Wednesday, 4 June 2014

To Kill or not to Kill a Mockingbird?

In the last ten days two stories have loomed large in the world of Literature. One was the announcement that two titans from the world of 20th century Literature, namely ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, were amongst a number of texts to be dropped from the English Literature syllabus of several exam boards in the UK. The other was the death of writer and Civil Rights campaigner, Maya Angelou. The two events were met with many column inches, both in the press and on the Net. However, the responses were very different. The former story garnered a general intake of breath and then an angry outcry from many. The latter produced an outpouring of sadness and a sense that one of America’s great voices in Literature, had passed.

The decision to drop a range of American literary texts was apparently at the behest of the current British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. The head of the OCR examining board’s review committee Paul Dodd, said that Mr. Gove wished that schools in England should concentrate on British literature from now on. In addition, it was reported that he had a particular dislike for ‘Of Mice & Men’ and was concerned that so many British school children studied it (close to 90% according to recent figures). So is this the end for Lennie, George, Atticus and Boo?

Is there time to teach ‘additional texts?’

Mr. Gove has now hit back against his critics, claiming that he hasn’t requested they be dropped nor in fact hates Steinbeck’s book. What ever the real truth is, the new reading lists for the British exam boards of OCR, AQA and EDUQAS (formerly WJEC) do not list Steinbeck, Lee or in fact any American writers. The Secretary of State for Education has stated in an open letter to the British newspaper ‘The Telegraph’ that ‘schools are free to teach these texts in addition to the proscribed ones’. However, with time being a major factor for English teachers, it is highly unlikely that most schools will find neither the time nor the inclination to do so. Schools these days live or die by their exam results, so quite simply if children are not going to be examined on a text, they won’t study it. Results are the name of the game in the UK classroom of 2014.

                           Why should children study these books?

From my personal experience both ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ pack a punch. In Steinbeck’s story, we see the bleak and at times brutal world of rural America during the Great Depression. Though a short text, with only six chapters, it manages to both tell an engaging tale but also to deal with a number of important themes. These range from the casual racism of the farm workers directed towards the long suffering black stable hand Crooks, to the fear that any of the men could lose their job if they incur the wrath of their boss or his arrogant, bully of a son.

Kids enjoy this story!

This text is taught in so many schools for good reason. It is quite simply a brilliant story that in my experience has never failed to interest and usually entrance, the students who are reading it. From the first pages where there is open mockery of the hapless and slow-witted Lennie, to the final page, where on more than one occasion, a student has burst in to tears at the powerful and dramatic dénouement. Kids enjoy this story! What’s more they care about the characters and the issues raised. As a teacher I can only echo the remarks of many in the press and on the Net last week, that regardless of ability this is a story that engages students. It may not be George Elliot’s ‘Middle March’ or Jane Austin’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (two favourites of Mr. Gove apparently), but for a 15 year old at an inner city school, this tale of poverty, violence and murder from 1930s America resonates much more for them.

Atticus, the single father and liberal lawyer is surely 
a great role model for today’s teenagers.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a similarly loved story. The tale of Scout and Jem and their inspirational father Atticus, in the southern town of Maycomb in the 1930s, operates on a very similar level to Steinbeck’s tale. An apparent slow-burning story that gradually builds to an exciting climax, has again drawn in nearly all that I have taught the text to. It has the obvious messages of fairness and justice, but also the message that following one’s beliefs is more important than being popular. Surely this is so important in an age of vacuous celebrity, where teenagers need to see that looking and sounding like everyone else is not necessary a good thing, particularly if what the ‘herd’ espouses is wrong. Atticus, the single father and liberal lawyer is surely a great role model for today’s teenagers. Here is a man who not only uses his brain to defend the innocent but who is also willing to put his life on the line (by spending the night before the trial outside the jail to protect the innocent Tom Robinson from a lynch mob). His strength comes not from being a muscle-bound, ex-special forces, tough guy with a gun, but a softly spoken man that believes in right and wrong.

Should Education be a politics free-zone?

So is it right that a politician can decide what book children can study and teachers can teach? At the moment we are in a situation where people are still arguing about what was actually said. Surely education needs to be free from political interference, be it actual or inferred. These two books, considered classics by many, should be judged first and foremost on their merits and not on the nationality of those that penned them. They were written in the English language, have engaged and educated generations of British school children and are in the opinion of this teacher, needed more today than ever.

So how do the alleged literary preferences of a British minister relate to the highly esteemed Maya Angelou? Well for one, the first part of her series of autobiographical books ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ will also lose its current place on the English Literature list. Secondly, Maya Angelou once said that any book that gets a child reading and engaged is a good book. I for one wouldn’t disagree.

#IGCSE #English #ToKillaMockingBird 

This post has been written by Andy Mackay (IGCSE English tutor at Blackhen Education).

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