‘Four legs good, two legs bad.’
‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’
The fame of these quotations illustrates how – love it or loathe it – Animal Farm is in the major leagues when it comes to cultural significance. Its significance is also global, in a way that few, if any, English novels of the last century can match.
Partly thanks to James Theobald’s excellent blog post on this subject, I’ve been doing some soul searching this afternoon about GCSE text choice, and I’ve had to admit that I need to teach Animal Farm in the ‘post-1914 British play or novel’ section of the new English Literature GCSE, even though it wouldn’t be my personal first choice.
We’re planning on using the Edexcel course, and this is the choice we are faced with for this particular part of the specification:
An Inspector Calls – J B Priestley
Hobson’s Choice – Harold Brighouse
Blood Brothers – Willy Russell
Journey’s End – R C Sherriff
Animal Farm – George Orwell
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
Anita and Me – Meera Syal
The Woman in Black – Susan Hill
I had been planning to teach Journey’s End, but I’ve been reading a lot of E D Hirsch lately, and I’m convinced that we have a duty as teachers to make use of our pupils’ precious time in order to give them as much cultural capital as possible. ‘Cultural capital’ is quite literally the currency of the knowledge economy: the common coin of the realm, the common reference points of our national culture.
The texts we choose for GCSE will inevitably take up a lot of class time, and pupils will know them very well by the end of the course (we hope!). So I have to ask myself, which of these texts is it most important for my pupils to know, not just to do well in their GCSE, but to be prepared for life beyond school? Which one will give them the richest store of cultural capital on which they will be able to draw in order to engage in literate reading, writing and speaking for the rest of their lives?
Despite my title, it isn’t really a case of ‘George Orwell good, Meera Syal bad’. It is simply a pragmatic decision about which text will provide the greatest boost in cultural literacy for my pupils. Among the titles on Edexcel’s list, Lord of the Flies is a close second, but I would argue that Animal Farm is one of the essential literary texts for understanding the twentieth century, and engaging in the educated, literate conversation about the triumphs and disasters of those turbulent years.