Friday 30 May 2014

Armchair BEA Day Five: The Importance of Discussion

Today is the final day of discussion topics for Armchair BEA, which I'm pretty sad about to be honest. It's been great having prompts to make me think and blog more, and getting to browse through some great blogs I'd never heard of before. Today's topic is open, so I thought I'd talk a little bit about something that's sprung up a lot in the last few days; discussion. 

If you're in the UK, or on Twitter, or just generally around, you will probably have heard about the recent changes made to the GCSE English Literature syllabuses by our wonderful (heavy, heavy sarcasm) Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Basically what's happened is that certain works of literature have been removed from the new syllabus, apparently in the interests of 'broadening education'. Such works include Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Crucible among others. I'd like to clarify at this point, because there are a lot of people going round saying they've been banned and they haven't. THERE IS NO BANNING ISSUE HERE. The issue is one of narrow mindedness, ethnocentrism and why on earth Michael Gove, a Conservative politician and somebody who is not involved in the actual teaching of children and never has been, has the power to just have books removed from the syllabus because he doesn't like them. 

My initial reaction when the story broke was fury. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favourite books of all time and without doubt the book I've heard people say has made them fall in love with reading the most often. I don't think there are many works of literature which have as much to teach and offer children in terms of expanding their world view and helping them to learn to empathise as it does. As the days have passed and I've read more about the story, I've been thinking, and I've decided that the thing that I really have the problem with is the inherent... I don't want to say racism, but British - centric attitude being promoted by these syllabus changes. Yes, literature from the British Isles is important, and of course students should learn about our literary heritage. In all honesty I quite like the new list, but I don't think it offers as much variety and insight into other cultures as previously, and in these mad days of the UK Independence Party gaining so much support, I'd rather we were 'broadening education' to be more, not less, inclusive. I don't want my children growing up in an education system where all the people they learn about are exactly like them. I have to say, though, that if 90% of kids are really studying Of Mice and Men for GCSE, I'd also see that as a problem as it suggests that teachers and students are taking it as the easy option, as it's such a little book and there are so many past exam papers/SparkNotes etc for students to use. There's a whole world of literature out there, use it!

However, the thing that really bugs me is how intelligent people have stooped to just shouting at each other and hurling insults in the comment sections of online articles. This week I had a chat on twitter with somebody because I've been reading Steinbeck since the story broke, and she really dislikes Steinbeck. We talked about the issues she had with him, and the issues I had previously had with him and why I loved him now, and neither of us felt the need to insult the other or bash their reading tastes. I don't understand why so many fully grown adults in the UK are incapable of having a rational debate without resorting to name calling and abuse. For me, possibly my favourite thing about reading, and especially about reading works such as those which have been removed is that they stimulate thought and discussion. Freedom to read is freedom to think and freedom to express yourself and this is so vitally important to teach kids and teenagers. 

I could go on about this for a while, but instead just in case you're interested in reading more about the story, here are a few links for you! 


  1. I really enjoyed this post, Bex. I love having your insight as someone who's affected by these changes. As an American, of course I think it's a shame that some of these best-loved classics have been pulled. I hope there's a way around it somewhere.

  2. I live in the state in which To Kill a Mockingbird was written. I had to read it in school as well. I didn't really care for it back then. It wasn't in my preferred reading genre when I was in school (and I can honestly say I didn't like any of the literature I was forced to read in school - must be something about being forced to read it) and as such have never gone back to reread it. But I do understand the vast majority of people who are HUGE fans of it and I can respect that. It's an acclaimed book and is still taught and read in classrooms here. It's interesting that he alone had the power to remove ANY book from the curriculum. Shouldn't there be a board of people (one that includes those with teaching backgrounds and/or degrees) to vote to make such a decision? Interesting...

    Holly @ Words Fueled by Love

  3. I hadn't heard about this. Hopefully someone can find a way to keep this from happening or a loophole!

  4. Thank you for clarifying the issue. I'd heard that To Kill A Mockingbird had been banned. It is scary that one man alone can make such a sweeping decision.

  5. I hadn't heard about this, so thank you--you make some great points. Always a potential problem when politicians have the power to change curricula.... You do hope that a board of educators was at least involved with the decision. Hard to imagine the rationale for removing those wonderful books! And yes--rational, civilized debate seems like it shouldn't be so difficult. Here on this side of Atlantic, it often seems to be missing....

  6. I've been thinking about this a lot over the last couple of days and I think it's a shame. Of course I'd love for EVERYONE to read EVERYTHING. ;)

    The comment section of those articles is where intelligence goes to die. Don't read them or you'll pull your hair out! ;)

  7. I was unfamiliar with this issue until reading your post. It sounds like a mess. You make some interesting points.

    Hopefully all of the attention that the issue is getting will force a re-evaluation.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. I LOVE YOU FOR THIS POST. I ALSO love To Kill a Mockingbird, and given the interesting 'vintage' racial views of a large swathe of UKIP candidates and their supporters, I'd have said that reading and discussing this book in class is more important than ever at the moment. The thing that really got me about the Steinbeck issue wasn't that 90% of classes use it (presumably in part because teachers know it so well and lesson plans are already in place), but the fact that it was being removed from the curriculum because Michael Gove "really dislikes it". I really dislike wasps, and yappy dogs, and nan bread... THAT IS NOT A VALID REASON FOR A POLITICAL SHAKEUP.

    Seriously Bex, this post is fantastic. :)