On classic books

I very rarely wade into the world of politics, mostly because I don’t think I’m in any way qualified to be a mouthpiece of anything that I don’t really understand the system of, but this morning I saw an article in the news that has absolutely horrified me.

This was the article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10855068/American-classics-axed-from-GSCE-syllabus-on-Goves-instruction.html

Now I don’t know how much of this is media hype, or comments taken out of context, but if it is true that the education secretary is taking American classics out of our schools because he thinks pupils should only be studying British work, then he’s lost his bleeding mind. Totally aside from the fact that just about everyone in my class hated both Dickens and Shakespeare when we were studying them, separating fiction based on the nationality of the author that wrote it is just ridiculous and discriminatory.

To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the most profoundly moving books I read as a child. It stayed with me for years and I’ve read it several times as I have been growing up. It’s a work of fiction that transcends time and race, particularly because the divide is still as deep today as it ever was. You only have to look at recent news stories about girls being asked not to bring coloured friends to sports events and Jeremy Clarkson being forced to apologise for using the N word to understand that this is a real issue that is still going on in our world today. How are children going to understand the deep nature of the divide if they aren’t drawn into looking at the roots of it? To British children of today, slavery is just a word, not an easily understandable concept. Fiction can put them there. It can make them understand what life was like back then. It has a way of putting people in places and situations they could never otherwise comprehend.

I’m a massive proponent of fiction in the school syllabus. I think it’s a way into learning that can engage children in a way that many subjects can’t. I have learned so much from reading, about the world, about the human condition, about events of the past and about how the world works. America is a powerful nation and they have a history that is so different to our own. They influence so many parts of our daily way of life that I would go so far as to say that cutting out the fiction that explains to our children the fabric of the American mindset is foolhardy.

If it is also true that the entire reading selection is from before 1940, then I think he has further lost his mind. Children need to be engaged. Whilst I agree that British literature has many great and wonderful classics in it, it has a unique texture and it is not to everyone’s taste. What about the books that have been written after 1940? Children need something they can relate to. As an adult I can appreciate Jane Austen. As a child? I thought the rules were ridiculous and so far removed from anything I would ever experience that it seemed pointless.

As for Shakespeare, in my personal opinion it has to be seen live, as it was intended, to be really understood. As a teenager I struggled with the antiquated language and verse. I didn’t see the relevance of it and to a certain extent I still don’t see it now. Shoot me down if you will, this is just an opinion. A philosopher once said that there are only seven original stories in the world. While the thread of Romeo and Juliet, for example, is raw and powerful and moving, it’s not original. Look at the Amazon charts today and you will see dozens of books based on the premise of forbidden love and the lengths characters will go to in order to be together. Any one of them would be more relatable to a child than the original work by Shakespeare.

I’m not arguing to take classics out of the syllabus altogether. I’m trying to say that there should be a greater choice of books from across many decades. I would argue that the works of CS Lewis would be fascinating to study at school. They cover the basic concepts of right and wrong, of honour and duty, of religion, of fear, of family and also of war. They were published in 1950. I’ve had many lively debates with my dad over the nature of them. He believes that there’s a strong Christian element to the books and we’ve spent several hours discussing the symbolism of various events and metaphors. These are books I read as a child of 10 or 11 and they are still a common joke in our house (Aslan is on the move!). That should tell you how profoundly they moved us.

In the 1960s – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 2001 a Space Odyssey. In the 70s, A Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Watership Down, The Dark is Rising. There are too many in the 80s to list. And those are just the British ones. Open it up to a world of authors and you have some of the most extraordinary fiction ever penned, works that have, and will, shape generations to come.

In closing, the thing that scares me most about this story is that one man has the power to dictate the entire syllabus for the next generation. It’s frightening that he can influence everyone according to his own personal prejudices. This man is shaping the futures of our children and he’s leaving books out because he “doesn’t like them” and wants to go British. If I was the education secretary, would I be allowed to make everyone study CS Lewis, Michael Crichton and J K Rowling just because I happen to like their books? No. So why are we allowing this to happen? It’s ridiculous and potentially damaging. Narrowing the vision and shaping of our children because of one man’s prejudice is a dangerous premise to set.

I don’t fear so much for my nephews – I’ll continue to gift them the books that have shaped my life or that I think they will love. They adore Dr Seuss. It won’t be long before they’re onto Narnia. But I worry about those who don’t have free and easy access to literature. They’re being raised in the shadow of prejudice and that can only be a bad thing.

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