Arifa Akbar: Never mind Michael Gove, I'd ban Of Mice and Men and other over-used set texts

 

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The Independent Culture

The Americans can't know if they're coming or going in our Brave New Ukip-enhanced World. First that gatekeeper of Commonwealth literary tradition, the Man Booker prize, opens its borders to the Americans, to a hail of doomy predictions on how British fiction will be over-run by any number of gum-chewing Yankie doodle dandies with a Creative Writing MFA in their back pockets.

Now, the Americans have been banished, at least 20th century ones, from the syllabuses of GCSE-English Literature students, to a hail of doomy predictions on how kids will no longer be able to study Of Mice and Men, and will be the poorer for it. Or that's how it sounds to me. Complaints against the Education Secretary, Michael Gove's revised guidelines seem to revolve around the loss of a few former set texts, most notably John Steinbeck's novel and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the former of which is apparently studied by 90 percent of GCSE pupils.

What is most depressing in all of this is how little has changed. Of Mice and Men is the text I had to read for my GCSEs, which by the way, was the very first year they replaced O'Levels, some 26 years ago. It shows a profoundly unimaginative approach to schooling for children to be taught the same few texts year in, year out, whether they are American or otherwise. How 'fresh' will a teacher's delivery of these lessons be if they have taught the same book for two decades? How infectious their love for it? It makes me cross to hear the 90 percent statistic. It makes me even crosser that this threatens to become a debate about Britishness versus Americanness when really, it is a debate about breadth and imagination and variety of choices. Who was, until now, stopping the teaching of 20th century American fiction beyond the predictability of Steinbeck? And presumably students read more than just the set texts (though some voices this week have suggested that they don't have time for much else).

What about a more imaginative choice of reading altogether? Yes, kids must get through the compulsory Shakespeare text and Romantic poetry but must they read the same few titles as last year, the year before, and the decade before that? If we want to bring in the Americans, there are so many glorious choices from the pre-1900 canon which still qualify. Those who might be mourning the fact that they can no longer be 'tested' on The Great Gatsby can perhaps study Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or 12 Years a Slave, for that matter. What's to stop the exam boards? Just as OCR (Oxford Cambridge and RSA board) is broadening its history curriculum "beyond Hitler and the Henrys", the same could be done with English literature (although OCR's new draft syllabus features the veterans, Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice).

There is more to English literature than Pride and Prejudice, and there is more to American literature than Of Mice and Men. And of course, there is much more to teaching, and learning, literature than just the set texts. Mr Gove might stand charged of sending mixed messages to schools – he talks of giving them greater freedoms on the one hand but urges the teaching of synthetic phonics on the other, for example – but he can't really be got at for wanting to give schoolchildren greater variety of literature. It's high time for the "banning" of Of Mice and Men, in my book.

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