Texts taught in school and sexism

(108 Posts)
sunlightonthegrass Mon 06-May-13 10:46:57

I am a teacher, and refuse to teach Of Mice and Men to pupils because of the blatant misogynistic attitudes inherent within it (it is also because of the casual racism flung around.)

A primary colleague tells me they teach Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree to year 3 pupils. Again, sweet story as it is in some respects it is crammed full of casual racism and sexism - "No, you can't do that, you are a girl," sort of attitudes.

I am wondering if I am being unreasonable, I recognise it is in the context of a particular time but my argument is we cannot expect young kids to fully appreciate this and we are teaching them that these attitudes are okay and acceptable because of when they happened.

What do you think? smile

FairPhyllis Tue 07-May-13 00:14:13

I'm a bit bemused by the fact that you think it's any better to teach TKAM in place of OMAM. Aren't you aware of the critique of TKAM that it itself is insidiously racist? That, in the way it is normally taught, it also encourages us to think that racism is something in the past?

I would have thought that distinguishing narrator's voice and the voice of a character were pretty essential skills for English Lit - why do you see it as such a big problem?

ravenAK Tue 07-May-13 00:20:39

It is fairly essential yes!

Eng Lit markscheme for last June.

If you look at pages 26-27, they're the ones specific to OM&M.

I marked that essay x500 this time last year <shudder>.

loopydoo Tue 07-May-13 00:34:33

I hate to say it but generally girls/women are not as physically strong as boys /men. That's not to say women can't do the jobs of men but its a fact that women are usually physically weaker than men.

I loved reading the MFT as a child and then reading it to my two. Now, they love reading it on their own and I have always explained that at the time of writing, women and men had vey defined separate roles in society.

loopydoo Tue 07-May-13 00:35:35

Completely agree with fairphylissabout TKAMB.....I was surprised that the OP said they replaced one with TKAMB.

English teacher, long-time OMAM teacher here too...yep, you've missed the point. Bottom-set boys who laugh when they call Curley's wife a tart at the beginning of the book find compassion and understanding for her by the end when we find out her story. They learn about not dismissing someone out of hand by their appearance. They would not learn that if the other characters had been respectful to her all the way through.

These are real, three-dimensional characters. None of them are heroes. None of them are wholly likeable. You're refusing to teach Steinbeck because he told it like it was?

Oh and one of the Higher paper questions on TKAM about 10 years ago was 'critics have said that Atticus Finch is not a realistic character. Discuss'. Although I'd marry that dude like a shot, sadly that is a very valid question.

dontcallmehon Tue 07-May-13 00:58:50

The tricky aspect of the text is Steinbeck's third person objective narrative style, which means that he never intrudes into the narrative to tell us that this language is wrong. That doesn't mean he is condoning such language. I would look at Steinbeck's letter to Claire Luce, the first woman to play Curley's wife on stage, which shows that he actually regarded her as a sympathetic character. Crooks is undoubtedly presented with dignity and evokes pathos, even if Steinbeck's writing never directly condemns racism I think it is clear he is presenting a racist society in a naturalistic style, rather than being racist himself.

ravenAK Tue 07-May-13 01:17:25

It's all in the structure of the text.

He leads the reader through to a developed understanding of CW by showing her through the eyes of other characters & not giving her a voice until chapter 5. We see her through the eyes of Candy/George/Lennie/Whit/Crooks. Her voice is suppressed. That's the point.

Likewise, Crooks gets chapter 4 to himself - symbolising his isolation.

Steinbeck's not my favourite author, but when it comes to 'show, not tell', & allowing the intelligent reader to do some of the work for themselves, he's in a class of his own.

Which is precisely what the Eng Lit exam tests. If you can't distinguish between the surface narrative & authorial intention, you can't achieve the highest grades.

I'm gobsmacked that an English teacher could fail to understand this, to the extent of saying 'mostly I have found kids just accept it [the derogatory, sexist & racist language used]'. Well, no. It's the teacher's job to analyse that language in context.

I hate to say it but generally girls/women are not as physically strong as boys /men.

No, children before puberty aren't different.

With adults, yes, but only if you judge strength in certain terms. Women have to be bloody strong to give birth and have a lot of endurance. We don't typically have as much upper-body strength.

When people say 'it's a fact' that men are stronger, they usually have an unspoken subtext 'well, in the ways that matter, you know.' Like ... oh ... wait ... maybe giving birth matters? Or how many small children do you know where boys and stronger than girls? That's what bugs me about stuff like Blyton - it's so ingrained, we forget it makes no sense whatsoever, because she's describing children.

Sorry ... it's silly o'clock here so posting slightly pedantically. I just think it's interesting, that one. I loved it when someone first told me how much force women exert with their uterine muscles. It's a funny way to think about strenght, but pretty crucial too.

FairPhyllis Tue 07-May-13 01:43:02

OP's responses to OMAM and TKAM are really fascinating (and bewildering) because as books they are the inverse of each other wrt what narrative voice and authorial voice are doing in them.

OMAM - objective narrative about a racist, sexist society, arguably written to condemn said racist sexist society. OP refuses to teach it.

TKAM - subjective, anti-racist character POV narrative about a racist society, arguably written for a white liberal gaze only. OP thinks it's just fine.

Er ... wut?

BOF Tue 07-May-13 01:48:55

OP, you say " I absolutely agree we need to have these books to see where we came from and where we are now. But I am uncomfortable about teaching it in the context of a classroom as an examination text to pupils of this age group."

I think that this is exactly why we should teach texts like this, rather than leaving them to be casually read by individuals. You are well-placed to encourage critical thinking in your pupils, and frankly, if that's not what you are doing, I think it leaves them ill-equipped to deal with contemporary products of our culture which are problematic (to pull an example out of the air, say the film Django Unchained, with its copious use of the N word).

To be fair to the OP, I think she's just fed up with the response she gets from her students about one of them. I can understand that. Maybe something in TKAM doesn't make them respond the same way?

(Btw, do people teach 'authorial intention' as a term, is that the approved term?)

ravenAK Tue 07-May-13 02:10:25

But that's why it's such a great novel for teenagers, LRD.

They invariably loathe CW at the outset (girls much more so than boys, interestingly & sadly). THEN you lead them through the novel & watch them re-assess her as they do so - making them explicitly aware that they are being forced to do exactly what the men on the ranch do. We're all gazing at her, judging her, analysing her behaviour in terms of her gender.

You've got to teach the novel as a crafted text - specifically, you have to make them aware that Steinbeck is deliberately manipulating the reader's response, & using stereotypical ideas of femininity to mislead. The really tricky bit is when she threatens Crooks with lynching, because you have to discuss how our C21st response to the racism is much more foregrounded than the original audience's. She loses a modern reader's sympathy at that point probably much more than she would have done a contemporary reader's.

I don't get my lot to bang on about 'authorial intention', now you come to mention it! I do get them to refer to the writer, a lot, because that's what is being assessed: 'Steinbeck uses ___ because__________' type constructions.

I've had predominantly C/D borderline students for the last couple of years, & found OM&M is by far the best novel for teaching Lit to them.

Nothing wrong with TKAM, either, but it's not nearly such a successful text with teens - hence something like 90% of AQA schools going with OM&M. (Personally I'd welcome a change...)

WhentheRed Tue 07-May-13 02:33:10

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Dervel Tue 07-May-13 05:54:14

I'm on the fence here. On the one hand yes if in your view the book as too casually racist/sexist then by all means don't teach it. However what worries me is how you present a pro feminist bias. (One I happen to agree with for the record!)

In critical analysis of literature, (or even a study of history) what is omitted presents just as great a bias, as what is. If you choose to excise any novel from study that contains any sexism either blatant or implied not only do you limit your reading list (and indeed a great many classics amongst them), you push an agenda.

Now that in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing (or even avoidable no matter how hard you try). However in your study of literature are you not trying to teach your students the value of critical thinking? (Yes as it pertains to literature, but the modes of thinking you impart have incalculable value).

Now you can attempt to push a pro feminist bias by attempting to shield children from any experiences of it (this I am afraid would probably risk comparisons to King Canute!), or you could give the students themselves the tools to be able think for themselves, and reason why dogmatic and outmoded thinking marginalising women was and is wrong, and more importantly why. This approach elevates teaching from mere instruction to actually bringing a student to the dawn of their own understanding.

Now reading between the lines I take it Of Mice And Men is not one of your favourites? So might I suggest another great American Novel from the same year (1937): "Their Eyes Were Watching God" - by Zora Neale Hurston? Through that novel you can better examine the themes of sexism and racism and if you're inspired by the subject matter that will doubtless come across in how you teach it. Best of luck!

Chubfuddler Tue 07-May-13 06:22:03

Thank god there are still decent English teachers out there (I mean rosabud and raven). The ops posts are incredibly depressing.

raven - fair enough, but if her students don't respond like that - and she says they don't - and they do respond well to another text, I think it's harsh to insist it she has to feel bad for not teaching it. I've had some amazing teachers but they all had texts they just didn't like to teach. My A Level English teacher admitted she just hated teaching Othello. It wasn't because she was no good or she didn't rate Shakespeare properly, it was just not her thing. It was fine.

I've got to say, mind, the way you describe OMAM makes me want to go away and read it! grin

(Thanks for explaining about 'authorial intention' - I was trying to think what we were taught and have an awful memory of some very daft woman banging on about how the author of bloody Watership Down intended the rabbits to be 'real' and we weren't ever to write about them as if they were personified. confused I still have no clue what in god's green earth she meant. But I digress.)

Minione Tue 07-May-13 06:42:17

Glad to see all the other English teachers on here are teaching OMAM as it should be taught! I agree with the posters who said students' opinions of Curley's wife change as we learn her story. I sometimes get bored of teaching it but it is a fantastic piece of writing and students can get so much from it.

Agree with the poster who mentioned 'Their eyes were watching God' - absolutely love this!

KoreRenati Tue 07-May-13 10:12:57

"Yes, Curley's wife is discussed in the context of her having no name and no identify. My main objections are the terms used to describe women (I've listed them up the thread) "

But what's to stop you talking about the terms used in the context of her having no name or identity? Surely it's all tied in?

"Other members of my department teach it, presumably because they like it and the terms used to describe women don't bother them"

Maybe the terms do bother them and so they've decided to challenge them?

UptoapointLordCopper Tue 07-May-13 10:14:00

LRD A slight digression, but for years I had the irrational idea at the back of my mind that Watership Down was written by a rabbit ... confused

grin

Brilliant.

UptoapointLordCopper Tue 07-May-13 19:06:52

blush

I did finally overcome my rabbit-ist attitude and read the book last year. Couldn't put it down.

Fascinating thread. I am almost tempted to go and read OMAM again myself. Because we did it at school and I hated it - not for the racism and sexism (which I, as a fairly middle-class white teen 30 years ago, didn't really percieve) but because it was fucking boring and whiny. I didn't give a shit about these two men moaning and bumbling about and then they all die in the end.
Mind you, I also remember being taught DH fucking Lawrence as a set text. And being sent out of the room by my (female) English teacher for saying that Lawrence wrote all this crap about women needing to submit and be mastered because he was a short-arsed ginger drip who was bullied by his mum.

UptoapointLordCopper Thu 09-May-13 11:08:19

I don't remember much of DH Lawrence, but there was a very small line somewhere in The Rainbow where it was said that all that the heroine was looking for was equality in friendship, and that struck a chord with me. Don't remember anything else though!

Alisvolatpropiis Fri 24-May-13 23:41:02

I honestly cannot believe that you think substituting OMAM with TKAMB is any better? Do you think racist language is more acceptable when written by a woman?

I was taught both books at school and the sexism and racism inherent then and how it is/isn't different now was the backbone of our learning. I had an absolutely amazing (female) English teacher who really made the issues come alive,she encouraged us to discuss and debate the difference between now and then.

Honestly,as others have said - you're missing the point of being an English teacher.

TheOriginalSteamingNit Fri 24-May-13 23:53:20

It's all the 'curley's wife is a big old whore who ruins everything but nowadays everything's fine because we're not sexist any more: discuss' questions that are the problem.

And also the 'how does the reader feel' business. I hate how everything is about some imaginary reader as though that's all a text could ever be for.

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