I have been following with interest and more than a degree of indignation Michael Gove’s latest attack on teachers. This time it has been directed at their choice of the fiction to be studied by GCSE English Literature students. Mr Gove seems to be determined to outstrip UKIP by including non-British (albeit anglophone) novels as part of the current general political witch-hunt to root out anything or anyone that does not originate in these islands and to take one of his regular side-swipes at the teaching profession in the process.
Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion about Of Mice and Men, of course. But I would question whether Mr Gove has a right to thrust his own idiosyncratic dislikes and preferences on to those whose daily occupation it is to teach or to set examination syllabi. It seems to me that he should respect the judgment of the teaching profession, which has a collective understanding not only of the needs and capabilities of students in modern, multi-cultural schools, but also a profound appreciation of what makes those students ‘tick’. It is all too common for people to think that they are experts in teaching, just because they have themselves been to school, though I’ve always been surprised by the arrogance of this assumption. It’s easy to look back on one’s own school-days with (possibly spurious) rose-tinted spectacles, as Mr Gove apparently frequently does, but this hindsight is about as relevant to what is going on now as asserting that a woman’s place is in the home or that shops should not open on Sundays.
As it happens, something good has come from Mr Gove’s latest outrage, in my own household, at least: until this week, I was not familiar with Of Mice and Men, though we have a copy of it in the house; I have read other novels by Steinbeck, including The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, but somehow Of Mice and Men had passed me by. I mentioned this to my husband, who offered to read it aloud to me in the evenings. He completed it in three sessions.
My husband is an inspired reader-aloud as well as being a very fine teacher. I realise that it’s in no small measure owing to this that he held me spellbound throughout, but I was also entranced because of the quality of the book itself. As readers of this blog may have deduced, I have several English degrees and, even more to the point, am a lifelong avid reader (though I don’t think this has made me blasé in any way – I’m always looking forward to the next book), but I still found this novel exceptional. I know that it will stay with me. It is deceptively simple (not clunky or clumsy, as Mr Gove avers). It belongs to the ancient tradition of the fable. Because I had the privilege of listening to it, the characters appeared to me in more heightened relief than if I had been reading it myself. I saw them as clearly delineated as if they had been woodcuts in an early printed book.
Like all classic fables, Of Mice and Men explores fundamental issues of right and wrong, masculine and feminine (in the widest sense – for example, some of the ‘archetypal’ feminine characteristics are displayed by George, one of the two protagonists) and the nature of the damage that humans inflict on each other – through mental and physical oppression or unthinking prejudice. That Curley’s wife has no name is intentional. Characterised as a ‘tart’ by the bunk-house ‘swamper’ Candy and even by the normally perceptive George, she is in fact as lost and lonely as the drifting ranch-workers, the disabled Candy and the despised ‘nigger’ Crooks, who is not allowed in the bunk-house. The troubled existence of the mentally-retarded Lennie, a man cast loose upon an uncaring world with no-one to protect him except George once his tough but sympathetic Aunt Clara has died, points up the flaws of a society in which people lead such a brutalised, hand-to-mouth existence that there is little room for true humanity. Only a few exceptional individuals, such as George and the hieratic and god-like Slim, are able to show compassion. Yet it is also a funny novel, even if in a bittersweet way. Steinbeck achieves this in part through George’s oft-quoted vision of the ‘little place’ (‘An’ rabbits, George!’) that he and Lennie are going to buy – which turns out to be every casual ranch-worker’s shared dream – and in part through the everyday ironies and minor triumphs and disappointments that make up the lives of these untutored folk. The character of Aunt Clara is a touch of genius: although she never appears ‘on stage’, she acts as a forceful presence throughout, chiding, chivvying and cherishing Lennie to the end.
After my husband had finished reading this novel to me, we had an impassioned conversation about the purpose of teaching literature and what this means in a comprehensive school where the students’ abilities range from very gifted to what can be expected from those who come from deprived homes where reading is not encouraged at all. He said that part of the magic of Of Mice and Men is that the book appeals to students across the whole ability spectrum. The brightest ones can pick up all the nuances and ironies in which the book abounds – almost every word has significance in this, one of the most sparingly written works I’ve ever come across – and even those who struggle with basic literacy can derive a real sense of achievement from empathising with its characters. This is why teachers choose it: not because it represents a ‘soft’ option, but because, at different levels, it holds magic for everyone.
Its magic certainly worked on me. I feel the richer for those three evenings during which my husband read it to me (He ‘does’ American superbly, by the way!). I hope that this will be the start of a new tradition in our household, in which we read to each other on a daily basis. But more than anything, I hope that our teachers of English, embattled and increasingly circumscribed by rules and random strictures as they are, will somehow be able to discover another novel that holds such universal appeal now that Of Mice and Men will be no longer available to them. My message to Mr Gove is to make no mistake: this will not be as easy as it sounds. Today’s students do not want to share in his childhood nostalgia. They have lives of their own to lead and sensibilities that can certainly be touched by literature, but not necessarily through the books which he endorses. He doesn’t understand how young people now can be intellectually stimulated: why would he? But he doesn’t need to: this country has an admirable army of more than 600,000 teachers, all of whom know better than he. Listen to them, Mr Gove. Just listen. And perhaps ask someone to read to you Of Mice and Men aloud.
I was amused to read in today’s paper that standards of grammar are slipping ‘even‘ among MPs. I’m amazed that the author considers the linguistic prowess of politicians to be the yardstick for the nation’s performance in this respect. For years I have been entertained by the dreadful but often hilarious ways by which MPs mangle the language. Those most self-consciously aware of the way in which they speak are prone to make the worst gaffes. Mrs Thatcher’s Tudoresque announcement “We have become a grandmother” is etched on the national memory. Very recently, Michael Gove, that staunch advocate of traditional grammar school education who now wants to extend the length of school days to workhouse proportions, explained his rationale thus: “If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday, and we compare it to the extra tuition and support that children are receiving elsewhere, then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.” Crystal clear, mellifluous, grammatically rigorous and beautifully structured, isn’t it?
I’m not sure that I agree with the hypothesis that this slip in standards, if indeed it exists universally, is caused by shortcomings in our formal education; there may be a more profound cultural change at work. My grandmother left school at the age of fourteen with no formal qualifications. Although she was deeply interested in learning and continued to read widely throughout her long life, the number of days that she actually spent at school was pitifully small, because she was the eldest of nine children and expected to stay at home, sometimes for months, whenever her mother had another baby or one of her siblings was ill. ‘In service’ for the whole of her working life (which began when she was fourteen and finished when she was seventy-four), she prided herself on speaking ‘properly’. I remember what she said to have been always grammatically correct and exquisitely enunciated, although it was not delivered in what came to be known as ‘Received Pronunciation’, because she always retained the slight burr and elongated vowels of her native county, Kent.
Her speech was picturesque in ways that have almost been lost. I think she must have thought in pictures and she had a fund of sayings for every occasion. Not one to suffer fools gladly, she used these sayings to convey her opinion (relatively) politely, but with disarming directness: “Who’s upset your apple-cart?” she would say, fixing me with a bright eye if I were behaving in a sulky fashion; “No fool like an old fool,” she would trot out summarily if one of her sisters related a mishap that she believed had been the consequence of a stupid decision; “Cleanliness is next to godliness”, she rapped out at her neighbour, an old man to whom she always referred as ‘Hicks’ (she regarded him as not quite her social equal), when he told her that he was unable to perform his usual weekly task of carrying out her dustbin to the street because he had a painful boil on his neck. “Red hat, no drawers,” she proclaimed in a penetrating whisper when a lady sporting this outré headgear passed us in the street.
One of the most fascinating things about language is that it is a living thing. Like all living things, it changes and evolves. We seem to be experiencing a rapid period of change in our use of language at present. I don’t think that this means that it is in terminal decline. What will emerge will be a new set of ‘rules’. (How the rules change over time can be demonstrated by consulting early editions of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.) The reasons for the present shifts in usage seem to me to be complex: Some can indeed be blamed on ‘poor’ education, but, as my grandmother’s example demonstrates, adopting a lifelong reading habit is the most effective way of understanding language and using it well; some owe themselves to a rapid influx of imported words and sayings, predominantly (such is the power of media) from the USA; some happen because the speaker (e.g. Mr Gove), although well-educated, does not take care to present a series of related thoughts in a logical sequence. As any writer knows, when you have something complex to convey, crafting a series of short, simple sentences may be the best approach to take. Of course, we need to pay attention to these things, but above all we need to guard against allowing the lifeblood to be drained from our speech by becoming too ‘PC’. I’m not talking about being rude or slanderous, but, like my grandmother, we must continue to harness the power of the language itself to convey our true opinions, not hide behind some anaemic gobbledygook that has been dreamed up by the thought police, or politicians!
As a totally irrelevant aside, it was my grandmother who first taught me about irony. Visiting my mother one day, she announced that my Great-Uncle Arthur was in hospital with a chest infection and that my Great-Aunt Lily had ‘fallen up the steps’ on her way to see him and cracked three of her ribs. Both she and my mother were then overcome by a burst of spontaneous laughter. I was shocked at the time, but realised later that it was the irony of the situation that amused them, not poor Lily’s misfortune. Jane Austen, not herself the product of a formal education but the mistress of irony, would have smiled.
Mr. Gove, perhaps you may pontificate when you have acquired the verbal skills to do so!