Expert Comment: A Crucible of Mockingbirds and MenWednesday 28 May 2014
In the light of reports that Education Secretary Michael Gove has removed novels such as Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird from the GCSE syllabus, Dr William Blazek, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, looks at the truth behind the headlines.
The headlines screeched and social media tweeted that Michael Gove had influenced GCSE exam boards to ban twentieth-century American classic texts such as Of Mice and Men, The Crucible, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Moreover, he was supposed to have drawn on his Oxford Eng. Lit. degree to redesign the national curriculum himself, requiring a preponderance of nineteenth-century English literature and Shakespeare in the new syllabus. Back to the future, it seemed, with patriotic fervour and a dash of xenophobia.
The truth, as ever, is more complex. The Education Minister replied that in his youth he loved reading those American texts and he remains an "unabashed Americanophile". So what’s the problem? Well, 280,000 candidates for one board’s GCSE exam studied only one novel, and 190,000 of them read John Steinbeck’s 1937 text Of Mice and Men, a neatly structured novel of just six chapters. Mr Gove would like pupils from the age of 11 to read 50 books each year, and he expects the new subject guidelines to broaden the curriculum and produce more rigorous assessments. Some teachers have responded that, because of pressures to fulfil other parts of the curriculum, the English syllabus will actually become narrower (a Shakespeare play, Austen and Dickens for the novels, some Romantic and Victorian poetry, a contemporary British play or novel), and the new focus on exams instead of coursework will result in further restrictions to teaching and learning methods.
From an outsider’s perspective, this all might seem the wrong debate to have, when one man can attempt to control the reading habits of a generation. Of Mice and Men includes themes of contemporary relevance that might explain its attraction to schoolteachers in this latest conflict with Michael Gove: bullying and mercy killing. Maybe everyone needs to turn off the news feeds for a while and just sit down to read a book—I can recommend some good French novels.