Monday, 26 May 2014

Of Mice, Mockingbirds and unhappy little men

So, as has been widely reported, a number of texts are being dropped from exam boards' English Literature GCSE syllabuses reportedly following pressure from Michael Gove. There really is no point me entering the (pretty one-sided) debate about how retrograde a step this is for the nation's children. Instead I should like to speculate as to why he should have done such a thing.

The reasons put forward are pretty much what we have come to expect from such an original and forward-looking thinker: that the old syllabuses were not rigorous enough (that bloody word again) and that they did not give sufficient weight to the English cannon of great authors. So pretty much the same reasons as Gove presented for his 1066 and All That history curriculum. The serried ranks of academics telling him those changes were idiotic, counter-intellectual and damaging clearly seemed to spur him on, so we are to get more of the same as regards English Literature. However he does not have the excuse of willful ignorance this time: I learned with astonishment recently that Mr Gove studied English Literature at University.

Nevertheless, English Literature is a subject on which Mr Gove seems to have been uncharacteristically reticent, at least in public. In his great speech of May 2013 (which will surely go down in the annals as the first true evidence that a genius walked amongst us) there is actually very little clear discussion of what was wrong with the then-current English Literature syllabuses. As I see it he presents three main arguments:
1) That Middlemarch is a better book than Twilight
2) That it is "depressing" that so many students study Of Mice and Men, An Inspector Calls, Pygmalion and Hobson's Choice
3) That (except in what he calls "the very best schools") very few students study works from what he calls the Great Tradition of English Literature (capitals his)

Of these, number 1 is clearly specious and not worth spending time discussing, except insofar as to point out that what Twilight resembles above anything else is the 18th Century Gothic horrors satirised by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. The 21st Century does not hold the monopoly on trash.

Leaving aside for now the merits of the texts he lists in 2, clearly it cannot of itself be depressing that large numbers of students study a small number of books. This could, logically, only be depressing were number 3 a genuine concern. Unless he thinks there is something actively bad or dangerous about students engaging with texts that explore the terrible consequences of poverty...

So to number 3. The texts that he implies it is depressing that more 15 and 16-year-olds do not study at school are Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Far from the Madding Crowd and She Stoops to Conquer. An odd collection in many ways.

I can remember little about She Stoops to Conquer, except that it is a pretty lightweight comedy of manners without particularly significant literary merit and no contemporary relevance. The novels cited are all worthy of study, though in very different ways, but I really cannot see their merits as means to engage students in either the detailed study or the passionate engagement with texts. Pride and Prejudice has an ironic detachment of tone that it is clearly possible for readers to miss entirely (or how would Colin Firth be cast as Darcy and then be filmed emerging half-naked from a lake?) Teenagers would, I think, be particularly prone to read both it and Wuthering Heights as the love stories that actually neither truly is, thus entirely missing the point.

What these texts do have in common, and how they differ from the texts Mr Gove finds "depressing" is that they are long, occasionally dull and sometimes difficult for any but the most literate to engage with. Which, it seems, is the attraction. For Mr Gove, the study of literature should be rigorous (read hard work and not particularly enjoyable). Of Mice and Men is not rigorous because it is short and readable.

Yet Of Mice and Men for all its brevity (because of its brevity in fact) richly rewards close study with its efficient characterisation, its narrative foreshadowing and its inspired use of symbolism in the description of setting. It is something students can get their teeth into and find real meat almost straight away. That is why teachers love using it with classes- because taught well it leaves students with a real understanding of what literature can do and a hunger to read more.

There is meat in the longer novels of the Great Tradition... too, but it is often harder to find and you have to chew longer to get to it. And to be frank, sometimes once you get there you discover that it was barely worth the effort. If I want to read something that really engages with the plight of the industrialised working classes I will walk (nay, run) past the entire Dickens canon and reread one of Gove's "depressing" texts, An Inspector Calls. Not because it is an easier or shorter read (though clearly it is) but because it is better.

Yet the only conclusion I can come to is that the question of whether a literary text is any good or not is simply not an issue with Mr Gove. Aside from the patently absurd comparison of Twilight with Middlemarch he presents no meaningful argument as to the comparative literary merit of any of the texts he mentions. The texts he criticises are to be banished because
a) they are short
b) too many students currently read and enjoy them
c) in "the best schools" (whatever they are) students study them at Primary level
None of these is an argument about literary merit or lack thereof.

So why get rid of them? Well, the key is b), I think. These are books students enjoy and get reward from studying. Hence, of course, not RIGOROUS enough.

The picture emerging is of Mr Gove as a very unhappy little man indeed. He studied English Literature at University and apparently reached the conclusion that any text that students enjoy and get reward from studying is to be distrusted.

Listen, Mr Gove, please. Just because you clearly hated studying literature and found it an unpleasant and unrewarding struggle, that does not mean that everyone has to suffer the same torment. Pleasure in studying great books is not inimical with rigour. Short, readable books can be just as worthy of study as long, unreadable ones. And the only sure way to bring about the demise of the Great Tradition of English Literature is to turn it into a masochistic obstacle course that all teenagers must traverse.

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