Regular readers of this blog may know that we at Interesting Literature are rather fond of the following story about the genesis of To Kill a Mockingbird. The story goes that Harper Lee’s friends gave her a year’s wages for Christmas, on condition that she give up work and write. By any standard of measurement, she used the time off work wisely: she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. It was published in 1960 and remains her only novel. Harper Lee – or Nelle Harper Lee, to give her her full name – is now 88 years old, but her one novel has done enough by itself to secure her reputation. It has sold over 30 million copies.
This morning, it was reported that Michael Gove, the UK Education Secretary, has removed To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from the school GCSE syllabus. Gove reportedly dislikes Steinbeck’s novel and wishes to replace the more modern literature currently studied in UK schools with pre-20th-century English writers, notably Dickens and Jane Austen. (As many on Twitter have wryly joked, Gove’s probable choice of Dickens novel would in all likelihood, ironically, be Hard Times, which is a satire on joyless and mechanistic education.) There is to be little non-English literature studied on the new syllabus. This means that Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is also unlikely to find itself studied in schools in the future if Gove’s plans continue unchecked.
Here at Interesting Literature we love Dickens, but there is a reason why many young readers respond to novels like Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird when they study these classics in school. For one, they’re relatively short and written in a plainer language that is easier to understand than much nineteenth-century fiction, which favours long words and longer sentences, as was the order of the day. There is space for Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen on a GCSE syllabus, but it’s about balance. For another, novels like Lee’s, Steinbeck’s, and others currently studied in schools, deal with important socio-political issues such as prejudice involving class, race, and gender, as well as ideas about belonging and justice – and one of the chief values of studying literature is that it introduces you to systems of belief that are very different from your own, as William Empson once put it. Without sounding too old-fashioned, it can act as a way of exploring complex moral issues. For yet another, these novels help to introduce young readers to a world of literature beyond their own shores – though of course, it’s important that they know about Macbeth and Great Expectations as well.
In 1962, John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is what he said about the role of literature, when giving his acceptance speech:
Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed.
A writer who so clearly saw the need for literature in the modern world deserves to have his own literature needed.
In the same year as Steinbeck uttered the above words, Harper Lee’s only novel was adapted into a successful feature film starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. And this is what Veronique Peck, Gregory’s widow, said about Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird:
She’s like a national treasure. She’s someone who has made a difference … with this book. The book is still as strong as it ever was, and so is the film. All the kids in the United States read this book and see the film in the seventh and eighth grades and write papers and essays. My husband used to get thousands and thousands of letters from teachers who would send them to him.
It is a similar story in the UK, with many readers citing Lee’s novel as an important book in their formative years. But how many would have picked it up and read it, had they not studied it in school? You can sign a petition to urge Gove to reconsider his plans to change the current GCSE syllabus here.
For those of you who are outside the UK or who have simply not set eyes on Mr Gove yet, here he is:
The word ‘gove’, by the way, is a verb meaning ‘to stare stupidly’. With this meaning it dates from the fifteenth century. However, that’s when it’s used as an intransitive verb. As a transitive verb, the dictionary offers a second definition: ‘To examine; to investigate’. One hopes Gove will reexamine and re-investigate his own decisions about the role of literature in education.
Image (top): Harper Lee in 2007 receiving Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush (White House photo by Eric Draper), public domain.
Image (bottom): Michael Gove speaking at the Conservative Party “Big Society” policy launch (author: Paul Clarke), Creative Commons.