Liberal orthodoxy, English literature, and Michael Gove

To Kill A Mockingbird is an odd and dated text
To Kill A Mockingbird is an odd and dated text

To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men have been dropped by a GCSE exam board.

To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men have been dropped by a GCSE exam board after Michael Gove, the education secretary, called for more British works to be studied. He has not banned them, but there has been an almighty fuss.

I loved these stories when I read them, but I can see very good reasons for dropping them - not least because they are symptomatic of this country’s post-war cultural obsession with all things American and of an extraordinary lack of pride in Britain’s own literature.

They are also a symptom of what Gove rightly calls lack of “rigour” in teaching. They are popular with schools because they are short (one reason why they prefer to teach Jane Austen rather than Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens or George Elliot), a relatively easy read, and raise political issues that teachers like to discuss. Narrowing the choice of texts must also greatly reduce teachers’ workload. For example, if 90% of children study Of Mice and Men at GCSE, class preparation must become very much easier - particularly given the widespread availability in bookshops of "teaching notes".

Those who defend these texts say they assist teachers to discuss issues such as bullying and racism. I wonder. Bullying is endemic in British schools and I doubt that teaching Of Mice and Men or, that other old favourite, Lord of the Flies, has made much difference. The truth is that such issues need to be properly addressed elsewhere - such as in personal, social and health education (PHSE) classes - not just in English lessons.

They also suggest that these books can easily be taught in mixed-ability classes. Again, I question this. These texts raise complex issues and, even with very able students, need to be very well taught.

To Kill a Mockingbird has no doubt had a positive influence on racism in British schools - but it is an odd and dated text on which to base an equality strategy, not least because it is deeply sexist and patronising. It deals in stereotypes, counterposing an heroic principled white male lawyer defending an honourable black man against a white woman who makes a false allegation of rape.

I have often wondered how much jury behaviour in rape trials is affected by the early message almost all our younger citizens have received in English lessons - that women lie about rape and assault and that intelligent heroic liberals would be wise to believe the accused. It is a theme that appears again and again in popular television crime drama - but was, I think, first widely popularised in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is a myth that has served abusers well.

The book is a liberal fantasy, a piece of highly-romanticised propaganda, brilliantly written, and useful in the context of lynchings and the early civil rights movement, but dangerous to girls and young women - and small boys. It should not routinely be taught in schools, not least because there are far better texts about inequality, many of them written by black women like Maya Angelou - who wrote superbly about racial and sexual inequality, poverty, and resistance.

The choice of texts for the English Literature syllabus, as with the history syllabus, reflects current social attitudes and political relationships. In the light of that, it is interesting to note that British schools not only routinely taught one book that involves a woman’s false allegation of rape, but also a second, Of Mice and Men, written from the perspective of two adult male friends, one of whom is escaping an unfounded allegation of rape and later kills a young woman who has first invited then resisted his attentions - a man whom the author says breaks her neck "by accident", and with whom we are expected to sympathise.

When schools are not teaching Steinbeck’s well-written, but bleak little text, they give children William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which describes the murder by schoolfriends of a bullied overweight boy. Such texts may excite a certain type of teacher, but do little to inspire children.

My grandmother was a teacher. I looked at one of her school reports the other day, dated 1909. It commended her work and suggested some holiday reading - an adventure by Walter Scott. The following year it was Dickens.

I wish I had been able to open one of my daughter’s reports in the 1990s and Noughties and see something similar.

I’m with Gove on this one.