A few years ago, Education Secretary Michael Gove lamented the fact that around 90 per cent of English Literature GCSE examination answers on the novel were based on just three texts – “Of Mice and Men”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Lord of the Flies”.
Only one candidate in a hundred has been studying a pre-20th century novel. Defoe, Austen, Dickens, the Brontes, Eliot, Hardy and so on have, in effect, been erased in our state schools. This collapse in learning has not been the result of censorship in the usual sense, but of choice. Schools have been selecting texts on the basis that they are ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant”; censorship, of course, by another name.
Steinbeck and Harper Lee, both fine writers, are right ‘on message’ in this regard. They very overtly address themes such as ‘injustice’, deprivation,’disability’, ‘racism’ and ‘gender’. These are the very themes that saturate teacher training and that provide the scaffolding for building our ailing education system.
They are, also, somewhat easier to read than many pre-20th century novelists. Average ability pupils, who might find the language of a Dickens novel, and its length, to be a challenge, can cope with the novella format that “Of Mice and Men” presents.
During my time teaching seven to eight year-olds in the private sector, I structured my English lessons around a text a term. We began with “Tom Sawyer”, moved on to “Gulliver’s Travels” after Christmas and finished the year with “The Secret Garden”.
True, these very young pupils, just out of the infants department, were going to have trouble with reading each book, in full, from the original text. Instead, we used the original text alongside a simplified version.
The opening paragraphs of “Tom Sawyer”, for example, in its original form, provides rich material to reinforce a simple grammar lesson. The children were asked to highlight parts of speech, such as nouns and adjectives and then to use some of these in sentences of their own. Easy enough and it illustrates how a writer uses language. In addition,it encourages pupils to find a connection between what they read and what they can write for themselves.
Sadly, these days, I doubt if any of the three authors I chose would be a permitted choice, even with much older pupils. Mark Twain is regarded as ideologically unsound on matters of race. Jonathan Swift’s invention of the “yahoo” underclass rules him out, even without the challenging ideas and demanding text. As for Frances Hodgson Burnett – so middle class, even if she is sound on disability issues.
I set the bar high for my seven-year-olds. I did not choose novels because they were easy. I chose texts that were demanding and for which I had real enthusiasm. A decade later, it was gratifying to receive letters of thanks from those same pupils as they prepared to go off to university. “We haven’t forgotten those lessons, you know, and we never will.”
In requiring a broader and more challenging syllabus Michael Gove, too, wishes pupils to leave school with something worth remembering. His efforts to widen the scope of the literature children are taught should be seen as a liberation from the manacles of the fashionable, the easy and the contemporary. To accuse him of doing the opposite is to fall into the trap that Judge John Taylor warned about in “To Kill a Mockingbird” – “People generally see what they look for…”