The recent announcement of Gove’s revised English Literature curriculum (which had been trailed last year) has provoked a predictable storm of outrage, not least because it seems to be informed by the secretary of state for Education’s personal preferences rather than any pedagogical research (hard to believe, I know!). The disappearance of American literature from the course (including To Kill A Mockingbird and Arthur Miller’s plays) has upset a lot of people, including me. It’s Of Mice and Men, though, which strikes me as being perhaps the greatest loss. In the next few paragraphs, I look at what John Steinbeck’s novella brings to the curriculum and explain why I’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Like a lot of people over the last twenty or so years, I first encountered John Steinbeck’s short but powerful novella Of Mice and Men when I was a teenager. Unlike many, I didn’t encounter it at school, but in the local library. I was a keen and fairly precocious reader, but Of Mice and Men was a little outside my comfort zone, being neither a Shakespeare play (I was going through a fair few of them at the time – I used to memorize key speeches like Marc Antony’s ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen…’ for fun back then, but I digress) nor a chunky science-fiction/fantasy epic. Instead, it was a slender volume with a simple white cover on which was placed an artist’s representation of George and Lennie.
Even now, I have no real idea of why I picked it up and took it to the borrowing desk. Perhaps it was simply that I was feeling adventurous and the thin volume in my hand represented a minimised risk. I don’t know. What I do know is that it didn’t take me very long to read it and that I was devastated by the end. In a few short pages, Steinbeck had made me believe in a world very different from my own middle class English upbringing, had made me identify with the central character of George and made me feel his anguish at the intolerable decision he was forced to make at the end of the book. Perhaps the most striking thing about the book is that even now – after almost thirty years and at least ten instances of studying it with a class – that emotional power is still there. In fact, if anything, a combination of closer reading and life experience has deepened its impact.
It is for this very personal reason that I’ll be sorry to see it go in Mr Gove’s nationalistic shake-up of the English Literature curriculum. There are other reasons, of course. Of Mice and Men is by far the easiest GCSE text to teach and the easiest for students to ‘get’. This, I suspect, is at least part of the problem for Gove. There is a suspicion that it is too easy, that its short length, colloquial dialogue and relatively simple prose style mean it’s impossible for students to appreciate how themes and characters develop, or ‘appreciate’ (to use a typically nebulous Goveism) the author’s use of language. Which is all bollocks, naturally. That students engage so readily (not, it should be noted, automatically – there’s still a fair bit of work to be done by the teacher to encourage some students to get into the text) with Of Mice and Men is not so much an indication of its lack of literary challenge, but more a sign of its author’s considerable skill in constructing this little hand grenade of a text.
Its themes and characterisation are not, I’d argue, straightforward – certainly there’s nothing as cackhanded as Blood Brothers’ ‘Do you think this might all be to do with class?’ line – although it’s not without its problems. The liberal use of the ‘n’ word requires careful handling by the teacher, but Steinbeck makes the job easier when you can compare the ranchmen’s treatment of Crooks with what the author does with him in Chapter 4. Similarly, the presentation of Curley’s wife at first appears to confirm the men’s (including the central character’s) reading of her behaviour as deliberately provocative, but Steinbeck’s characterisation is more subtle than that with later chapters giving us an insight into her background (including her disastrous decision to marry Curley, apparently a reaction to the perceived betrayal of her mother) and her Hollywood-fuelled dreams and ultimately giving us a character for whom the reader can feel considerable sympathy.
Then, there’s the central friendship between George and Lennie. In a novel stocked with lonely and isolated characters, this friendship is seen as rare enough to be commented on by a number of the other characters. The importance of that friendship is something that teenagers, I think, instinctively ‘get’ – as, for that matter, is the ‘outsider’ status of most of the book’s main characters. The quotation that serves as heading for this blog entry comes at a particularly charged moment in the novel. Having threatened Crooks with an implied false allegation of rape, Curley’s wife counters Candy’s declaration that he and Lennie would say what really happened with a statement torn from the tormented depths of her own instinctive understanding of her place on the ranch and the wider male-dominated world it represents. “Nobody’d listen to you, an’ you know it. Nobody’d listen to you.” Teenagers, like teachers under an increasingly unresponsive education secretary, get this, too.
Of Mice and Men is a text which, on occasion, has formed the basis of class discussions on issues like personal responsibility and the extent to which environment and wider social pressures influence individual action, as well as prejudice and violence. None of these issues are incidental or ‘easy’, although the text makes it very simple to broach them. Nor does the text address them in an easy, morally simplistic manner. Despite its length and its relatively simple story, this is an adult text set in a recognisably adult world. That pupils respond to it as (generally) positively as they do is because, I think, they appreciate not only the shortness (and corresponding directness) of the story but also the clarity of the writing, the sympathy with which the writer has drawn the main characters and the refreshing sense that the author is neither patronizing nor preaching to them.
While I have nothing against 19th century (or British, for that matter!) literature personally, dropping Of Mice and Men seems a missed opportunity to engage pupils’ imagination and sense of fairness, while demonstrating to them that literature can speak directly to them. With so many teenagers’ imaginative lives being dominated by visual and social media, it has always encouraged me that the reactions of the pupils to whom I’ve taught Of Mice and Men have generally been so positive. The experience of seeing another human being’s imagination fired by a text, of hearing him or her formulate and articulate his or her response to it with thought and understanding, is what I, and I suspect many of my colleagues, got into teaching for. That experience was one which I enjoyed with Of Mice and Men far more than with any of the other GCSE texts I’ve taught. And it does rankle on a very personal level to think that one man’s prejudice against the text has taken that away from both me and future students.