Why are books on the English school curriculum still in the grip of straight, white men? | Jeffrey Boakye

In my 15 years of educating English to hundreds of young children in various elements of England, there are 4 guides that have been on the curriculum in each and every school I have uncovered myself in, with no exception: Of Mice and Adult males by John Steinbeck, Animal Farm by George Orwell, An Inspector Calls by JB Priestley and Private Tranquil by Michael Morpurgo.

Book cover - Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Penguin edition
Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

They have each and every been well-recognised classics and perennial favourites for decades. But if you in some way managed to skip them, here’s a rapid summary. Of Mice and Adult males: despair-period friendship strained by a entire world of poisonous masculinity. Animal Farm: a political warning where by the farm results in being an allegory for the Russian revolution. An Inspector Calls: an upper-course British spouse and children wrestles with primary morality when a performing-class lady is introduced dead. Private Tranquil: two brothers go away the rural idyll to deal with the horrors of the frontline in the initially planet war.

You can see why these publications keep turning up. They converse of empathy and humanity, and tough blunt authority imposed from on significant. They have a liberal slant that far more or fewer places them on the appropriate side of history. But they also assume default narratives that appear from ideologies so large that we simply cannot conveniently see the edges of them, default masculinity and default whiteness being two of the most important. We can not dismiss the point that these publications have been published at factors in historical past when social narratives were primarily confined to the views of straight white adult males.

As a black author who has taught a white curriculum and now ponders deep concerns of the instruction method at huge (this sort of as: why is it that I am in this kind of a minority as a black English instructor? And what can be accomplished to deal with structural racism in British colleges?), a single thing folks appreciate to inquire me is what I would decide on to set on the English curriculum in its place. If instruction is in want of a shake-up, if it is steeped in historic biases, unchallenged ideologies and generations-wide blind-places, then what really should substitute the properly-thumbed classics that several teachers had been taught them selves?

George Orwell Animal Farm Penguin Classic book cover
Photograph: flab/Alamy

It is a good problem. Considering the fact that the Black Lives Issue uptick of 2020, discussions surrounding the so-identified as decolonisation of the curriculum have collected speed. It is a broad ambition, to see a curriculum born out of Britain’s imperial previous shaken free of charge of its colonial shackles. The tales we decide on to inform are central to this goal and when it comes to curriculum selections, there are no accidents. The 4 texts I outlined have persisted simply because they talk to narratives that have turn out to be embedded in Britain’s understanding of the entire world. They appear from the prolonged-approved voices of authority (male and white) that have come to be default around time. And, crucially, they don’t converse to the substantial diversity of lived expertise that seriously helps make Britain. All all those colonies, all these migrant tales, all that resistance and resilience in the confront of imperial control. Tellingly, Of Mice and Adult men is one textual content that Michael Gove sought to clear away in 2014 when he was training secretary, on the basis that it was American and for that reason not really English sufficient for British colleges.

Of all the texts I have taught, Of Mice and Gentlemen is by far the most controversial. As perfectly as all the inherent misogyny and harmful masculinity, its depiction of a sole black character, Crooks (painted as a tragic sufferer of racist discrimination), is a source of ongoing debate about the efficacy of this e-book to deal with racial conversations in the 21st century. Specifically problematic is the fact that training this reserve needs classrooms entire of young ones to say the N-word, leaving the trainer with a conundrum around how to navigate the inevitable fallout. I have been there, typically as the only black trainer in the university, and it is a burden. I’ve had to assume quickly, on my feet, about how to stay clear of the lesson collapsing into chaotic confusion. Then I’ve had to assume sluggish about what requires to be bundled in the curriculum to increase racial literacy in the initial position.

Cover of Manjeet Mann’s The Crossing
Photograph: Costa Book Awards/PA

It is tempting to think that the so-termed canon can be conveniently up-to-date, with previous texts swept away and replaced with one thing fresher, more contemporary, or appropriate. But the reality is that we are moving into discussions that swirl and alter at a speed that can typically really feel tough to preserve up with. In 2007, the yr I begun schooling to be a teacher, nuanced discussions were being not staying experienced about parts of identity politics and social justice that now dominate general public discourse. Any curriculum that can even hope to be of use in these new contexts will want to be adaptive, versatile, responsive and curious.

When you reach this conclusion, the question of what goes on the curriculum gets fewer about curating an unshakeable canon of textbooks, and far more about how you converse your main values. Some examples: I have had huge good results educating wellbeing by way of Question by RJ Palacio, alongside the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid starring Jaden Smith. I have explored masculinity and nationalism by analyzing England’s journey by way of the 2020 Euros. Not long back, I shipped a college lecture on vital race principle via the lens of Filthy Dancing. And much more lately, I have discovered that the Jhalak prize-nominated The Crossing by Manjeet Mann can offer you effective insight into modern refugee crises.

So what really should be on the curriculum? Perfectly, it depends on who is being taught and the debates using spot in the earth close to them. This has to include id politics and social justice, but also sustainability and geopolitics much too. In these critical spots, the curriculum will have to seek to widen perspectives, bring marginalised narratives into the centre and take the truths of the earlier, no subject how unpalatable these truths may look.

This is the get the job done that educators should undertake releasing ourselves, liberating our college students, and in the end allowing for the curriculum to breathe with new daily life.

Jeffrey Boakye is an writer. His new e book is I Listened to What You Said, out on 9 June

Do you have an opinion on the troubles elevated in this report? If you would like to post a letter of up to 300 terms to be considered for publication, e-mail it to us at [email protected]

Sharon Eva

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