Call to remove Of Mice and Men from GCSE course

1 week ago 21

Angel Mbondiya sits in a garden in front of a plant and hanging basket

Image caption,

Angel Mbondiya wants Of Mice and Men to be removed from the GCSE curriculum

By Robbie Meredith

BBC News NI education correspondent

A Belfast student has called for Of Mice and Men to be removed from the GCSE English literature course.

The novel, by Nobel-Prize winning author John Steinbeck, was written in 1937 and portrays life in the 1930s.

Angel Mbondiya raised concerns about racial slurs used in the book, including the N-word.

"I just don't find Of Mice and Men appropriate for schools and how that impacts young black people, and young white people," she said.

Because of this, she thinks the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) should replace it on the GCSE English literature course.

The novel is one of seven that schools in Northern Ireland and Wales can pick from for pupils taking GCSE English literature.

Although it is optional - and not on the syllabus in England - it is chosen by many schools.

Most challenged books

The work's main protagonists are George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant ranch workers looking for work in 1930s California.

The novel also has a character called Crooks, who Steinbeck portrays as facing discrimination because he is black.

According to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, Of Mice and Men was one of the 100 most challenged books during the years 2010-19.

"It's a very violent book to begin with but it's mostly just to do with racism and how that affects me and some other black students in my class," Angel told BBC News NI.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Of Mice and Men has been adapted for stage, including this performance in London in 1939

"It's just really uncomfortable sitting in a classroom where we have to listen to racist slurs and comments.

"I understand the history behind it and stuff but you can learn that in history about slavery."

'I feel weak'

The CCEA said: "The language given by Steinbeck to characters in the book reflects the discriminatory language and attitudes of this period, which we recognise as offensive today."

"This and other messages/themes from Of Mice and Men reminds the reader of the struggle for racial equality and the importance of equal opportunities, diversity, and inclusion in today's society."

But Angel said that reading the novel and listening to some of it being read in class had a negative impact on her.

"The impact that it's had is that it just makes you feel weak, really," Angel said.

Image caption,

Apolonia agrees with her daughter's views on the book

Angel's mother Apolonia Mbondiya agrees with her daughter that it is time for CCEA to replace Of Mice and Men.

"Angel loves English, she's very good at it and she didn't pick it for A-level," Apolonia said.

"She could have picked it, she's marked to get an A* in English but because of Of Mice and Men she chose not to pick it.

"We need to move on and to do things that are inclusive and protect the mental health of our young people, whether black or white."

'What is it teaching us?'

Apolonia said she understood the argument that Of Mice and Men was of its time and should not be judged by the standards of today, but she still felt it was time to change the novel at GCSE.

"We have history, which is dealing with slavery, which is dealing with the suffragettes fighting for the rights of women," she said.

"We have quite a lot on racism and discrimination and everything that happens in the world but we are moving on to other ways of dealing with past history and not repeating the same thing over and over.

"I'm not sure what Of Mice and Men is actually teaching kids."

Professor of American literature at Queen's University Belfast Philip McGowan said teachers needed more detailed guidance on how to teach Of Mice and Men.

"We can't just eradicate books from the past and their contexts," he said.

"But if we are going to teach them in the 21st century we need to be alive to and aware of those contexts.

"It's a really important text to get students to engage with but, yes, teachers should have some guidance about some of the terminology, some of the words used and how outdated they are."

'Diverse range of texts'

In a statement to BBC News NI, a spokesperson for CCEA said it was "committed to giving students the opportunity to engage with a diverse range of texts, themes and ideas that resonate with them through their study of English Literature".

"Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck has featured on the CCEA GCSE English Literature specification for many years due to its popularity with both teachers and students," they continued.

"The novel does not examine slavery.

"It does, however, include the character Crooks, a disenfranchised black ranch worker, where the surrounding narrative alludes to racial segregation and prejudice in 1930s America.

"The language given by Steinbeck to characters in the book reflects the discriminatory language and attitudes of this period, which we recognise as offensive today."

CCEA also said it welcomed the opportunity to review and refresh the literature offered to students and teachers.

Of Mice and Men was among the US literary classics dropped by OCR, an English GCSE exam board, in 2014 after then education secretary Michael Gove called for more British works to be studied.

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