Thursday, 29 May 2014

Literature and an outburst of modern hysteria

I'm faint with the shock of it all
In the middle of all the news, analysis and hand-wringing surrounding the European and local elections emerged a little story that came almost as light relief.

Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird are to be barred from school reading lists by secretary of state for education Michael Gove, it was reported late last week.

I don’t know about the reaction of any mockingbirds, but Twitter was alive with the sound of indignant tweeting.

One could quite easily have reached the conclusion that, deprived of the opportunity to read these works by John Steinbeck and Harper Lee, The Young People will fail in their studies, be put off reading for life and probably start injecting H.

Okay: I invented the last one.

Now it’s a lovely idea that what every child studies for a GCSE in English literature will have a direct impact on the national economy, but I’m going to call that one out as bollocks.
Actually, the reports were illustrative of the parlous state of substantial chunks of the UK media, as various organs picked up the story and ran with it uncritically.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, irrespective of Goves involvement in anything, some of the attitudes that have been revealed are hysterical – in more ways than one.
There is not a shred of evidence that any book has been banned.
One exam board has chosen to drop the novels from its preliminary syllabus (plus Arthur Miller’s The Crucible), with one anonymous individual from that board reportedly claiming that Gove’s personal dislike of Lee’s book is behind it – a claim that seems, at best, to be of dubious merit, although Gove has form on complaining that he thought ‘too many’ pupils were studying it. But that is not a synonym for hating the book himself.

The new English literature GCSE subject content was published last December and includes at least one play by Bill the Bard, something by the Romantic poets, a 19th Century novel, poetry since 1850 and a 20th Century novel or drama.

So pupils will still be able to study modern British works – the BBC reported that Meera Syal’s 1996 story of a British Punjabi girl in the Midlands, Anita and Me, and Dennis Kelly’s 2007 play about bullying, DNA, are among recent works that have been included in the same exam board’s draft syllabus.

Yet the Sunday Times reported Bethan Marshall, “a senior lecturer in English at King’s College, London”, as saying that it was a syllabus “straight out of the 1940s”, which would make schools “incredibly depressed” when they see it.

This is hyperbolic rubbish.

Frankenstein's monster. 19th Century. Still iconic
My secondary education came more than a generation later than the end of the 1940s and that’s pretty much what we studied for English literature – for our exam at 16.

Indeed, this is another point that seems to have passed over the heads of some.

This is about what pupils study for a particular GSCE – not for every English literature class for the duration of their secondary education up to and including taking that exam.

If Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird are so influential and important to the development of young people, then perhaps they should be taught in the first three years, as preparation for the eventual list of texts that are available to be studied for examination?

To go back to my own experience, in the five years up to O’ level, we studied a huge number of books – and at least two plays a year by Shakespeare (plus the odd one by Sheridan and Shaw).

Now, much as I like to highlight my own uniqueness, I rather doubt that I’m alone in observing, some decades later, that none of that old stuff wrecked my exam chances or put me off reading.

In some cases, I fell in love instantly with the works – in particular, all but one of the Shakespeare that we studied (I only disliked Romeo and Juliet) and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

At the time, I disliked Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Brönte and most certainly bloody, sodding Keats.

But then I also disliked William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – every bit a 20th Century novel – while I enjoyed Orwell’s Animal Farm.

As it happens, I have returned to most of these in the years since walking out of school for the last time. In most cases, I have enjoyed what I didn’t at the time and have explored further.

And my more recent literary peregrinations did not begin in isolation, but started as a result of my return to the literature I first encountered in class.

Ode to Autumn aside, however, Keats remains “bloody, sodding Keats”. Thankfully, our teacher also introduced us to a spot of Ted Hughes. And yes, I still read poetry too.

For clarity, I came from a home that was filled with books (mostly theology, non-fiction and light fiction), but have no memories of ever being read to or, once I’d passed beyond reading obviously children’s stories, being encouraged to read anything more demanding than Mary Stewart or Agatha Christie.

Vampires are still popular
So it was a case of mixed messages on the home front, leaving my introduction to literature entirely down to school (as was my introduction to art and music).

My first secondary school, which I attended until after taking my O’ levels, had a very mixed intake in terms of social background. It was a girls’ grammar school (we still had the 11 plus), but it was most certainly not ‘posh’.

My sister, who went to a local secondary school, was introduced to those dreadful ‘old’ books too – and has never ceased to be a reader or to love many older classics.

One of the problems with this sort of debate is that it is inherently patronising to children and young people.

It assumes that they need ‘easy’ texts and that ‘difficult’ – for which, often read ‘old’ – ones will be too hard and will turn them off their studies and even off reading in general.

Such things as computers, television and gaming are cited as being among the reasons that pupils will struggle to concentrate on anything that isn’t obviously ‘accessible’.

As I said: patronising.

Some complaints seem to think that not studying two particular classic 20th Century US texts for an exam will mean that pupils will be deprived – in other words, that they will never read them.

That is an assumption. There is nothing to stop anyone reading those – and other – books, either in their childhood or later. As I suggested earlier, there is nothing to stop a school using those books in earlier literature classes, before GCSE course work begins.

It also falls into the trap of assuming that the prime role of teaching literature to children is to create a life-long love of reading.

Now while hardly unpleasant, that’s far too simplistic an idea.

Few would apply the same idea to, say, the teaching of maths or of geography, so why treat reading differently?

Mind, much of this comes from the same camps that denounce ‘grammar nazis’ and proclaim that children should not be expected to learn to write correctly.

What they do in this – quite apart from revealing an utter lack of understanding of what a ‘nazi’ really was/is – is to reveal, among other things, that they do not comprehend the connection between a solid grammatical grounding in one’s own language properly and the ability to learn another language.

Let’s make it harder for children, shall we?

Every child – not just the ones whose parents can afford to send them to private schools – every child should have the right to the very best possible language education, in order that they have the very best chance to learn to make the most of the English language.

The clash between science and nature is no longer topical
That will not just help them in their future lives, but can be claimed to make a difference to the economic life of the nation as a whole.

And every child – not just the ones whose parents can afford to send them to private schools – every child should have the right to be introduced to the literary heritage of this country (and even Classical culture) and not just the ‘easy’ bits.

It’s the same, incidentally, with music and art – every child should have the right to be introduced to the very best that has been reached in those realms and not just what might be considered ‘easy’.

It’s not the role of education to make things comfortably easy, but to challenge the mind in order for that to develop.  Literature isn’t just about sitting down for a nice bit of a read, but about helping to develop critical skills.

To go down the route of education being ‘easy’ in such a way is not far from seeing education as essentially utilitarian – as merely a preparation for the workplace, which is what you get when the likes of the CBI bleats that school leavers lack “business and customer awareness” skills.

The idea has also been doing the rounds that pre-20th Century literature is also inherently reactionary – ‘misogynist’, was how one Twitter user characterised most of it.

First, as with reading history, it’s a cardinal error to attempt to impose modern mores on the past. You should not, as the Open University beautifully explains it, try to understand the Roman Colosseum through the prism of 21st Century Western attitudes to crime and punishment, religion or even animal rights (as though there’s only one Western attitude to any of those subjects anyway).

Similarly, you don’t try to understand any cultural ‘artifact’ by doing the same thing.

But none of this means that you have to introduce children to classic literature in a way that’s turgid.

Stop being terrified of the bawdiness of Chaucer.

And Shakespeare is full of power and politics, sex and violence.

Examine The Merchant of Venice in terms of anti-semitism and racism – and a proper examination, including the context in which it was written, does not produce the tired argument that is an inherently bigoted play, but rather, subtly the opposite.

Modern enough?

Look at Dickens for insights into 19th Century social issues. Austen was, first and foremost, a satirist – not a writer of rom-coms.

Read Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton if you want to see a representation of women and of class in the 19th Century industrial north.

Just want a damned good yarn? Try Conan Doyle or HG Wells – and with the latter, consider his ideas in terms of 21st Century scientific developments such as GM or cloning.

Now theres a thought: man tampering with nature. What about Mary Shelleys Frankenstein? Or Robert Louis StevensonStrange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The fear of female sexuality and modernity? Try Bram Stokers Dracula.

Indeed, many of the above remain iconic figures on both the printed page and in film. With the latter, there comes the suggested opportunity to discuss changing attitudes toward women – and if you wanted, you could explore that by comparing Stokers tale with modern incarnations of vampires, including Selene in the Underworld film series.

19th Century English literature should not be seen as some sort of holy canon, but neither should it be damned and ignored, any more than anything from later – or earlier – or treated as though it were somehow so utterly out of date that is has no connection to human lives and experience in the 21st century.

Personally, I have no problem whatsoever with children reading To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men, (I loved being introduced to Arthur Miller at A’ level), but I have no problem with them being introduced to older texts either.

The idea that seems to be floating around that somehow they’ll be damaged if they cannot study for examination the former novels, and damaged if they have to study for examination anything from before 1900, is patronising nonsense that does absolutely nothing to promote the best possible educational opportunities for every child.

And in protestations about ‘old’ literature and ‘accessibility’, the argument perversely turns out to be similar to Rupert Murdoch’s avowed anti-elitism. Do we need to detail how that has been used as an excuse to dumb down media – including but not limited to news media – and its impact on the UK’s public discourse?

If you need a reminder, then consider current attempts by the Times – once the paper of record – to smear Labour leader Ed Miliband because he looks a bit weird.

Another point: the clue is in the title – English literature. If you want to create a different course that covers global literature, then do so.

Literature in translation doesn’t count – although students of foreign languages will likely read relevant literature during their courses – so why should literature from the US?

After all, does anyone whine about a perceived lack of opportunity for pupils studying English literature to read, say, works by the rather excellent Australian author, Peter Carey?

And for brooding romance, Jane Eyre
Setting all that aside, is social mobility helped or increased by making education ‘easy’.

Ask yourself where the political leaders from the traditional working class are these days.

Is their absence down, in part, to the demise of the grammar schools that provided opportunities to gain the tools that enabled social mobility – including those that would and will always be available to those who have the fortune to be born to wealthy families.

Now this is not an argument that grammar schools are, per se, the ‘answer’. But the current situation is quite clearly not working – see that question about our politicians, and plenty of research that reveals social mobility to be reducing.

There are myriad reasons to criticise and damn Gove – his obsessive love of free schools and his actual record of trying to micromanage the curriculum (including some of his pronouncements on the teaching of history) are just two – but this non-issue really has the hallmarks of a dose of 19th century hysteria.

And caught in the middle, as always, are young people, being used – yet again – as a convenient political and ideological football.

So go on – won’t somebody actually think of the children for a change?

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