Calls for ‘racist and inappropriate’ Of Mice and Men to be removed from GCSE

A student is calling for the John Steinbeck classic, Of Mice and Men, to be removed from the GCSE curriculum. The novel, written by the Nobel-Prize winning author, was written in 1937 and portrays life during the Depression.

Belfast student Angel Mhande 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 is asking the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) to replace it on the GCSE English literature course.

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

Although it is optional – and not on the syllabus in England – it is picked by many schools.

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

The novel also has a character called Crooks, who Steinbeck portrays as facing discrimination due to him being black.

According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, Of Mice and Men was one of the 100 most challenged books between 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 the BBC.

“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.”

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.

“It doesn’t sit right.”

“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,” she added.

“I’m not sure what Of Mice and Men is actually teaching kids.”

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

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“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 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.”

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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