What Is Literature For?

The U.K. removes American classics from required reading lists.

Jane Miller July 31, 2014

Will William Shakespeare miss the company of Yankee writers Maya Angelou and Harper Lee? (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

John Stein­beck­’s Of Mice and Men has been on the exam­i­na­tion syl­labus for Eng­lish school­child­ren for more than 50 years. It’s prob­a­bly time for a change. There’s been an inter­est­ing row here, how­ev­er, because of its removal, which has been accom­pa­nied by the removal of Arthur Miller’s The Cru­cible and Harp­er Lee’s To Kill a Mock­ing­bird, and all three were removed by pub­lic exam­i­na­tion boards at the sug­ges­tion of Michael Gove, the Sec­re­tary of State for Edu­ca­tion, on the grounds that chil­dren in Eng­land should be read­ing books by Eng­lish writers.

Mr. Gove’s impressive lip would curl, I’m sure, at mention of pleasure.

Of course there’s noth­ing to stop any young per­son from read­ing those books and oth­ers that are also now more or less exclud­ed as exam­i­na­tion texts: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and J.D. Salinger’s The Catch­er in the Rye. This is a row about school exam­i­na­tions and about the texts that are sanc­ti­fied by inclu­sion in them. These Amer­i­can” books have been pop­u­lar with teach­ers and stu­dents, in part because they tack­le issues such as racism and inequal­i­ty and grow­ing up in ways that make for live­ly dis­cus­sion while main­tain­ing dis­tance from the stu­dents’ par­tic­u­lar experiences.

What’s out­ra­geous is that a cab­i­net min­is­ter should dic­tate what teenagers study. Gove wants more Shake­speare, more 19th-cen­tu­ry Eng­lish fic­tion and poet­ry, more rigour and, he says, more breadth. There has been a rush by writ­ers and oth­ers to offer their ide­al lit­er­a­ture syl­labus­es, all of them accom­pa­nied by the usu­al range of jus­ti­fi­ca­tions: that the books they’ve cho­sen are great” literature,“classics” even, that they are or were par­tic­u­lar favorites in some­one’s child­hood, that they are excit­ing­ly con­tem­po­rary, or not at all con­tem­po­rary, that they tack­le vital themes, or indeed, that they don’t and are the bet­ter for it. And then there is pleasure.

Most Eng­lish teach­ers think, as I did, that the best bit of their job is read­ing and enjoy­ing sto­ries and plays and poems with young peo­ple and talk­ing about them. The prob­lem is that when it comes to exam time the process is turned into a strange sort of study which requires stu­dents to learn to write in answer to ques­tions (which usu­al­ly and disin­gen­u­ous­ly con­tain words like dis­cuss”).

Most Eng­lish teach­ers will have taught stu­dents who are enthu­si­as­tic read­ers. Those stu­dents may even rise to the bizarre request that they com­pare and con­trast the Oedi­pus of Sopho­cles with Kafka’s Gre­gor in The Meta­mor­pho­sis, as some were recent­ly required to do.

But many teenagers are not keen read­ers, and their Eng­lish teach­ers want above all to change that. A diet of texts that bore them, and a year or so of prac­tis­ing writ­ing essays about them, can turn young peo­ple off lit­er­a­ture for a long time, if not for­ev­er. I got around all this when I was 15 by refus­ing to read any of my set books and sim­ply get­ting friends and fam­i­ly (and I was lucky to have them) to tell me what to write. I passed the exam, though not bril­liant­ly. But it also left Mac­beth and Kid­napped to be read for plea­sure and inter­est at a lat­er date.

Mr. Gove’s impres­sive lip would curl, I’m sure, at men­tion of plea­sure. Yet sure­ly that is what we hope young peo­ple will come to expect and to expe­ri­ence from read­ing. With­out that expec­ta­tion of plea­sure and inter­est, they will miss out on the humour and the tragedy and the insight that comes from lit­er­a­ture. And if they are teenagers, it is quite like­ly (though not inevitable) that they will get plea­sure from books their teach­ers and their par­ents don’t like or even approve of.

Gove seems to think that young peo­ple will believe that the First World War was glo­ri­ous and that Eng­lish writ­ers are bet­ter than Amer­i­can ones, if they are told as much. I have been read­ing the mem­oir of the Czech nov­el­ist Ivan Klí­ma, which tells the sto­ry of what hap­pened to banned writ­ers and their work when pub­lish­ing and jour­nal­ism and edu­ca­tion were con­trolled by gov­ern­ment com­mit­tees. These com­mit­tees decid­ed what should be includ­ed and what banned based entire­ly on what was said or implied in them about how things were going in Czecho­slo­va­kia at the time. I rec­om­mend the mem­oir to Mr. Gove.

Jane Miller lives in Lon­don, and is the author, most recent­ly, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and After­thoughts (2016), a col­lec­tion of her In These Times columns and interviews.
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