What Is Literature For?

By Miller, Jane | In These Times, August 2014 | Go to article overview

What Is Literature For?


Miller, Jane, In These Times


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.

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 favourites 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"). …

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