Of mice and men

Which Classics?

British Flag Flying

Today, we’re going to do something that we normally don’t, which is discuss current events, specifically, something going on in the UK, which has global implications (well, global except for the US), and which we believe also opens us to a wider discussion which can be 100% global.  I am referring to the recent decision to include more British-literature (as in literature created in Britain) on the GCSE examinations.  There has been a public outcry (details here) because, in essence, this will mean removing many 20th, century American books from the syllabus.

The global implications arise because the GCSE guidelines are the basis for most of the important international examinations for anyone who is studying English abroad (yes, there are American examinations, but in secondary education, at least, worldwide the British model still rules the roost).  Everything from IGCSEs on are based on this model.

So, do we agree with the critics?  Well yes and no*.

It seems pretty clear that the focus on British literature will leave out many, many worthy books, especially from the 20th century.  Without thinking too hard, The Great Gatsby comes immediately to mind as one of the best pieces of literature ever written in the English language – if I had to rank the 20th century, that one would be at the top of the list.  The Mosquito Coast was on there once, and it will probably get taken off.  Hemingway will also get ignored, which is just silly, and there are many, many more omissions which we are probably not thinking of, but are important.

Of mice and men

Where we disagree is on the books that are causing the outrage: Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird.  The central criticism from this front seems to be that the Literature portion of the GCSE is there to teach kids morality, humanism and how to be a better person.  That if we leave off books that improve us socially, we are doomed to… well, The Guardian isn’t particularly clear on that point, but we are doomed to something!

This is an admirable feeling, as far as it goes, but misguided.  You see, we feel that social studies is a perfectly good place for that kind of thing, and that Literature GCSEs should be about literature, not pushing agendas.  Both Mice and Mockingbird are strongly political books, which is fine, and both strongly humanist and leftist, which is also fine, especially in the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is a seriously moving book that everyone should read.

musty tomes

But, as literature, they are not the best of the best.  Yes the Steinbeck is more easily defensible in that regard that the Lee, but there are other, much better books and authors that could have been pointed at to justify the anger without being too obvious about the underlying agendas.  If you read the article to the end, there’s even a mention of the Diary of Anne Frank – a must for everyone, but as literature?  Nope.

Anyhow, the discussion is worth having, but there needs to be a little more focus on literary merit, and a little less on the politics behind the decision (and there are a LOT of politics in this, on both sides).  Should other cultures and voices be represented?  Yes, but only when the writing merits it – you have social studies to teach us how a modern human should think, whether you are defending Ayn Rand or Steinbeck!

All thoughts appreciated, especially well-argued disagreement (there are some grays here, convince us!)!

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*Being called “Classically Educated” should have given you a hint that we weren’t exactly going to fall over ourselves agreeing with The Guardian