The author is a teacher. Joe Baron is a pseudonym.
According to a recent survey, a clear majority of teachers view the new knowledge-rich National Curriculum introduced last year as overtly political and unfit for purpose, as a consequence.
Now, I do not claim to know all of the reasons why this opinion predominates, but, having worked in the teaching profession for over a decade and, during that time, having listened to many of my colleagues decry knowledge as an instrument of oppression, I think it safe to assume that, within this majority, there is a strong conviction that such knowledge is indeed oppressive.
I recently stumbled across a blogpost which neatly articulated this prevailing view. It argued that such Anglocentric knowledge immerses ‘the oppressed in the culture of the oppressor’ and ‘ensures that the dominant culture’ remains unchallenged by the downtrodden and disadvantaged. To put it another way, it contrives to maintain the inequalities wrought upon society by the immanent evils of capitalism.
Interestingly, the blogger goes on to suggest – but not detail – an alternative narrative through a curriculum which strives to highlight and overturn these existing inequities.
In my opinion, though, this contention is littered with flaws. Most glaringly, it wrongly assumes that we live in a fixed, strictly stratified, intrinsically unfair society in which opportunity is scarce and social mobility non-existent. Don’t get me wrong: opportunity isn’t as widespread and easily accessible as one would hope, but it does exist. Why else do hundreds of thousands of migrants make the long, arduous and, in some cases, fatal journey to our shores?
Like the USA – the very embodiment of the capitalistic prison the blogger abhors – Britain is a land of opportunity. Capitalism has created and distributed wealth, increased living standards, funded universal healthcare and education, not to mention facilitated an attendant increase in life expectancy among all, including the poor, women and ethnic minorities (the so-called ‘oppressed’).
So when my Marxist-inspired colleagues and counterparts in the education blogosphere lament the malign effects of capitalism and decry the existence of a curriculum that attempts to preserve it, I cannot help but consider the failed alternatives and, in the words of John McEnroe, cry out: ‘You cannot be serious, man!’
Should we teach our children about Britain’s unique, inspirational, awe-inspiring evolution from feudalism to constitutional monarchy and representative democracy – something the blogger unfathomably believes ‘oppressive’? Of course we should.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that there are ‘oppressed’ minorities in our society. An Anglocentric, knowledge-rich curriculum like the one introduced last year evidently does not automatically render them ‘good-Soviets’ – supine, impotent and unable to question the status quo. On the contrary, many of history’s great reformers, even revolutionaries, were the recipients of what could be termed an occidental educational experience – Mahatma Gandhi, Victor Nkrumah, Eric Williams, Edward Said and, dare I say it, Margaret Thatcher to name just a few.
If one wants to challenge existing hegemonic structures, one must first understand them, surely. In short, the ‘oppressed’ must be able to speak the language of the ‘oppressors’; or to put it in less emotive, perhaps more relevant terms, the poor must be able to speak the same language as the rich.
So the new National Curriculum is enabling rather than disabling. Depriving ordinary children of the knowledge available to the privileged is oppressive. They are left with no understanding of society, nothing to question and, most importantly, prevented from accessing the corridors of power which are, whether we like it or not, inhabited by those who enjoy a privileged, Anglocentric education in which ‘dead white men’ predominate.
On this last point, moreover, ‘dead white man’ have had a disproportionate influence over our history, whether we like it or not. That’s a fact. So if we want our children to know about and understand our island story, we must surely introduce them to such figures: otherwise, in the name of political correctness, we’re being dishonest and depriving them of important information concerning their shared provenance and place in the modern world – and let’s not forget that, as previously mentioned, learning about such people does not prevent one from questioning and challenging their legacy. It enables it.
Look, any curriculum is inherently political. By its very nature, it is, for want of a word with more benign connotations, an act of indoctrination. That much I agree with. The DFE recently decreed that we must instill our young charges with British values. If this isn’t indoctrination, I don’t know what is.
But let’s not imagine some kind of moral equivalence with Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. Our values are based upon pluralism, human rights, democracy and tolerance. These are worth promoting – even worth indoctrinating – because rather than breeding compliance, they encourage contrarianism, questioning, challenge. So in our case, indoctrination, paradoxically, sets one free and broadens one’s mind. If anything it exists to challenge any existing inequalities.
If we were to teach an alternative, less Anglocentric curriculum, though – one tailored to galvanise resentment in those perceived as ‘oppressed’, without championing our shared and mutually advantageous national values and achievements – we’d jeopardize our survival as a democratic, tolerant, pluralistic yet cohesive nation. It really is that simple.
The Government’s new curriculum reflects this concern and aims to give ordinary children the same opportunities as the privileged few. There really is nothing to oppose. But to those who still do, worried about a conspiracy being conducted by the Bullingdon Club against the ‘oppressed’, I leave this message: one cannot legitimately argue that there are ‘oppressed’ groups in British society; neither can one argue that a traditional liberal education of the kind recently introduced helps to facilitate this non-existent ‘oppression’.
British society is mercifully free, open and eminently more desirable to live in than most other societies around the world, as demonstrated by current and historic levels of migration. It is an Anglocentric, core knowledge curriculum that is largely responsible for this monumental achievement. The new National Curriculum rightly rejects the relatively recent trend in favour of non-judgementalism and child-centred learning – a trend which places social cohesion at risk and retards social mobility – and seeks to challenge ignorance, increase opportunity and rekindle a sense of shared identity. We discard it at our peril. I’m just disappointed that Academies can opt out.