Best Laid Schemes
A few miles south of Soledad, California, not far from the Salinas river, George Milton and Lennie Small arrive at a ranch. Itinerant workers who have been forced to flee their last town, they are assessed by the boss – an unnamed figure in a Stetson hat, high-heeled boots and spurs; unlike them, he is no labouring man. ‘What stake you got in this guy?’ he asks George. ‘I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy.’ I was reminded of the scene earlier this year, in the week of Trump’s inauguration. I was on a bus in North London, when the driver pulled to a stop and went across the road to help a woman who had collapsed. Some passengers got angry. ‘What’s he doing helping someone else?’ one of them barked.
In 2014, OCR (the major exam-awarding body in the UK) announced that it would be scrapping John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from the GCSE English syllabus. Other American texts, such as The Crucible and To Kill a Mockingbird, were also to be dropped. Michael Gove, then the education secretary, complained about the ‘narrowness’ of a syllabus that he went on to make even narrower. He was disappointed that 90 per cent of candidates were studying Of Mice and Men.
I’ve taught the book to pupils of all abilities and I’m always struck by its power to engage and move them. I once worked with a group of SEN (special educational needs) pupils who had been removed from mainstream classes. We read the book out loud together (it isn’t too long, which helps) and an unusual silence fell when we reached the part where Curley’s wife announces that the ranch workers have left the ‘weak ones’ behind when they go out for a night on the town. Everyone in the group knew what that felt like. In other classes there were different resonances. Most pupils sympathise with Lennie and George; often the task is to get them to recognise that the inhumanity of the men’s boss is a condition of impoverishment, rather than evil. He is the product of a world in which it isn’t good to be alone, but impossible to be your brother’s keeper.
Jonathan Bate has called Of Mice and Men an ‘insufficiently demanding book’, but accessibility isn’t incompatible with intellectual – or literary – sophistication. I once asked a group of pupils to produce mock Facebook profile pages for the characters. Some who struggled to express themselves in writing produced illustrations of the fantasies that sustains the characters, with ‘likes’ including rabbits, puppies and alfalfa. Lennie’s page showed that he had only one friend but had been poked by Curley’s wife. One pupil took particular delight in drawing and then censoring the posts of the brothel keeper, Old Suzy; another pointed out that Slim would have been too cool for the social network and refused to complete the assignment.
The Conservative manifesto outlined the party’s vision for a ‘great meritocracy’ – a society in which ‘everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and hard work will allow’. For GCSE pupils (or ‘learners’, as the OCR calls them), whose results come out tomorrow, this means a new 9 to 1 grading scale to ‘facilitate greater differentiation between pupils’.
The emphasis on new, demanding content and the promise to address grade inflation may sound like a good idea but it betrays an ignorance of what goes on in the classroom. It also makes the starkest sort of competition the basis for evaluating pupils: competition founded on a very narrow idea of which books are worthwhile, and what meaningful engagement with them looks like. There is no longer a coursework component (a Tory bugbear). Anything that allows pupils to do well or work differently is seen as suspicious, as though education must always be skewed so that only a very few can succeed. This doesn’t reflect the wide-ranging discussions we have in the classroom; it tries to preclude them.
There can be any number of obstacles to progress and it is often the laziest pupils (of all abilities) who need the most support in learning how to learn. ‘Opportunity,’ says Justine Greening, the current education secretary, ‘is about how we translate hope into something real – something concrete … Our strong economy is vital, because it’s the opportunity engine of our country. But we now truly need to make it a country where everyone has an equal shot at taking advantage of those opportunities being created.’ What Greening doesn’t say is that inequality – including in education – lies at the heart of Conservative policy. ‘Concrete’, ‘strong’, ‘engine’, ‘shot’, ‘advantage’. My pupils can recognise the language of power; Of Mice and Men is the sort of book that helps us talk about it. The great meritocracy conspires to leave the ‘weak ones behind’.