If Scotland's schools are to drop books like To Kill a Mockingbird, they must resist 'dumbing down' – Cameron Wyllie

As a retired English teacher (my mother used to say “teacher of English” to avoid ambiguity) I was interested to read that the curriculum leader for English at James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh has decided that Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men should no longer be taught there because they are “dated” and “problematical”.

Jeff Daniels takes a bow during curtain call after the opening night performance of To Kill A Mocking Bird at the Shubert Theatre in New York City (Picture: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)
Jeff Daniels takes a bow during curtain call after the opening night performance of To Kill A Mocking Bird at the Shubert Theatre in New York City (Picture: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

Let me say at the outset that it is, of course, entirely up to any teacher to decide, within the limits of good sense and – for older students – within the terms of the exam syllabus, what they teach their classes, but this decision did get me wondering.

These two books have been taught in English classes in Scotland for a long time, Mockingbird as an outstandingly written autobiographical novel about the US, family and racial prejudice, and Of Mice and Men – with its title from Burns – about friendship, dreams and nature, and yes, there’s a fair bit about prejudice (race, disability, misogyny) in there too. Additionally, Steinbeck is, of course, an ‘important’ writer by any standards.

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This question of how you select books is a fraught one. Of course, there’s no point in teaching texts to young people just because they are ‘great books’ if they can’t understand or appreciate them.

I refrained from teaching T S Eliot to the first year because only two per cent of them would have got anything from it – apart from that bloody Mystery Cat. So teachers have to be realistic and look for age-appropriate material.

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Then there’s the issue of academic ability (a concept rarely spoken of these days) – if you are teaching a mixed-ability class, where do you pitch your choice of material?

I recently tutored (to keep my hand in) the child of friends – a clever young man – who attends a local secondary school and who had, for the literature content of National 5 English been taught half a dozen poems by Norman MacCaig and… a television programme (there is a media option).

Now, MacCaig, though not in my personal view what you would call a great poet, is a ‘good teach’ (as is another set Scottish poet, Carol Ann Duffy) but rather than teaching a play or a novel, a TV show?

You see, this begs the question, what is it exactly we are teaching literature for? Almost anything in the great canon of English literature is going to be ‘dated’ simply because most of it is old, but it’s presumably there because it’s thought to contain themes of timeless interest – love; war; childhood; man’s relationship with nature or with God; and, of course man’s general inhumanity to man.

Apart from Macbeth, which I think almost any young Scot would like if it was taught to them properly, I wasn’t myself that keen on teaching Shakespeare, but no one can deny that he’s dealing with the big stuff and there’s lots of wee Hamlets and Romeos and Juliets sitting in these classes, regardless of ethnic background or creed.

We seem to be stretching a lot these days in the direction of trying to ensure that what’s taught is very immediately and obviously relevant to today’s young Scots. For example, the book mentioned as a possible replacement for these two classics is The Hate U Give, a young adult book, which I freely confess I haven’t read firstly because I haven’t been a young adult since the Falklands, and secondly because of that problematic ‘U’.

I am sure it’s very good – it’s won a number of awards for children’s literature, and I’m sure I would want to encourage young people to read it, but is it of the merit necessary to stand up to detailed classroom teaching? And – truth to tell – is it really any more relevant to young people at Gillespie’s than the books being proscribed?

So, yes, we want our young people to enjoy texts taught to them in the classroom, but that enjoyment needs to go in hand with two things.

The first is challenge – it’s good for young people to take on things that may seem a bit hard at first: that’s what a skilled English teacher is for.

The second is that the books offered to our young people – of course age-related – need to have clear literary merit, they need to be well-written. Most young people probably only read something like a dozen plays or novels over their years in the English classroom, plus some poems and these days, increasingly, they watch some films and maybe even TV programmes.

We need to ensure that everything moves and amuses and excites them, but we also mustn’t patronise them by taking the risk – yes, I know this is a cliché – of ‘dumbing down’.

And finally, let’s remember in this discussion that there is a compulsory Scottish element in the National 5 and Higher exams. How does that sit in terms of datedness and relevance?

I tutored someone else recently through Ena Stewart Lamont’s Men Should Weep, which struck me as an accomplished chamber piece of very dated (melo) drama. Whereas I am delighted to see the continued presence of Sunset Song as a set novel, which takes place over a hundred years ago in a part of Scotland very few young Scots will have ever heard of but which has a universal resonance which moves young readers over and over again.

In essence, I understand removing texts that some young people – or even some teachers – might find offensive, but we have to be careful that, in censoring a text like To Kill a Mockingbird we don’t replace it with something which is just the flavour of the month. Please them, yes, excite them, yes but also let’s make them think.

Cameron Wyllie’s blog is A House in Joppa

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