In a week when Michael Gove (who I'm no fan of) didn't ban any books and isn't about to set fire to piles of American classics there has been the most almighty dust up after an article in The Sunday Times (hidden behind a pay wall) which was nothing if not inflammatory. Everyone I know is outraged.
It's over twenty years since I took GCSE's and my memory is a little hazy about it, I certainly do remember studying Of Mice and Men but only because I hated it with a passion that's only been equalled by a deep antipathy for D. H. Lawrence when I encountered his work a year or two later. I was unlucky, my spelling and grammar landed me in one of the lower sets for English where I was fully expected to fail (achieve less than a c grade) and that may have been one of the reasons that I failed to really engage with any of the books on the syllabus (again, I have no clear recollection of any of them) despite being a voracious reader out of school. I won't blame the teachers I had - they were all good. When it came to choosing 'A' levels I was pushed towards doing English by a harassed man who clearly wasn't very interested in the individual needs of specific students. He did me a huge favour, I scraped through those exams with a good enough result to do 'A' levels and suddenly found myself in a room with a whole lot of people who wanted to be there and who wanted to talk about books. Better yet we were actively encouraged to read all sorts of non syllabus things and to think about what we read. It was pretty damn good.
As far as the Gove row goes I'm fairly indifferent about what students are studying as long as they're getting good quality literature. The idea that 90% of kids have 'Of Mice and Men' forced on them depresses me slightly (though apparently lots of people love it) there are other books though and dare I say that perhaps it wouldn't be the worst thing of there was a bit more variety? What has really depressed me about this whole furore however is the attitude towards our own classics. A trio of reasonably presentable GCSE students (girls who like to read about vampires in their spare time) declare that 2 English/British classics in 2 years is to heavy, to narrow in outlook. 2, count them again - 2 in 2 years. Out of all those books, some of which are pretty good. Reading Dickens (according to The Times) is a bit much to expect of the young. I'm not the biggest Dickens fan but his books don't entirely lack for issues to discuss and they're not uniformly inaccessible either. Is it really unreasonable to expect or encourage kids to read off syllabus and isn't there something fundamentally wrong if all they are expected or encouraged to read are things which might come up in exams?
It's obviously a good thing to broaden horizons and experience other cultures through their literature, it's a shame that translated European fiction is entirely off the agenda, and god knows I wouldn't wish D. H. Lawrence on anybody either but even if this really was about having a purely English syllabus (which as far as I can tell it isn't) you could still have an amazing reading list made up of books that have just come out of Britain (in Scotland it seems they're already doing this with set Scottish texts on the syllabus). Why is it that when we defend 'The Crucible' 'Of Mice and Men' and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' we're doing it in a way that seems to say that there's nothing as good to replace those books with? At a moment when there seems to be a rise of a particular sort of nationalism in this country it might not be an entirely bad thing to broaden our horizons by celebrating how diverse British culture is.
Of course it's entirely possible that I feel like this because I had to work on a bank holiday and I generally feel at odds with the world this evening so am bound to disagree with whatever the majority of people are saying.