Texts taught in school and sexism(108 Posts)
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?
Literature is full of sexism, reflecting the attitudes of its time and place. Can't the kids discuss these things? I guess Mark Twain is out of the question. It is a difficult one, I think you have to be careful with younger children but don't they learn to be more critical an reflective when they are older?
I think you can teach people to see the racism and misogyny. And that really you ought you. Understanding mediation is a key literary skill surely (even if it isn't on the curriculum)? It's not as though the books and media your students see everyday are going to be free of misogyny, racism or other assumptions is it?
I think that's daft, sorry. Secondary school children should be able to critique a text.
Wow. I have taught OMAM for ten years, and like every other English teacher I know, use it as a brilliant tool for teaching about the history behind all kinds of prejudice- racism, sexism, ageism, disablism etc. Several of the characters are isolated due to their innate differences- that is kind of the point. It is taught in the category of 'Literature from Other Cultures'
You don't sound like the brightest English teacher! My bottom set year tens understand the themes of the novel!
I studied Of Mice and Men at school (all girls if that makes a difference) and I didn't turn out sexist or racist. Part of the lessons was it's historical context.
It's only my opinion, but I think "Of Mice and Men" is an excellent tool to promote discussion about racism and sexism. The treatment of Crooks and Curley's wife is so overtly prejudiced that students can see it for themselves, and it raises issues which they might not have considered before.
If we don't show them texts which are set in a context in which prejudice was commonplace, I think there is a danger that students might believe it never really happened. They might also find it harder to recognise prejudice in the present.
Yoni not really sure what to say in response to that, to be honest!
Yes, it is the point of the novel, but I do not like reading a novel to children, adolescents, teenagers, that casually calls women "bitch", "whore", "tart" for being lonely. I dislike the very first chapter, where George informs Lennie that if he (George) was not stuck with Lennie, he could spend his money on prostitutes. I dislike the way that Crooks is casually dismissed as a "n*gger".
Yes, there are important themes, but I don't get the sense they are necessarily the key point of the story. Curley's wife was "asking for it", and the majority of the sympathy is reserved for Lennie, not the woman because she is a "tart".
If not wanting to teach children that women were referred to as a matter of course as "bitch" and "tart" and that it was once seen as perfectly acceptable to spend your money on having sex with women (because after all they are just objects) then I'll answer to that rude and personal charge of not being the brightest English teacher in the affirmative.
Woah salcz that is not what I was saying! I am not saying the text makes anyone racist or sexist, I am saying it has no place in our schools BECAUSE we do not tolerate racism or sexism.
I don't think it is acceptable (personally) to give young people the message that their gender or skin colour has no bearing on who they are or what they do, and then teach a text like this where such awful attitudes are inherent.
I think the Magic Faraway Tree is a bad thing to teach, because it has no redeeming features and the sexism is insidious.
But Of Mice and Men is surely perfect, for the reasons theyoniway mentions? No-one (I hope!) thinks the message is 'yes, women are bad and disabled people should be killed', do they?
My English teacher - who was amazing - was really good at gently encouraging us to see how the books we were reading could get us to think differently about TV and current events, too. I don't think she'd ever have let us think 'well, the book is sexist so sexism is ok', but we might have thought 'the book is sexist but it's ok, sexism happened a long time ago'. Instead she got us thinking how there are still parallels to modern-day events and there are still a lot of uncomfortable prejudices in the modern world.
I don't know how much you can do that with children who're maybe at the beginning of secondary school? Can you get them to write about the story from Curley's wife's point of view, or something like that?
Lizzie, yes, I can see that.
However, my concern with OMAM is that there's no real point to counterbalance the racism or the sexism. In other texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance) the whole point is that terrible things DID happen but the underlying theme is that that was wrong.
I don't sense that in OMAM. The story is essentially about George and Lennie and the destruction of their dream. That is what makes the role of women in particular in that novel abhorrent to me.
Yes, the social and historical context needs to be taught, but it is the sheer casualness of it in OMAM which makes it distasteful to me.
women were referred to as a matter of course as "bitch" and "tart" and that it was once seen as perfectly acceptable to spend your money on having sex with women (because after all they are just objects)
But surely the point is, this attitude is not in the past? I might understand your reluctance to drag up the past if we all lived in a lovely, equal society, but we don't.
These attitudes are still in existence. If you can teach children about them from books where they are overtly presented, then they can learn how to tackle the more subtle and damaging echoes of these attitudes in the modern world.
I don't think she'd ever have let us think 'well, the book is sexist so sexism is ok', but we might have thought 'the book is sexist but it's ok, sexism happened a long time ago'
LRD, that is my primary issue and concern with the text.
I applaud your English teacher but the latter attitude seems to be the one that is prevalent; partly because of the time factor (there is so much to get through and so little time in which to do it!) but also because I think many people, many teachers, DO think it's okay and it doesn't matter and it was a long time ago.
That is really what I am referring to when I use the word 'casual.'
I fully respect anyone who teaches this text and take task with the issues raised. However, I don't think that many do. Furthermore, there are alternatives that DON'T routinely refer to women as bitches and tarts, that give the message that racism is unacceptable and wrong and that are excellent stories - I suppose I don't understand why OMAM is such a popular choice in light of that!
LRD, I feel that given that these attitudes are in existence, it is unwise to condone them through the text.
It is like when the word "bastard" is used - you inevitably get kids saying "bastard" and when pulled up on it look all wide-eyed and say, "What? It's in the book!"
By saying these attitudes exist(ed), there is a danger of condoning those attitudes. I don't have a problem with the text being taught per se but the 'bitch/tart/spend my money on prostitutes' is not really taught as a prevailing theme in the novel; as such it is overlooked and therefore condoned.
What are your options if you don't want to teach it, then? I mean, I get it, you've presumably been teaching it a while and I can understand just feeling you don't have the energy to keep tackling this stuff.
What would you teach instead?
Btw, I really don't think OMAM does condone these attitudes (at all). I'm trying to remember whether we thought it did when we did it at school, and I don't think we did. But as you say, they can always point to the book and pretend they think it does, I guess.
It is a way of challenging these attitudes and if you hear the music they listen to, badly needed.
I've never been in a primary school that has taught Enid Blyton. The books are sometimes in the library as student free-reading choices.
In place of OMAM on the other cultures section (AQA board, at any rate) I usually do To Kill a Mockingbird or Purple Hibiscus. Rabbit Proof Fence is a good alternative if you want a shorter text as well.
I don't know LRD, about condoning the attitudes. I want to agree with you but I think Steinbeck did view it as perfectly fine, acceptable, normal, to objectify women, and while there is some limited sympathy with the plight of Curley's wife it isn't the main focus of the novel, though I fully accept that we can teach it in a way that does bring sympathy with her to the forefront.
By the way, I am not suggesting for a moment a book burning fest 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'm sure Steinbeck did view it as acceptable to objectify women.
But the novel is about people who largely end up in the shit. It's a horrible, flawed society. Whether Steinbeck himself would have pointed to objectification of women as one of the principal reasons that society was flawed doesn't seem to me to matter too much.
I love To Kill a Mockingbird.
Surely teaching stuff that is of its time is ok.
In the teaching of it perhaps the comparisons can be made between life then and life now.
My DD's love all the Enid Blyton stuff where all the boys look after the girls and they all go home to home baked bread that Mother has made.I'd hate to deny them that.
Even at a young age I think they are perfectly capable of sussing out what is 'historical'.
LRD - me too
Yes, good point about the flawed society. I suppose I am thinking in very practical terms insofar as we don't have time to explore that society in the sort of detail needed, and therefore important things (such as the sexism) are overlooked and that to an extent condones the sexism.
verySmall; I don't honestly know that it is, to tell you the truth, and I am saying that as a one-time ardent Enid Blyton fan! As adults, I think we can read (say) an Enid Blyton text and be charmed by the magic and the pixies and the fairies and view the sexism as just as sweet and silly, really, as the make-believe worlds that Blyton presents to us.
But just as very young children DO believe there might be a wishing-chair and a faraway tree with magic lands and pixies in the garden, I think they can believe that girls aren't as tough or strong as boys, and that they are essentially helpless silly little things or mini-Mummys, looking after the boys when they get into scrapes.
Of course in saying that I don't know how old your DDs are. I would certainly not censor Enid Blyton from my children but I would be wary about permitting the under-7s on it and I would ensure I kept up a dialogue with them about the times they were written in. Blyton was (is?) one of the most popular children's authors of the last and very possibly this century and yet she promotes a world where girls are feeble and helpless and xenophobia and bullying is not just acceptable but encouraged. That will have sunk in on some level, if not explicitly then almost certainly implicitly.
I analysed Enid Blyton texts as part of my postgraduate work on insidious racism. There's quite a lot to go on.
Goodness, I remember discussing sexism in EB with my mother when I was six, though I couldn't have identified it as sexism. Just knew that the attitudes to girls were wrong and old-fashioned, and people used to believe that but most sensible people didn't now.
My study of OMAM in secondary was really rich and challenging. I think the length of the text actually promotes and enables a deeper dive into the cultural context and contemporary echoes; not an easy choice but a rewarding one.
I remember reading famous five and wanting to be like George. Strong female character right there, and in a lot of cases tougher than the boys.
I seem to remember the girls in secret seven being bloody smart too, but I could be wrong. It's been years since I read them.
My DD's are 7 and 8 but have been listening to/reading Blyton since around 4 or 5 I reckon.
I do think that even if they do see Mother cleaning the house and baking bread as the norm at that age,they will soon work it out,just as working out that Moonface isn't real.Mine have always definitely seen it as the 'olden days'.
If they are exposed to sexism at home it may take longer,but I would say that would be the situation to tackle rather than what they're reading.
And I agree that some of the girls presented in the Enid Blyton books are very strong characters full of no nonsense and practicality.
I just think they will miss a huge chunk of literacy and learning if you avoid all books with a sexist slant.Because it's the way it was - it's history and we should learn from it,not turn our backs on it and not discuss it.
It's the ideal opportunity to start discussion about feminism if you ask me!
But the point with George is that she wanted to be a boy, even insofar as rejecting her feminine name.
It wasn't enough for her to be a strong female - many of the strong females in Blyton's books are strong because they do not embody the traditionally female characteristics.
Elizabeth Allen in The Naughtiest Girl books is another example of this - strong, intelligent, feisty and rebellious, good female character except that she is dubbed "the naughtiest girl." I think many of Blyton's female characters were very intelligent but this often led them into trouble. I have a real affection for The Family at Red Roofs - one of the little known ones, I think - and the eldest girl in that is a lovely female character: strong, calm, capable and kind. Also the maid in that is lovely. Yet even in that text there are so many examples of sexism. Molly (the eldest girl) tells her younger sister that they need to keep their room tidy because now she is growing to be a young woman, it is what girls do the mother is a terrible female character and essentially falls apart after the father is believed to be lost at sea and leaves her four children to it while she recuperates, and Molly's friend tells a school-friend that "I want to be like my mother and make a nice home and make jam."
Honestly there are loads, I'd be here all day listing them. It surprises me how well I know Blyton though!
If I've understood OP you're saying that the best way to reduce sexism/racism/etc. is to completely ignore them? Maybe if they were entirely historical, but of course they're not. The author doesn't have to explicitly condemn bigotry for you and your class to do so.
I think that is what is important, Very, is the discussion. I didn't have that as a child, I was given a book, read it, and that was it. I absolutely don't for a moment believe all books with a racist or a sexist slant should be avoided, because as you rightly point out, a huge chunk of literature would be missed that way
However, I suppose I was thinking very specifically in terms of schools in my first post, and I do think that schools are different because kids know what is acceptable at home is not at school and my worry, with OMAM is that by having it as an examination text the attitudes in it are seen as acceptable when that text is taught and not, as LRD said, that sexism/racism is OK but more - "Oh, it was a long time ago, no big deal now!" when in fact it IS a big deal
Ria, you have misunderstood me.
I think the opposite. We should not ignore them. We should talk about them, teach them and teach that they are not acceptable.
Many texts - To Kill a Mockingbird, for example - do this. OMAM does not. It casually refers to women as "tarts" "bitches" and "sluts." It refers to the black character as a "n-gger" quite calmly.
I would not have a problem with this if the underlying theme in the text was that this was not right, but it isn't. The underlying theme in the text is about isolation and loneliness and while a teacher might well point out that these things are not very nice, it isn't central to the pupils' understanding and reading of the text.
Apologies then OP. I still think teachers can have a massive impact on what their pupils take from the text, though I suppose that depends on not being limited by time or the curriculum.
Agreed re:the discussion sunlight.
I didn't discuss any of the Blyton books I devoured as a girl,but I am sure I remember thinking that it was very old fashioned. But if I am entirely honest I kind of revelled in the whole idea of coming home to Mother and all those lovely cosy fires and helping with the chores.I liked the whole homeliness of the set up with Father out at work and Mother running the whole shebang.
But in a sense,given the times,was Mother not a good capable and positive role model? It was all good wholesome stuff and while she was portrayed within the stereotyping of the times,she certainly wasn't portrayed as weak or helpless.
And in The Naughtiest Girls books,the girls were out there joining the gardening club and doing the digging,and taking an equal role in the School Council (from what I remember )
I'm afraid I have never read OMAM,though.
I don't remember OMAM in enough detail to comment on it specifically, but from a philosophical POV I feel it's narrow minded to feel that we've progressed since OMAM therefore don't bother with it, as we usually lose something with our gains. Eg, we're less racist now, but less tolerant of eccentricities, have poorer manners etc.
So you could point out the things that were better then to counterbalance the racism and sexism.
I have to say, I think it might be an enormous struggle to point out what was better in OMAM (I know you said you don't remember it in detail, so not having a go, just saying).
DDs class did an essay about the racism and sexism. They talked about men's attitudes compared to know and mentioned the feminist movement.
I'd do something like that as it can inspire a generation to speak up for what they believe and if they don't like it do something!!
She's in yr10 btw.
It is worth a read, if only because if you have primary-aged DCs now they will probably do it in a few years (not if they are in my class though! )
Yes, the girls were, absolutely out joining the gardening clubs and so on, and in some cases the mothers were strong role models. But if you read them closely it is still there - I remember when Elizabeth first wanted to join the gardening club the boy was all a GIRL and the mothers send the children to bed for knocking over a drink or similar!
Choc, I don't exactly think we have progressed, is the issue. It is (I think) one thing to say "these were the attitudes in the 1930s and that's OK then!" (OMAM) and "these were the attitudes in the 1930s and there were WRONG!" (TKAM.)
OP are you going to chuck Shakespeare on the bonfire too? FFS ANY historical literature contains outdated ideas...you can't just ignore the books!
I love your DD's teacher, Vavavoom, nearly as much as your username!
I will make a point of reading it now sunlight so I can discuss it with them as necessary,so thank you!
Of course not, Neo. I am in danger of repeating myself here, but in OMAM the sexism and the racism is casual, it is very much an implicit part of the text and as such is often overlooked.
I think the language in Shakespeare makes the fact it is from a different time obvious - and in many cases the female heroines in Shakespeare make sexism such an integral part of the story it's difficult to avoid when discussing it, but in OMAM that is not the case. My concern is that around 90% of teenagers, according to AQA, study a text at the age of fifteen/sixteen which refers quite casually to women as bitches, whores, tarts and tramps. I don't like it, and so I don't teach it. Therefore, I haven't mentioned bonfires and I do rather think that my dislike of a text that is one of the key examination texts being compared to one of the worst dictators of all time is a bit unnecessary.
I don't mean that racism or sexism are/were ever okay. Able to be explained because of ignorance or the prevailing culture at the time though.
Rather, the culture of OMAM was different from today's. Poorer because of the racism and sexism, but better in other ways.
But that's probably more for a history or philosophy class. I see you what you mean about having to use time in your class talking about things that aren't strictly to do with literature.
Perhaps you could study some literature written by women. Jane Austen was the only female author we studied at school.
TKAM, Rabbit Proof Fence and Purple Hibiscus are all female authors. The other two options from Other Cultures are Mister Pip (Lloyd Jones, if anyone is interested) and OMAM.
There's a much wider selection under modern texts.
I'm a student teacher who has just finished looking at OMAM with my mid/low year 11 set (all girls, majority from ethnic minorities). Sexism and Racism were casual in the 1930s. My students were outraged and appalled at just how casual it was back then. Several of them made comments to the effect that studying this novel brought that fact home to them in a way that history lessons never had (no offence history teachers, just reporting!).
I don't think OMAM communicates a message that the sexism and racism is OK at all. I think it's used to show that all of the characters (except perhaps 'god-like' Slim) are flawed. These flaws are part of the reason none of their dreams can be realised. My students thought less of George/realised the plot/characters was not as back and white as it may first seem due to his sexist comments.
Knowledge of context is a huge part of the exam for this text, it's built into the Assessment Objectives.
The context for the purposes of the examination are more about the depression/American dream, emerald though, rather than sexism and racism.
I'm pleased your girls were so appalled by it though as mostly I have found kids just accept it. unfortunately I think they are used to "tramp, bitch, tart" and the like. They do object to the racism, though.
Good luck with your PGCE if that is indeed what you are doing!
Oh yes - TKAM was the only novel written by thingie Harper? You've inspired me to read RPF and PH FWIW. That's lovely to hear.
(Don't know how your pupils are doing, but I'm learning something from your thread) [narcissistic emoticon]
Sunlight, The Taming of The Shrew is the very embodiment of sexist.
I would add that I think even for their time, Enid Blyton books are awash with sexism and racism.
I'd compare them for example with the Swallows and Amazons series (and the horror of Nancy and Peggy being forced into pretty dresses to play the piano), or Little House in the Big Woods (yes, racism against the Indians from Ma, but Pa puts the contrary view and points out that they have had their land stolen).
Having said that, I never stopped dd reading them, just pointed out the general awfulness (including really awful sibling bullying in the Secret Seven) and provided lots of better books!
choco, how was the culture Steinbeck was writing about better? Seriously, tell me how.
Neo, absolutely, just as TKAM is about racism and how awful and unjust things were. My point isn't that these things shouldn't be taught, it is the way they are presented in OMAM.
With The Taming of the Shrew, the point of it is that it is a very sexist text so that naturally comes up in class discussion; OMAM's is implicit rather than explicit and therefore (I think) more damaging and I dislike the fact it is such a widely-taught examination text for that reason.
Choc - PH is a great read, it is by the same author as Half of a Yellow Sun, if you know it. Rabbit Proof Fence is a teensy bit dull but very good film!
Surely you are severely limiting them by refusing to teach them any books which have outdated gender roles and sexist language? Why not teach the books and use them to talk about changes in the way society views the sexes?
"OMAM's is implicit rather than explicit and therefore (I think) more damaging"
IMO the ones with implicit rather than explicit sexism are actually the best ones to start discussions about, getting the kids aware of the subtle ways it can be made to seem acceptable.
I have PH on my bookshelf waiting to read.
Like you choco I perhaps will now give it a go,thanks to this thread.
I don't think it's the case that I am refusing to teach any text with outdated gender roles.
The problem is, I can have as many discussions I like, explain it is not acceptable, tell them how wrong I believe it to be - but they will still see a woman dismissed as a "tart" because of how she chooses to dress, and with other (and I think) better alternatives available on the curriculum, I do not choose to teach a text with this as a part of it.
Very - hope you enjoy it, I love it!
Less pressure to look amazing - to show a lot of flesh if you're female, spend a lot of time on personal grooming, be muscular and smooth if you're a man.
Less pressure to achieve in all areas of life.
An unrealistically high expectation on men to have a stiff upper-lip.
Less pressure to be a perfect parent; to provide extra-curricular activities for our children, to be endlessly patient, to label them and measure them.
I think that different times and cultures usually have advantages that we don't realise in a similar way to new technology enabling things but also taking things away from us or generating an expectation that we do/have X/Y/Z
I know that when I read OMAM at school that wasn't the message I got from it, a good teacher was able to put the text into the context of the time it was written, she even got the less academic members of my class talking about how things had changed, so it is possible. And I do find it a bit lazy to just avoid it.
I do think it is more important to talk about books like OMAM which don't make it clear that the language is wrong, because the kids will spend much of their lives being bombarded with negative and harmful stereotypes which also won't be treated as wrong, and we need to give them the tools to see it for themselves without the text telling them what they should think. Much as TKAM is a fantastic book, what we really want is for kids to read it and know the racism is wrong without needing Atticus and Scout to point it out.
It's hardly lazy, Kore - I do an alternative with them that is MUCH longer!
I have certainly been in lessons where the racist attitudes have been challenged by kids and teachers alike but I have never once witnessed anybody objecting to the way the women are viewed by the men. And I understand why - it is time, it isn't a coursework question, it isn't going to crop up on the exam, so why would you?
Less pressure to look amazing - to show a lot of flesh if you're female, spend a lot of time on personal grooming, be muscular and smooth if you're a man.
Judging by Curley's wife and by the descriptions of men and women, I don't think this is true. I don't think it's true of the 1920s more generally, either.
Less pressure to achieve in all areas of life.
In the middle of the Great Depression? Less pressure to achieve?!
An unrealistically high expectation on men to have a stiff upper-lip.
Yep, I'll grant you that, possibly ... is this 'better'?
Less pressure to be a perfect parent; to provide extra-curricular activities for our children, to be endlessly patient, to label them and measure them.
I don't see how you get that from this book and I certainly don't see how you get it from 1920s America.
I get that I am talking about a book you've said you don't remember much about, but I do think it matters. You're assuming (I think?) that something in the past must be better than today and that we must be able to point fairly to positives and negatives. But that falsifies the past, and constructs a fake image of a time that never existed. It's this sort of image of the past that people trot out time and again when they're justifying how, back in the day, sure, we didn't have equal opportunities but wasn't everyone happy?
I think it is deeply irresponsible to say that if you don't know it's true and if you can't point to specific examples.
I find it particularly difficult to swallow about the Great Depression. My overwhelming impression is that it was an incredibly difficult time to live in. People were dying - actually starving to death - in what should have been some of the richest countries in the world. The pressure to achieve must have been appalling. I simply don't believe there was less pressure on physical appearance, either - this is the era when women bound their breasts to make themselves look flat chested, dieted and ruined their health, and when vaginal douces that burned them were being put on the market. This is when black women were being sold 'skin-lighteners' that were toxic (and yes, I know this still happens but it shocks me).
I'm not denying it's good to look at the past and not be uncritically negative but why be uncritically positive?
I'm not being "uncritically positive". I'm really glad I have the choices and freedom I have now. And often think how awful it must have been to have to endure the attitude that women are 'the weaker sex'. Or to be denied an education or access to books.
My point is really that no culture is completely 'bad'/wrong or more difficult/less moral than the one we live in now.
My point about parenting today is a comment on how in some ways it's more difficult than it used to be. Eg, my mother used to be amazed at the amount of measuring/testing/comparing of our babies, compared to when she had babies and thought it produces anxiety and pressure on mums. I was using it as an example of a way in which our culture of today is (probably) not better than in the times before it - therefore of 1920s America. FWIW, I can see no justification in poverty ever, but that doesn't mean that an economically well-off society is without its problems. People, usually females starve to death in our society too - as a result of eating disorders.
I just always feel uneasy at thinking we're superior to people in times gone by on the grounds that we're more enlightened. I think that can lead to being uncritical of our own society.
Sorry, I didn't mean it like that. I do see that you're not being uncritically positive in the sense that you're not glad of our choices today.
I agree no culture is completely bad or immoral compared to our own and it'd be arrogant to think so.
I'm sure there are bad things about today and good things about the past - I was never saying anything different.
But which things? It matters. Otherwise we are lying about the past for no good reason, and that is disrespectful to people who lived then, and it lulls us into a false sense of security too, by making us stop examining what really happens in different cultures and societies.
Doesn't comparing your mum's feeling about her children with 1920s America sort of blur the past into one indiscriminate mass?
I suppose, any time before something changed - I don't know when the 'new' phenomenon of measuring, comparing etc started - but before that IYSWIM, would be the same in regard to that one thing. FWIW, the generation of women before us were encouraged to spend longer in hospital probably resulting in getting more rest (not much access to hospitals in the 20s of course) than women are now and in my granny's time, women were encouraged to spend most of their time in bed for about three weeks after having their babies - a sister/mum/neighbour would look after the washing, cooking, change nappies, pace the floor with the baby and 'bring it to the breast'.
I'd imagine that 1920s women would have had similar support - assuming they survived childbirth - there's the rub.
I suppose it would be great if the OP's pupils could have a visit from someone who was alive in the depression or from someone who has experienced segregation in a history or PSE class.
But what does this have to do with Of Mice and Men?
Isn't this more blurring history into one big mass?
I'm not nit-picking for the sake of it, I'm trying to explain that if you say the OP should teach her class what was good in the society described in the book, then it needs to be concrete. Otherwise ... what is the point of it?
I don't think Steinbeck is thinking of women who stayed in bed for three weeks after the birth while everyone else helped out. If you taught that to a class and they went on to read Grapes of Wrath they would feel - justifiably - that you had lied to them about how bad things were in this era. I am aware you are talking more generally, about some aspects of the past that may have been good. And I don't disagree that some aspects of the past were good, and I never did disagree.
What I have an issue with, is giving children a misrepresentation of the past that whitewashes over the struggled women genuinely had to face. It is dishonest.
I think I'm explaining really badly why this bothers me. Basically, I think that we're conditioned to think that historical 'facts' are things like names of kings and dates of battles. In effect, it's male-dominated history. And we're also conditioned to look for 'women's history' in social history. And it is obvious why we do that. But then, we have a responsibility to treat social history as facts too, or we're starting off a process where children will associate male-dominated history with fact, and history of women (and minorities) with subjective opinions, with vague blurry suggestions that seem to apply indiscriminately to all sorts of different periods.
I remember being really pissed off with the book i had to study for GCSE English at high school in the 80s And so were the other girls in the class.
It was Lord of the Flies. Not one female character in the book. Not one.
Its a pity that i wasnt aware of the existence of Savages by Shirley Conran at that point.
I could have brought that into school and said "Can i study this instead"
FWIW I agree with the poster who said that it's the implicit and casual sexism that makes a book doubly worth teaching. Many women today don't face explicit sexism - in fact that is even illegal(!!) sometimes. But it's the implicit sexism that is so insidious and disempowering (is that even a word?). Teach OMAM!
<shudder> I'd rather stick pins in my eyes, seriously I can't stand the novel, even without all the casual racism and sexism in it.
The problem is, you just don't have the time to discuss in any great detail the underlying insidiousness of it. I much prefer the alternatives.
I don't mind Lord of the Flies, although my colleague and I both wonder if it would have been different if there had been female characters in it. Unfortunately Darkest, we would have to say no - as it isn't on the syllabus!
I'm sorry but you have completely misunderstood OMAM, completely misunderstood Steinbeck and completely misunderstood how to be an English teacher.
OMAM, yes it is about loneliness and the depression - loneliness caused by racism, sexism and economic injustice.
Steinbeck didn't use words like "bitches" and "nigger" because he was an ignoramus who didn't think about things too deeply! He was an extremely intelligent, left-wing intellectual, one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, and he was using these words to make a point!!
If you don't have time to discuss the major themes of the novel, then you are not teaching properly.
Well I'm not teaching OMAM 'properly' no, because I'm not teaching it.
Rosa, I haven't used the word ignoramus. I have explained my views on the text and why I don't believe it to be a good choice for this age group, and that I prefer teaching other texts. I'm not sure why that has prompted you to be so rude to me?
Erm, I'm an English teacher and have taught OMAM
More times than I care to remember. One of the main themes I, (and the vast majority of my colleagues) discuss is the treatment of women. It is my understanding that Steinbeck wants the reader to empathise with Curley's wife, the whole importance of her having no name and that she is Curley's property is again a point for discussion. I'm sorry, you just seem to be missing the point of the novel and I find it strange that you don't seem to be able to teach this novel in tge same way as I have for the past 12 years. What do other members of your department think?
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) - I don't like teaching it, so I don't.
Other members of my department teach it, presumably because they like it and the terms used to describe women don't bother them. I don't like it and the terms do bother me, so I don't.
I don't like the terms used to describe women but sadly they are still used. When I teach the text I point out how this is wrong, how the men speak about and treat women is wrong. How the only women in of mice and men are either viewed aswhores or mother figures, and how they only see women in these two ways. This is deliberate on Steinbeck's part, they ate the characters' beliefs not his. I think students can get a lot out of the text but sadly some sexist attitudes do still need to be challenged.
At any rate it has been a really interesting discussion, thank you for the points raised everyone. I'm going to bed soon, I would really appreciate it if future posts didn't make personal remarks about why I am clearly lacking in intellect and a terrible English teacher to boot; I don't think either of those statements are remotely justified, but I don't think my dislike of OMAM would be evidence for or against in any case.
Minione, thank you, I was typing as you were posting. I absolutely agree that these attitudes need to be challenged but I must admit that my feeling in OMAM is that they are not - the characters are cold, unpleasant and unlikeable because (I feel) of their attitudes to women, and for this reason I dislike teaching it.
I wasn't rude to you but I was very blunt. I was blunt because I feel very strongly that pupils should not be taught English by those who do not understand how texts work and who do not understand how to teach pupils to analyse the texts critically. I know that you did not call Steinbeck an ignoramus but by saying that he casually uses sexist and racist language, you imply that he is ignorant and you have misunderstood that, in fact, it is the opposite, that he uses this language on purpose to make a point - and this point is the main theme of the novel.
I did not say that you are a terrible English teacher but you are not an English teacher that has a good understanding of your subject.
'I'm sorry but you have completely misunderstood OMAM, completely misunderstood Steinbeck and completely misunderstood how to be an English teacher.'
Sorry - you've completely missed the point. OM&M is a fantastic novel to use to discuss sexism. I use it for the extended reading CA too, & the task we do is to analyse Curley's Wife's role in the novel.
I won't pretend I'm not a tad bored with it after teaching it for 14 years (I'd prefer to do LOTF) but you really have fundamentally misunderstood the text.
I hate to be so negative towards a fellow English teacher, but bloody hell....
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?
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>.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?)
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...)
Message withdrawn at poster's request.
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!
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!
(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. I still have no clue what in god's green earth she meant. But I digress.)
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!
"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?
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 ...
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.
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!
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.
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.
How does writing about the difference between now/then add anything to our understanding of the actual text?
I think the OP is being given a hard time.
We happen to know Steinbeck was very left wing and so we assume that the fact that Curly's wife is never named is deliberate and that he is writing neutrally about the sexism around him....buit what eveidence in the book is there that he disagrees with her treatment at the hands of the men?
I read it 30 years ago, hated it and really can't remember.
Mind you, I hated it not nearly as much as I hated
bloody Grapes of bloody Wrath.
Never read OMAM but am now tempted to do so!
Wrt The Faraway Tree, DD is currently working her way through the trilogy as her first free reading. They are the first books she's been genuinely excited to read and I'm quite enjoying the cliffhanger chapter endings myself (although I think the school edition has been updated as Fanny is Frannie, Dame Slap is Dame Snap and I can't see any racism anymore!).
The one thing that has bothered DD the most is why their mother is only bothered about them getting their clothes dirty rather than them going missing for 48 hours at a time! We have discussed the fact that the books were set a long time ago and expectations of girls and boys were different then, I wouldn't want to lose the first books she's ever shown an interest in.
Only skimmed the last few pages, so apols if this has come up. Part of the issue behind this debate is the fallacy that some books inherently aren't problematic while others are. Bollocks. All literature is inherently problematic and this is why it is valuable - we can analyse what themes the author wanted to address and what themes arise which the author didn't even realise might present issues to future generations.
To kill a mockinbird has been cited repeatedly as a "good text". But Mayella's story isn't believed because she is a poor woman. Tom Robinson is believed because he is "respectable". What does that remind you of? Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating article on pre civil rights black white rape trials in which this scenario repeatedly arose in real life and served to act as a defence or mitigation for black men who were accused. Reading Mockingbird against that background is inherently a much more problematic - but also richer experience and I can't believe none of you feminist English teachers don't teach it that way. Against Lee, Steinbeck is fascinating because some of his blind spots and prejudices coalesce and some don't.
Also, if at any age pupils say "its ok to use that word or think that because the book said so" then that is an opportunity to teach them about the difference between a book and real life. How the former can guide us because it makes us reflect on our own experience through something outside of it, not a mandate to act according to it.
'what eveidence in the book is there that he disagrees with her treatment at the hands of the men?'
What evidence in the text?
Up thread The Taming of the the shrew was cited as pure misogyny.
So, just because we don't have a letter from Shakespeare to say it was not misogyny, Shrew is considered misogyny?
And Steinbeck writes a book laden with all sorts of stereotypes about race and sex and gender but because we all know he's a good left wing egg, it's ok?
Greythorne - because of the way he presents her in the final three sections, & the fact that she doesn't get a hearing until then. It's all about the structure of the text.
I teach a Controlled Assessment on the presentation of CW: Steinbeck controls our initial access to CW in exactly the same way as her 'dh' does wrt everyone else on the ranch. It's a huge part of the purpose of the novel that we are obliged to be complicit in gazing at her in the same way that the men do.
When she first gets a voice, in chapter 4, she uses it to threaten a black character with lynching. A less clever novelist would have made her a straightforward victim, but Steinbeck forces us to see that the only power she is allowed is sexual & that she uses it unpleasantly after being told to get lost - she uses it to drive a wedge between the men because they reject her.
& then she is allowed to share her dream in section 5, but the illusion of finding a listener is just that - Lennie couldn't care less about what she has to say.
If you look at section 6, Steinbeck is fairly explicit in his pity for her.
Tbh, I think he's decidedly patronising about it. Which I like, when teaching top sets at least, because you can get into the evaluative stuff that you need for A* - he obviously intended this as a sympathetic portrayal, but is it really? How limited is it because of the writer's intention, & how much because of his own mindset? How is our evaluation affected by being C21st readers of an early C20th text?
I don't think TTOTS is misogynistic, either. Shakespeare's heroines (& villainesses) jump off the page precisely because he gives his female characters so much more ooomph than most of his contemporaries would've dreamt of.
I'd imagine Lady Macbeth or Richard III's mum would've wasted no time in telling Curley's Wife a few home truths when it came to not taking any shit off the men in her life! The message of OM&M is that her options were effectively non-existent - as for pretty much every character in the novel.
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