of teaching time was cited by many as a key objection to the new syllabus - there simply isn't enough time to cover the material, they say. Given that many Schools took advantage of the modular approach to GCSEs by sitting exams in year 10, thus voluntarily diminishing teaching time, this argument is specious. The other main argument was that the changes to the syllabus would harm the 'lower grade' pupils, or as I also had it put to me, the 'disadvantaged' pupils. Now I suspect that the latter comment referred to pupils who are less rich, economically speaking, though I was assured that it referred to the 'disadvantaged reader' (you may work out for yourself what that means). I believe that is it the most common and most dangerous fallacy in education that cultural capital is the preserve of the wealthy. Education should be the greatest driver of social mobility, but as long as well-meaning though misguided individuals continue to perpetuate the myth that great works of literature, Art, music are for 'Them not Us', we will continue to preserve this schism in education. We should be ambitious and expect our pupils to show ambition. We should not shy away from the seemingly difficult texts just because the language isn't modern. After all, Twilight has a larger vocabulary than Sense and Sensibility.
Bank account wealth does not equal cultural wealth, but education can be the key to both. A weekend in Dubai will set you back a four figure sum. A weekend spent reading Orwell won't cost you any money at all, but your eyes will be opened that bit wider. I noted a petition with 50,000+ signatures demanding a volte-face on the new GCSE specification. It is these petitioners that will hold back pupils, through a lack of ambition and a misguided sense that academic education isn't for everyone.