Dear Mr Gove,
I woke up yesterday to a news feed awash with fears that you had plans to axe To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the curriculum because they aren't British Classics.
I understand your desire to expose children to books that have a heritage based in their own country, to make them read books that are specific to Britain and are relatable to British students. I understand that you want to preserve British classics and their authors. However, I also understand that just because a book is written by a British author, it doesn't mean it will have any extra benefit to the British curriculum or portray anything particularly British within the story. I understand that the lessons a book can teach are invaluable, regardless of its origin and that to want to axe the aforementioned classics from the British curriculum, is short-sighted.
You have not banned the books from the classroom, no. But what you have done is taken them from the syllabus, thus making them more difficult to fit into the already jam packed curriculum. How will teachers find the time to study another piece of literature on top of those that are part of the curriculum? How will students find the time or the will to read works such as Of Mice and Men or To Kill and Mockingbird when they have 12 or more other subjects to revise for at the same time? If they disappear from the curriculum, they'll disappear full stop.
In my class, we initially read Emma and I, (and more than likely my entire class) hated it. I hated every single page I was forced to read and I so clearly remember reading it and thinking I will never, ever read this book again. It taught me nothing, except how to be spoilt and self absorbed. The only lesson I took away from that book was that I should never want to be that kind of person; something I already knew anyway.
Fortunately, we also read Of Mice and Men which saved my concentration from wandering astray. I had never come across a book before that displayed such true, lonely and human emotions. After all, I was just a lonely teenager at the time, and I related with the characters far more than I have done since in any piece of literature.
You see, Mr Gove, we read Of Mice and Men at a time when I was feeling very insecure about who I was. I was a sixteen year old girl, beginning to understand that I was on the outside of everyone and everything else in my environment. I struggled with my identity, my sexuality and my mental health at the time, and even though I sat in a classroom full of other students reading the same books and experiencing the same syllabus, they were not experiencing what was going on inside of my head.
Like Lenny and George, I was an outsider. I was lonely, and depressed, and my self-esteem was non-existent. Like Curley, I was angry at everyone and everything because I was an outsider. Like Curley's wife, I was craving attention, and craving someone to notice something wasn't right and to pull me back into the inside.
It all changed when I read that book. When I reached the final pages, I realised that being an outsider was just fine if I wasn't alone. And I wasn't alone. I was surrounded by wonderful friends and an amazing family who would have gladly sat on the outside with me. It was one of the most important lessons I've ever learnt, and it changed everything. I was no longer lonely and my self-esteem crept back up. I was no longer angry and I no longer craved that attention I had before. I was so much happier in myself. I wouldn't have learnt that lesson if I had not read that book.
I was inspired by that book, Mr Gove, and I still am. Shakespeare, Dickens, Bronte and Austen; yes I enjoyed their work and I admired the concepts in them, but they were never on my list of inspirational books. At a time when my self-esteem had hit rock bottom, I wondered about who I was, and if I would ever be 'normal', Of Mice and Men was the book that I read, and was the book that lifted me from the hole I found myself in.
It is more than just a book. It is a thing of absolute beauty; a story that teaches us about raw human emotions, acceptance, friendship and kindness. It shows us the thin veil between life and death, the conflict we face in times of trouble and the tough choices between what is right, and what is easy. It challenges our stereotypes of mental health, loneliness, teaches us the concepts of mercy and hard work. These issues are presented in that story in such a way to facilitate very in-depth discussions about some important issues. It certainly made me face up to my own issues at the time.
If these are not the lessons you want to continue teaching students, Mr Gove, then something is very wrong, because these lessons could help that sixteen year old student, as I was, who is struggling to cope and understand themselves and the world they live in.
In an ideal world, we wouldn't be forced to study texts in a classroom. In an ideal world, no one would have asked me to analyse why the curtains were blue in the opening scenes of Jane Eyre, or why she was reading a book about birds. In an ideal world, everybody would love reading, and no one would need to be told to read books. But, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world with an education system that tests students of different capabilities in the same way - a system that demands perfection in all areas and unity, when really, we should be celebrating the specific abilities of each student, and the diversity of the British student population.
Mr Gove, you want to broaden the literary horizons of students but it seems rather limiting to me to only allow literature from one sliver of the anglosphere. There is much that can be learnt from books, no matter who they are penned by. Give students copies of The Book Thief, On The Road, Little Women, The Great Gatsby, The Phantom Tollbooth and The Colour Purple. Give them To Kill and Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. No, they aren't British Classics, but they are still classics that teach invaluable life lessons.
The biggest losers here are the students, Mr Gove. Please remember that.