How to kill a classic novel

How to kill a classic novel

To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men are two of the finest novels of the last century.

Millions of youngsters over multiple generations have read, enjoyed and learned from them.

Harper Lee’s masterpiece is one of the greatest anti-racist tomes ever written and Steinbeck deals with poverty during the Great Depression.

So, it came as a great disappointment to me to learn that a school had dropped these books from its teaching list.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s offence was promoting a ‘white saviour’ narrative, and the ‘N’ word is used in Of Mice and Men.

Therefore, James Gillespie High School in Edinburgh decided its children shouldn’t be exposed to them.

It’s ridiculous. Both authors have a masterful grasp of character and story and the themes explored in these novels are challenging and ground-breaking.

What it tells me is that the school does not have confidence in its teaching staff to address the issues and words in a grown-up way, or in its students to be able to comprehend the themes and language in a nuanced manner.

It is patronising, insulting, and condescending to students who in my experience are more than capable of contextualising these things and learning from them.

What books will they throw on the bonfire next? The Bible? For it has themes, events and descriptions that would surely fall foul of the woke agenda.

And if Of Mice and Men is banned for the use of a ‘wrong’ word, Chaucer doesn’t stand a chance. And neither for that matter does Shakespeare.

The question I would ask is, why are we now banning novels? There are issues in them which spark debate and open up discussion.

Whether or not these novels have a ‘white saviour’ narrative would be a great question to put to students.

I would not ban that discussion so why is the novel being dropped. Surely, we should be asking young people to think for themselves having read the books.

Some years ago, I signed up as a teacher for a course on ‘Book Projects in Children’s Learning’ run by the local authority I was working for.

I was excited to attend because I wanted to learn how to effectively help children build project work around books they had read.

When I turned up for the first week, the course director spent the whole two hours tossing aside virtually every classic children’s novel ever written on the basis of it being racist or putting forward a narrative that didn’t fit her world view.

I arrived for the second week expecting the course director to move on to some practical advice on how to work on projects.

Instead, the whole process began all over again.

Among the books targeted was one of the best loved children’s novels of all time, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s, The Secret Garden.

At some point I commented along with others that we could encourage children to read classic novels such as this one, but then contextualise and explain the issues they raise for us as modern readers.

Oddly, she fired back an accusation of racism for even suggesting it. I never attended another session.

It seems that some people are now trying to censor literature and I think this is very dangerous.

For Western democracies that have stood for freedom of thought and respecting conscience it is very odd we should now be finding such intolerance from certain groups of people.

I have no objections to broadening the curriculum and widening the canon of what we consider to be great literature, but it must be great literature.

If that involves re-balancing the English curriculum and ‘de-colonising’ it to some extent that is not problematic.

However, banning things seems to come out of ‘cancel culture’. I would predict that the more we try to marginalise and ban things the more resistance there will be.

Our children can think for themselves so maybe this trend of banning books is because some schools don’t actually want them to think for themselves in case they come to the ‘wrong’ conclusions.